Why are foreign women continuing to be forced into prostitution in Japan?

June 10, 2017 (Mainichi Japan)
The building in the Ikaho hot spring area of Shibukawa, Gunma Prefecture, where a Cambodian woman was forced into prostitution. (Mainichi)
The building in the Ikaho hot spring area of Shibukawa, Gunma Prefecture, where a Cambodian woman was forced into prostitution. (Mainichi)
The issue of foreign women being forced into prostitution in Japan does not seem to be fading away. For instance, earlier this year, three people in Gunma Prefecture were found guilty of forcing a Cambodian woman into prostitution. There have been other cases of this kind of human trafficking in the prefecture as well, mainly around the popular Ikaho hot spring area. With this sort of stark reality in mind, the Mainichi Shimbun decided to look into the issue and ask why the problem hasn’t been solved.

“I’ve been forced into prostitution.” These were the alarming words posted on the Cambodian Embassy’s Facebook page in December 2016 by the woman who had been lured from Cambodia to Gunma Prefecture.

The woman, who had been tricked into moving to Japan with false guarantees of “earning approximately 300,000 yen per month through work like waitressing,” was later forced to work as a prostitute, and rarely received the salary she had been promised. After managing to escape from her nightmare situation, she found refuge in the Cambodian Embassy in Tokyo, and was protected there with six other Cambodian women who had ended up in similar situations. The woman was able to return to Cambodia by late January, with the embassy stating that “she had become a victim in Japan.”

On Jan. 19, 2017, Gunma Prefectural Police arrested two managers in their 40s of “snack” pubs in the city of Numata, and also in Ikaho, for allegedly forcing Cambodian women into prostitution — without work visas. The police also arrested a man in his 40s affiliated with a crime syndicate.

According to court testimony by the three defendants, the person behind the prostitution plan was the man connected to the crime syndicate. It later emerged that he came up with the scheme of going to Cambodia to lure a woman into prostitution, in order to pay back debts of some 700,000 yen that he owed to the proprietress of a “snack” in Numata.

The proprietress agreed with the plan. About a month later, in November 2016, the man brought the Cambodian woman to Japan on a 90-day visa and took her to the “snack” pub. It is believed that the man went to Cambodia directly, and spoke to several women in an attempt to lure them to Japan.

The man also mentioned his plan to the proprietor of a “snack” pub in the Ikaho hot spring area. Following a search of the proprietor’s house, it emerged that he had forced three Thai women into prostitution, emotionally blackmailing them into staying with statements such as, “You owe me 1 million yen for travel expenses.”

There was also a case in 2012 of “snack” pub managers in Ikaho becoming involved in human trafficking. A Thai woman had been lured to Japan with the false promise of “a job in Japan that comes with a salary of 5.5 million yen,” but she had her passport taken away upon her arrival in Japan and was made to work for free, with threats including, “You’ll be in trouble if you run away.”

In response to this spate of human trafficking cases in Japan, the obvious question is, “Why won’t it go away?” According to an annual government report, the number of human trafficking cases peaked in 2005 with 117 victims, and subsequently dropped to 17 victims by 2013.

Some people believe that the drop over this period was due to the introduction of stricter visa measures, but the number of cases increased again from 2014 onward, hitting 50 in 2016.

However, there are concerns that this is “just the tip of the iceberg.” According to Shihoko Fujiwara, who is the head of the Lighthouse NPO which supports victims of human trafficking, there are certain barriers that prevent foreign victims from making their voices heard.

The first is the “visa wall.” There are many cases whereby the victims have come into Japan on 90-day “short stay visas,” which prevent them from working legally in Japan. Therefore, these victims tend to be reluctant to consult with authorities about their plight.

Secondly, it is common for these victims to have their passports and bankbooks taken off them after arriving in Japan, and also be subject to psychological intimidation and be held in captivity. There are also language barriers and cultural differences, such as the fact that “consulting with the police” is often rare in their home countries.

Fujiwara also thinks that the problem is not disappearing because it is lucrative for those involved. For example, in the case of the Cambodian woman, it has emerged that the “snack” pub proprietor in Ikaho pulled in about 4 million yen in just half a year through prostituting her and other women.

In addition, the relatively mild punishment is also a factor. A U.S. State Department report released in 2016 noted that, in Japan, prison sentences for human trafficking can be substituted by fines, and that this was not strict enough.

In this particular case, the three defendants were convicted and handed suspended sentences and fines. The proprietress of the “snack” pub in Numata was handed a 2 1/2-year sentence, suspended for five years, while the proprietor of the “snack” in Ikaho, and the gang member were given suspended sentences of 3 years and 2 years, respectively.

The U.S. has a much stricter stance, with prison sentences of 10 years or more being handed down in some human trafficking cases. Perhaps Japan will need to toughen its stance in the future as well, if cases of forced prostitution show no sign of disappearing.

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