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FOCUS December 2012 Volume Vol. 70

Combatting Sex Trafficking in Japan

Christey West

In 2004, the U.S. State Department placed Japan on Tier 2 Watch List1 for not fully complying with the minimum standards for eliminating trafficking. Its 2004 Trafficking in Persons Report states that “[c]onsidering the resources available, Japan could do much more to protect its thousands of victims of sexual slavery.”2 The report strongly advised the Japanese government to increase investigations, prosecutions and convictions of trafficking crimes and to provide better assistance to victims; as well as pursue efforts to prosecute the powerful organized crime figures behind the trade. Japan responded by adopting the 2004 Action Plan to Combat Trafficking in Persons (TIP) which initiated considerable efforts to improve law enforcement policies to prosecute offenders, provide additional resources for victim protection in government-run shelters, no longer treating victims as criminals; and implemented significant reforms to tighten the regulations on the issuance of entertainer visas from the Philippines to Japan,3  which had been ‘a process used by traffickers to enslave thousands of Philippine women in Japan each year’.4 The government also began to provide voluntary return and reintegration assistance to victims including psychosocial care, medical and legal assistance, and follow up care after arriving back in their country of origin.5 As a result Japan was taken off the ‘Watch List’ and the number of  ‘entertainers’ entering Japan from the Philippines drastically decreased from 82,741 in 2004 to 1,873 in 2009.6
However, the 2009 Action Plan to Combat Trafficking in Persons states that7

while the number of victims entering the country with the status of residence of “entertainer” has decreased considerably, it has also been suggested that cases of trafficking in persons have become more sophisticated and invisible. For example, there have been cases where brokers and other perpetrators traffic victims into the country by arranging false marriages so that the victims may enter the country with the status of residence of “spouse or child of Japanese national” which has no limitations on their work during their stay.

The number of marriages between Japanese men and Filipino women jumped from 8,397 couples in 2004 to 12,150 couples in 2006.8 This new development caused the Japanese government to issue a revised plan, the 2009 Action Plan to Combat Trafficking in Persons.
The 2009 Action Plan incorporated taking stringent actions against the sexual exploitation of children, and enhancing action to eliminate child pornography; increasing efforts to provide guidance to victims in a foreign language including the possibility of supporting a Multilanguage hotline for victims; examining the total procedure including identification and  protection policies for victims (including male victims) to repatriation assistance; examining the necessity of establishing a bureau that handles policy concerning TIP in an integrated manner; and publicizing protection policies to potential victims.9
The number of government-identified victims of TIP decreased from one hundred seventeen in 2005 to just seventeen in 2009, but the Committee on the Rights of the Child10 sees this as a reflection of the inability of the Japanese government to keep up with the new sophisticated methods of trafficking and the inadequacy of its efforts to eliminate the practice. Kaoru Aoyama,11 who has done extensive research on trafficking into Japan, agrees that the legitimacy of these figures is highly debatable stating that they ‘are surely not an accurate reflection of the true number of victims given that out of 100,000 illegal migrants living in Japan in 2009, only 17 victims of TIP were reported’.12
With the details of Japan’s sex industry largely hidden underground, it is clear that more research is required in order to grasp the true scale of the situation. In 2007, the UNODC funded a comprehensive investigation into the trafficking situation in Japan. Aoyama led the research while sex workers gathered data who, with an insider’s view of the industry, quickly began uncovering facts that represented a more accurate description of the state of affairs. Controversially, however, as soon as the results started surfacing the Japanese ambassador to the United Nations called on the UNODC to terminate the project as ‘Japan has no issue with trafficking so there is no point continuing the investigation’.13 The project was subsequently terminated and Japan managed to save face in the international community.
Japan is the only G8 nation not to have ratified the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking In Persons, Especially Women and Children, Supplementing the United Nations Convention on Organized Crime,14 insisting that it could not ratify the Protocol “due to lack of necessary legislation.”15

Defining Issues and Terms

Defining a trafficked person can be problematic considering the existence of cases where some victims of TIP are initially aware of the conditions of debt and at times prostitution when they are recruited. In cases of women being deceived into ‘marrying’ their ‘husbands’ and struck with unforeseen burdens upon arrival, there were reported cases of such women being classified as victims of TIP.16  These women victims faced criminal trial and most were deported under the immigration law, while the provisions of the Action Plan on protecting trafficking victims were pushed into “background completely.” This demonstrates the arbitrariness of Japan’s judicial process.17 In order to effectively provide protection for victims of TIP, it is crucial that the terms used are properly defined.
A 2004 report from the International Labour Organization (ILO) provides an important caveat on the issue of Japan’s entertainment industry and sex work. It states18

Generalizations about the entertainment industry are dangerous. 'Hostessing' is an occupation unfamiliar to many cultures, and many people erroneously presume that hostessing includes the provision of sexual services. Statistical estimates are often sloppy or completely fail to differentiate between hostessing (usually involving conversation, pouring drinks, lighting cigarettes but no physical contact or sexual service) and other sex work (including stripping and prostitution). Given the size of the entertainment industry, it is hardly surprising that clubs range from the highly formalized elite to those which include sexual services additional to normal hostessing services. To be effective, any debate on trafficking must grasp the enormous size and diversity of the Japanese entertainment industry, that it employs an enormous number of Japanese women (as well as foreign women), and that most women working within the industry are doing so with free agency. There is no evidence to date to suggest that trafficked women make up more than a small proportion of women working in the entertainment industry, and prostitution is only a part of that industry.

On the other hand, conflating ‘volunteer sex workers’ and victims of trafficking is problematic. A report states that the “ongoing debate on trafficking and prostitution is increasingly driven by different approaches to collecting, critiquing, and analysing data on these phenomena.” There is a debate on many questions such as “What counts as trafficking? At what point does smuggling become trafficking? And, what role does consent play in both smuggling and trafficking?”19
At the same time, Aoyama explains that many rural Chinese women come to Japan via contract marriages (as opposed to ‘forced marriages’) as it is now the safest way to work in Japan and provide an income for their families in China, and that they are happy with their choice and relatively empowered, considering their lack of alternative options.
It is vital that both law enforcers and staff at women’s shelters consider the complex dynamics at play and most importantly the viewpoint of the women they are ‘protecting’ when working to combat trafficking. In any case, there is still the pressing issue of rescuing and rehabilitating those who do not claim to be empowered but are working under duress.

Rescue and Repatriation

Remarkably the Osaka Prefecture Gender Equality and Civic Cooperation Bureau stated that there has never been a recorded instance of sex trafficking in Osaka. They admitted the possibility that some victims may be disguised under false marriages but officially no cases had ever been reported. The 2012 National Police Report,20  however, declared twenty-five victims of TIP in 2011, all of whom, according to Asian People Together (APT)21 a shelter for abused women, Ikuno Gakuen22 and Hyogo Women’s Consultation Centre (WCC)23, were repatriated, or deported as they preferred to label it, back to their home countries. The Japanese government’s system of almost inevitable repatriation with no option to stay on in Japan poses grave risks for survivors of TIP, and as Yuriko Oka, a case worker from APT explains, makes victims reluctant to seek help from law enforcers. Victims are anxious about the safety of their relatives in their home countries as they are often threatened that their escape would endanger their families; they suffer from isolation having nobody speaking their mother tongue in shelters, severe financial pressure, as well as health issues such as pregnancy and risk of STIs and AIDS.24 The case worker stated that even if they suspect a foreign woman is trafficked during counselling, they usually protect her under the Domestic Violence Law at the request of the victim herself, because if she is seen as a trafficked victim she will almost certainly be sent home. She also said that considering the majority of women came to Japan to provide remittances to their families in their home countries, they tend to do whatever they can to stay in Japan, even if it means staying in an abusive marriage. Counsellors at all shelters I visited asserted that trafficked victims in forced marriages opt for ‘sticking it out’ or finding another husband, rather than being repatriated home.


Survivors of TIP usually stay for around two months in a shelter before they are sent home or up to around six months if they are staying on to participate in a trial.25 During this time, however, they are not allowed to work and earn an income, the sole reason they came to Japan in the first place. The counsellor at Hyogo WCC also revealed that the shelter feels like a prison after a month as women are not allowed to leave under any circumstances. This on top of financial concerns leaves the women with little motivation to stay on in Japan to testify against their traffickers, seriously hindering the prosecution process and leaving perpetrators of trafficking largely free to continue their work unabated.
The prosecution of brokers and traffickers in Japan to date has been nominal given the scale of the sex trade, even since the anti-trafficking policy and law reform in 2005. A publicly undisclosed information on a case, obtained by a researcher through an exclusive interview with a prefectural police officer, revealed domestic trafficking where a Japanese woman with a three year old son was forced by her husband, brother and sister-in-law to have sex with four men each day for five months, in order to fund their gambling habits as they were all unemployed. She was reluctant to run away as they had threatened to harm her son who was in her husband’s custody, but one day managed to escape to her mother’s house who took her to the police. She is now being cared for in a WCC shelter where she is severely traumatized and her son is in child welfare covered in scars which indicate brutal physical abuse, most likely from his relatives. The perpetrators each received sentences of just three years for their crimes, including the trial period. This, and the famous case of “Sony”,26 a Japanese trafficker who brought eighty Columbian girls to Japan over eight months causing immeasurable psychological and physical damage and received less than two years’ jail time in 2003, are two examples of the extremely lenient penalties Japan gives out to sex traffickers.


The issue of rescuing victims of TIP is no straight forward task. Identifying victims in the first place is difficult as lines are blurred all along the sex work spectrum when definitions of willing participants, fake marriages or marriage contracts, economic migrants, illegal over-stayers and exploited slaves overlap, and even the issue of who actually wants to be rescued is highly disputed. How many women are held in slavery, hidden in theunderground of Japan’s sex industry and looking for an opportunity to escape is near impossible to calculate, but this does not mean there is no need to continue initiatives to find and rescue them. The current judicial system in place does provide ‘genuine victims’ with a way out. The slight relaxation of security by brothel owners can provide women with an opportunity to run to police where they can be treated as a victim and not a criminal, referred to a women’s consultation center and repatriated to their home countries.
However, in most cases trafficked women do not want to be labelled as victims and would prefer to continue their work in Japan despite the exploitative circumstances in order to provide a better livelihood for themselves and their families. The current system in place to repatriate survivors of TIP home can therefore be said to be going against the will of the trafficked women, implying that they are not victims of sexual slavery necessarily, but could be classified as reluctant but nevertheless willing participants of the sex trade, acting out of lack of options.
Japanese law enforcement officers should acknowledge the complex dynamics of the sex industry and consider first of all the motives and desires of the women themselves before determining who needs rescuing. While sex work is no little girl’s dream and by no means a shining example of women’s liberation and empowerment, it provides a means to a livelihood which many women are willing to undertake and that must be respected. The Japanese government should take measures to increase penalties for traffickers who exploit and abuse women, and provide better protection for those working freely in the industry, while at the same time taking initiatives to change the unequal gender dynamics prevalent in Japanese society which perpetuate male dominance over women. Law enforcers should work closely with sex workers to discover who the true victims of trafficking are and ensure that
they do not remain lost and invisible in Japan’s illusive entertainment industry, but are safe and free to pursue the meaningful work they desire.

Christey West, a Master’s student of International Development, specializing in sex trafficking, at the Massey University in New Zealand, was an intern of HURIGHTS OSAKA during the summer of 2012.

For further information, please contact HURIGHTS OSAKA.


1. The U.S. State Department defines Tier Two Watch List in the following manner:  Countries whose governments do not fully comply with the [minimum standards of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act], but are making significant efforts to bring themselves into compliance with those standards AND:

a) The absolute number of victims of severe forms of trafficking is very significant or is significantly increasing;
b) There is a failure to provide evidence of increasing efforts to combat severe forms of trafficking in persons from the previous year; or
c) The determination that a country is making significant efforts to bring itself into compliance with minimum standards was based on commitments by the country to take additional future steps over the next year.

Tier Placements, Trafficking in Persons Report 2011, Office To Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, U.S. State Department, in www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/2011/164228.htm
2. U.S. Department of State, Trafficking in Persons Report. Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, 2004. Retrieved from www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/2004/33191.htm.
3. Japan's Action Plan of Measures to Combat Trafficking in Persons, December 2004, in www.mofa.go.jp/policy/i_crime/people/action.html.
4. U.S. Department of State, Trafficking in Persons Report. Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, 2005. Retrieved from www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/2005/46614.htm.
5. Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan, ‘Japan’s 2009 Action Plan to Combat Trafficking in Persons’. Ministerial Meeting Concerning Measures Against Crimes, Japan, 2009. Retrieved from www.mofa.go.jp/j_info/visit/visa/topics/pdfs/actionplan0912.pdf.
6. See Nobuki Fujimoto, The Human Trafficking Issue Hidden Behind a False Marriage: Focus on Japanese and Filipino Couples, unpublished, Osaka, Japan, 2010.
7. 2009 Action Plan to Combat Trafficking in Persons, op. cit., page 2.
8. Nobuki Fujimoto, “Government “Peeping” into Bedrooms of International Couples - Gray Zone of False Marriages,” International Movement Against All Forms of Discrimination and Racism – Japan Committee Newsletter, 154, 2008, page 203.
9. United Nations Committee against Torture (CAT). (2011). ‘Consideration of reports submitted by States parties under article 19 of the Convention’. Japan. Retrieved from www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/cat/docs/CAT.C.JPN.
10. Committee for NGO Reporting on the CRC (JAPAN), The Implementation of the Convention in Japan and the Problems of Japan’s Third Periodic Report. Revised Summary: Japan, page 47. Retrieved from www. crin.org/ docs/CRC_3rd_Japan_NGO_Report_revised_summary.pdf.
11. Kaoru Aoyama, PhD, is an Associate Professor at Graduate School of International Studies at Kobe University, Kobe, Japan; and author of Thai Migrant Sexworkers: from modernisation to globalisation. She was interviewed by the author on 18 October 2012.
12. Ibid.
13. Ibid.
14. United Nations Treaty Convention. (2012). Article 12.a: Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime. Retrieved from http://treaties.un.org/Pages/ViewDetails.aspx? src=IND&mtdsg_no=XVIII-12-a&chapter=18&lang=en.
15. Committee for NGO Reporting on the CRC (JAPAN), op cit., page 47.
16. Based on interview with staff of Asian People Together (APT) and Hyogo Prefecture Women and Family Consultation Centre ( Hyogo WCC) . APT Interviewee: Ms Yuriko Oka, case worker and domestic violence counsellor. Hyogo WCC interviewee: requested to not be named, case worker and counsellor for abused women.
17. Nobuki Fujimoto, “Government “Peeping” into Bedrooms of International Couples - Gray Zone of False Marriages,” op. cit., page 204.
18.International Labour Organization. ‘Human Trafficking for Sexual Exploitation in Japan’. (Geneva: ILO, 2004), page 39. Retrieved from www.ilo.org/public/english/region/asro/tokyo/downloads/r -japantrafficking.pdf.
19. Svati P Shah, Trafficking and the Conflation with Sex Work: Implications for HIV Prevention and Control, Working Paper for the Third Meeting of the Technical Advisory Group of the Global Commission on HIV and the Law, 2011, page 9. Retrieved from www.hivlawcommission.org/index.php/working-papers? task=document.viewdoc&id=100.
20. See the 2012 National Police Agency Report at www.npa.go.jp/safetylife/hoan/h23_zinshin.pdf
21. Asian People Together is a non-governmental shelter and counselling center for women run through the YWCA, Kyoto, Japan.
22. Ikuno Gakuen is a non-governmental shelter and counselling center for abused women, Osaka, Japan. Interviewees: Stephan Aaron, case worker, and a Japanese counsellor who requested not to be named.
23. Hyogo Prefecture Women and Family Consultation Center is a government-funded shelter for women.
24. International Labour Organization, op. cit. pages 68 and 70.
25. Interview with APT staff, op. cit.
26. International Labour Organization, op. cit., page 50

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