Subject: [Stop-traffic] FEER: Criminals smuggle thousands of women into Japan
From: Harsh Kapoor (email@example.com)
Date: Mon Jul 31 2000 - 10:58:18 EDT
Far Eastern Economic Review
Issue of August 3, 2000
Bright Lights, Brutal Life
Each year, criminals smuggle thousands of women into Japan. They arrive
with hopes of finding honest work--only to find a life of sexual slavery
By Velisarios Kattoulas/TOKYO
Issue cover-dated August 3, 2000
AT LEAST SIX TIMES A YEAR, Hiro Watanabe drives
from the Kabukicho red-light district in western Tokyo to Narita airport,
southeast of the Japanese capital. In the international-arrivals hall, he
meets three, sometimes four, Southeast Asian women. Almost without
exception they are young and pretty, and have come to Japan to take up
word-of-mouth job offers from factories, restaurants or bars.
Or so they think. Instead, Watanabe--who works for a yakuza crime syndicate
that controls much of the Tokyo underworld--takes them to a small apartment
in Kabukicho. There, over the next couple of days, he convinces the women
it's in their best interests to work for him and his partners as
prostitutes--for free. A bull of a man in his 40s with a shaven head and a
tattoo that covers a bulging torso, he won't say how he achieves this
unlikely feat. But the way police officials and human-rights activists tell
it, Japan's legion of slaveholders rely on the terror of the concentration
camp: verbal threats, beatings and rape.
It would be shocking enough if Watanabe (not his real name) was the only
yakuza strong-arming foreign women into prostitution in Japan. But while
the world mulls the deaths of 58 Chinese in a bungled people-smuggling run
across the English Channel in June, the trade in humans flows unabated in
North America, Western Europe and Asian countries such as India and
Pakistan. Nowhere is that more evident than in Japan, one of the region's
top destinations for women forced into sexual slavery.
Now, a survey of people-smuggling has lent support to what Japanese
activists and foreign diplomats long suspected: Every year, tens of
thousands of women and children are illegally brought to Japan and forced
to work in a sex industry that activists estimate is worth Yen4 trillion
($400 million) a year.
Completed in May by the Social Security Research Foundation, the secret,
government-funded study, Foreign Women Involved in Prostitution in Japan: A
Survey, includes no estimate for the size of the problem. But experts
believe that of the 120,000 Asian, Eastern European and Latin American
women overstaying visas in Japan today, as many as 75,000 are working under
duress in a sex industry that activists say accounts for 1% of Japan's
GNP--as big as its annual defence budget.
"Although not all women overstaying their visas are being forced into
prostitution, one way or another most of them are involved in the sex
industry, many of them against their will," says an Asian diplomat based in
Tokyo who has followed sexual slavery in Japan for years.
The results of the study, based on interviews with 257 foreign women
conducted nationwide between October and December last year, haven't been
made public. But according to a copy made available to the Review, nearly
two-thirds of those surveyed said they had been forced into prostitution or
other types of sex work. (Most of the women in the survey were questioned
by police following arrests for immigration offences or prostitution.)
Although the Japanese government acknowledges that there are foreign women
working in the sex industry, it maintains that only a fraction of them are
coerced into prostitution. Activists, however, estimate that between
500,000 and 1 million women have been enslaved since the yakuza moved into
the trade in the early 1980s. That's at least four times the number that
historians believe the Japanese military drafted as "comfort women" in the
1930s and 40s. Yayori Matsui, a prominent human-rights activist, describes
Japan's sex slaves as "contemporary comfort women" to her nation's
Ironically, the yakuza started press-ganging foreign women into
prostitution in Japan just as the original comfort women started coming
forward for the first time. It was the early 1980s, and growing job and
educational opportunities meant fewer Japanese women were becoming
prostitutes. For nearly a decade, the yakuza who controlled Japan's
brothels solved that problem by organizing sex tours to other Asian
nations, especially Taiwan, South Korea, Thailand and the Philippines. But
when Japan's neighbours objected and such trips became controversial, the
yakuza started shipping women to Japan. In the beginning, they were mainly
Thais and Filipinos. Since then, however, the yakuza have brought women
from as far as South America and Eastern Europe, creating a truly
globalized supply chain.
Watanabe got involved in the international slave trade in the late 1980s.
At first, he paid Yen1 million for every woman he picked out from
photographs sent by a supplier in Thailand, and then spent nearly as much
for a second broker to smuggle the women to Japan. These days, a Thai
trafficker selects women and sends them to Narita airport. Watanabe pays
more than Yen2 million for every woman who makes it, but he says the extra
cost is worth it because his Thai partner almost always sends him women who
are young and beautiful.
Moreover, while many women used to flee captivity, today few dare. In part,
that's because Watanabe and other yakuza cooperate in capturing women who
make a run for it. In particular, they routinely photograph their slaves
and fax around their pictures in case one escapes--a system Watanabe says
helps him recover nine out of every 10 women who flee.
As if that wasn't discouraging enough, Watanabe's Thai colleague seeks
swift and brutal retribution against the families of escapees. For
instance, Watanabe says, in November 1999 traffickers gunned down a Thai
man who was waiting at Bangkok airport to meet his daughter, who had fled
her captors. Although the story appears to be apocryphal, the telling of
such tales no doubt helps dissuade young women from fleeing.
"There are fewer and fewer women escaping from sexual slavery," says
Chinami Kajo, a lawyer who represents foreign women forced into
prostitution. "By all accounts, the yakuza are treating women much more
severely than in the past, and it wouldn't surprise me if a lot of women
who tried escaping weren't being killed and efficiently disposed of."
While Watanabe admits to forcing more than 100 women into sexual slavery,
he is unapologetic. For one thing, he says, coercing women to work at the
Yen30,000-an-hour brothels popular among Japanese salarymen is great
business. In a month, one woman can earn him and his partners about Yen1.5
million--at least twice what their typical customers take home. And, of
course, there are no profit-sapping wages to pay.
In any case, Watanabe adds, he treats the 16 women he "manages" well. He
doesn't force them to work when they are menstruating. When they are ill,
Watanabe's partner lets them recuperate at his spacious home, instead of in
the guarded, shoebox apartments where they normally live, two to a room.
And Watanabe hits them only as a last resort. "They don't make as much
money if they're all cut up," he says matter-of-factly. "So I try to create
the kind of atmosphere you'd find in a family."
That's not the way Maria Gonzalez remembers her experience at the hands of
another Japanese slave trader. A slender woman in her 20s with long curly
hair, an aquiline nose and large brown eyes, Gonzalez grew up in a small
town in Latin America. Last October, a local woman offered her waitressing
work in Japan that paid 100 times as much as her $25-a-month job selling
Eager to help her bed-ridden father, Gonzalez (not her real name) flew to
Osaka in January. There, she was met by a man she later realized was a
gangster, and taken to a dilapidated apartment in Nagoya. For the next
three days, she was given nothing to eat or drink except coffee, and was
only let out of a locked room to parade in front of several small groups of
"At first, I had no idea what was happening," she says. "I still thought
maybe there was a restaurant job waiting for me. But when men starting
arriving at the apartment to look me over, I thought 'Oh shit, I'm for
Eventually, a local pimp "bought" her, confiscated her passport, and told
her she had to make $5,000 a month working a street corner in an infamous
red-light district. Ten days later, Gonzalez had earned only $300. "My pimp
was furious," she recalls. "He threatened to make me work in a live sex
show, pump me full of drugs, beat me or sell me to a more violent pimp."
A few days later, she refused to do what a customer told her--and was paid
for it with bruises and welts on her face, neck and legs. Fearing that her
next beating might be her last, she decided to flee. As the man guarding
her apartment slept the next morning, she ran to the local police station.
Gonzalez says that she explained her situation to a Spanish-speaking
officer and was told the matter was not police business. The following day,
she sneaked out to see immigration officials. This time, she says, she was
told that since she had a valid 90-day tourist visa they couldn't help her.
(Activists say they often hear similar tales; however, police and
immigration officials deny them.)
Convinced word of her escape attempt would soon reach her captor, she
called a friend in Latin America to find out a phone number for her embassy
in Tokyo. Three days later, and barely two weeks after she was sold into
slavery, she was on a train bound for the capital. Thanks to a Tokyo-based
diplomat, Gonzalez received a new passport and flew back to her family. "I
am not an object, something that can be bought and sold," she said, the
week before she left. But although she wants to expose the slave traders,
Gonzalez fears what might happen to her if she did.
By all accounts, Gonzalez is one of the lucky ones. Last year, of the 50
women who fled to the only Japanese hostel that took trafficking victims,
roughly a fifth were addicted to drugs--force-fed to them by their
jailers--and a third tested positive for HIV, the virus that causes Aids.
Although activists have been clamouring about such suffering for years,
Japan started to take them seriously only in 1998, after the Group of Eight
summit in Birmingham, England, pinpointed people-trafficking as a rising
global scourge. The same year, Japan donated $84,000 to Empower, a Thai
human-rights group that provides counselling to victims of sexual slavery
in Japan. And it started training police and customs officials from Japan
and neighbouring countries in how to identify human-smuggling operations
and crack down on them.
To Japan's credit, its efforts have started to bear fruit. In its first
such raids on Japanese brothels, police last year freed 127 foreign women
kept as sex slaves. And in joint operations with Thai and Filipino police,
the Justice Ministry repatriated three Japanese to stand trial on
That said, Japan still has much to do. For starters, like virtually every
other nation, Japan lacks adequate legislation to tackle the crisis. In
most cases, slavers are prosecuted under either immigration or
anti-prostitution laws, which means sentences are light. In February last
year, for instance, the courts found a slaver guilty of forcing a
15-year-old girl and scores of women into prostitution. But because it was
his first offence, he was given a one-year sentence, suspended.
In all likelihood, the world's slaves won't get much respite until the
passage of a landmark United Nations protocol designed to break the global
slave trade. Slated for adoption by the end of the year, it should help
governments levy stiffer sentences against traffickers, establish
witness-protection schemes for victims and fund projects to train women at
In the meantime, the slave trade grinds on. In late July, Watanabe plans to
pick up a fresh batch of unsuspecting women at Narita airport. Like
thousands before them, they will arrive expecting to work as waitresses or
factory assembly-line workers. How different the reality will be.
Copyright ©2000 Review Publishing Company Limited, Hong Kong. All rights
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