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Japan cracking down on human trafficking in sex industry

TOKYO—Angel Kiss, Zeus and cabarets that offer "live love" still beckon customers in Kabukicho, Tokyo's infamous red-light district. But near-daily police and immigration raids have banished the women who once openly solicited potential customers on the street.

Humiliated by international criticism of its commerce in girls and women, Japan last year began to clamp down on human trafficking. Yet the tougher laws that are expected to pass next month face huge obstacles. Japan must reorient a slow-moving bureaucracy, overcome widespread social acceptance of sex for hire and take on the powerful sex industry and the criminal groups that control it.

Marisela—not her real name—entered Japan on a tourist visa procured by a recruiter. The waitress job that she thought would support her two daughters in the Philippines turned out to be a bar-hostessing job that included being sent out on calls with customers. Like most women in the industry, she was moved from place to place and sometimes was terrified. "I thought if I complained, I would get killed," she said.

Thousands of Mariselas, desperate to earn money for their families, slip into Japan on short-term visas or with falsified passports. Told that they have to pay off debts of sometimes 5 million yen ($47,600), they're held captive, beaten and controlled by threats to their families at home, anti-trafficking groups say.

Estimates of the number of victims vary wildly. The National Police Agency identified 79 in 2004 from among arrested illegal foreigners. The Organization of American States estimates that 1,700 girls and women from Latin America have been sold in Japan. Anti-trafficking groups say there are more than 100,000 victims, mostly Thais, Filipinas and Colombians—but also Russians, Chinese, Koreans, Taiwanese and other Southeast Asians.

Until now, police dealt with the problem by arresting the victims as illegal aliens, jailing and deporting them as soon as they presented enough money for airfare home.

Trafficked women often live brutal, desolate lives, forced into having unprotected sex with sometimes dozens of customers a day, say those who work rescuing the women.

"The Japanese are the coldest people, without any heart, that can possibly exist in the world," wrote one girl, who arrived at age 16, in a statement after she fled to the Colombian Consulate. "Besides the mafia who own us, on the streets they treat us as criminals and beat me when I don't earn enough money. They force us to do horrible, repulsive things, and often the police come in, showing their badge and force us to service them for free."

The United States, the International Labor Organization and other groups have singled out Japan for harsh criticism. A U.S. State Department report last year demoted Japan to a "watch list" of foot-dragging governments—the same ranking as Laos and Russia—in human trafficking.

Globally, the International Labor Organization estimates that 12.3 million people are victims of forced labor, including 2.4 million trafficking victims—a majority of them in the Asia-Pacific region.

The 2004 State Department report jolted Japan into speeding up reform.

This year's State report, due out June 1, is expected to credit Tokyo with progress in addressing the problem.

Two months ago, the government began cutting back on entertainer visas, which last year were issued to 80,000 people, mostly Filipinas. Those were a sham, said Hidenori Sakanaka, a former head of the Tokyo Regional Immigration Bureau. "The women are ordered to become hostesses, even though they are invited as singers or dancers, and end up in prostitution," he said.

After his agents embarked on an aggressive campaign 10 years ago, arresting illegal entertainers as well as club owners and brokers, he received irate phone calls from politicians and anonymous threats on his life, he said. "Trafficking is the shame of Japan," he wrote in a recently published book. Now, he said, he regrets not being able to tackle the problem fully.

Will the new campaign meet less resistance? For more than a year, immigration and police officers have been arresting thousands of undocumented workers, including trafficking victims. To live up to an October 2003 pledge to cut in half the population of illegal foreigners in Tokyo, then estimated at 125,000, officers have staked out stations and streets populated by Third World migrants.

Agents are so busy that the immigration jails are full. On a recent 5 a.m. raid, agents nabbed 10 women—to fill the 10 vacancies in the women's immigration jail, said Takuma Fukumoto, the chief of the newly established Shinjuku branch of the Tokyo Regional Immigration Bureau, which covers Kabukicho. The men's side was already full, he said.

To have an impact, authorities will have to tackle the most difficult problem of all: challenging the Japanese yakuza and their foreign partners who profit from the trafficking.

"If the Japanese want to do something," one victim wrote in a statement at the Colombian Consulate, "they have to first get rid of the mobsters." Arresting the victims will do nothing because "Colombians will just continue coming in, like flowers, in huge numbers at all the airports."

Last year, 46 people were found guilty of trafficking-related crimes.

One of the most notorious traffickers, Koichi Hagiwara—known as Sony for his habit of videotaping his victims while he humiliates and tortures them—served less than two years in prison for violating labor laws.

New laws criminalizing human trafficking and beefing up penalties will allow authorities to crack down on brokers. Currently, immigration agents who record victims' testimonies can arrest only the visa violators, not the traffickers, said Fukumoto. "We turn all our information to police—who may not move on it," he said.

But Jun Shimado, of the Ministry of Justice's Public Security Division, said police are working on apprehending traffickers. Proof of their success, he said, is in the shuttering of shops that preyed on trafficked women in Yokohama's red-light district, Koganecho.

New measures will help victims. A $200,000 fund will pay for some victims' airfare home. And some women may be allowed to stay in Japan for up to three months.

That's a start, advocates say. But the few shelters for the women are often full, and the time limit for a stay is two weeks. Women who once had tens of thousands of yen—hundreds of dollars—pass through their hands find themselves without income, assistance or support. Some may be pregnant, and many have mental and other health problems, including AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, said Keiko Otsu, who runs the HELP Asian Women's Shelter.

So far there's been little training for law enforcement to handle traumatized victims, either to elicit information or to avoid inflicting further trauma.

"Someone who's been under the control of the mafia and then arrested and put under police control is not likely to just open up and speak freely," said Yoko Yoshida, an attorney who works with the Japan Network Against Trafficking in Persons.

Another question is whether the crackdown will only move the sex industry deeper underground. Prostitution is widespread and not confined to areas such as Kabukicho, with its 4,300 bars and restaurants. Fliers recruiting girls for "compensated dating" and sex-related businesses are handed out on streets or posted on walls. Even in rural towns, the "snacks," as small bars are known here, often feature foreign hostesses who do more than serve drinks.

But pushing prostitution, and trafficked women, further underground succeeds in making them less accessible to the market, said Yoshida. "It sends the consumers a kind of warning. Perhaps they will stop buying women."

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(Noguchi is on leave from the San Jose Mercury News. Doi is a Knight Ridder special correspondent.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): JAPAN-TRAFFICKING

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