- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 17, 2004

TOKYO — Keiko Otsu vividly remembers her encounter about 18 years ago with a forlorn Thai woman who managed to escape from a Japanese organized-crime ring.

Mrs. Otsu recalls that when she greeted Mia (not her real name) in Thai, her face lit up. Then Mia began complaining about being exploited in Japan’s sex trade.

Sex slavery is deeply rooted in Japan, and this week the U.S. State Department downgraded its ally to Tier Watch List 2, which means Japan — like Israel, India, Turkey and 50 other countries — does not fully comply with the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2003, but is making a significant effort to do so.

Countries deemed by the State Department not to be making significant efforts to comply with the U.S. standard are categorized as Tier 3, and face potential sanctions. On this year’s list they include Bangladesh, Burma, Cuba, Ecuador, Equatorial Guinea, Guyana, North Korea, Sierra Leone, Sudan and Venezuela.

Like most victims of trafficking in humans, Mia, who wanted to help her family financially, was told by an acquaintance in Thailand that she could get “a good job” in Japan.

Once in this country, however, Mia faced something totally unexpected — fictitious debts that she had to repay by renting her body for sex. She and other foreign women were kept under rigorous surveillance and never allowed to go out by themselves; they were shuttled between their apartment and workplaces such as bars and hotels.

“I wanted to be treated as a human being,” Mia told Mrs. Otsu. “I am a human being,” she said before describing the humiliations she had endured.

“I was deeply shocked,” said Mrs. Otsu.

Mia’s words led Mrs. Otsu to try to help victims of violence and the sex trade. She is now a director of HELP Asian Women’s Shelter, backed by a Christian women’s group. The shelter, one of a few in central Tokyo, has assisted thousands of battered women over the past 18 years.

During this time, “nothing has changed” in the way victims of sex trafficking are exploited, Mrs. Otsu said. The women and girls, mainly from other Asian countries, are forced to work without pay as prostitutes — without condoms or medical checkups for sexually transmitted diseases. Many are severely beaten.

After the State Department Trafficking in Persons report this week, Japan pledged to increase its efforts to combat the problem. “We hope to continue efforts to tighten measures in areas that are insufficient,” said Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda.

Some observers said the Japanese government suddenly introduced legislation on the subject — but “just for form” — to deflect criticism from Washington.

Yumiko Koyanagi of the Japan Network Against Trafficking in Persons, a nongovernmental group in Tokyo, said: “While the government is working to stiffen punishment against offenders, we are asking them to incorporate relief for victims into the laws.”

Even in Tokyo, there are very few places victims can go for help.

Most private shelters in Japan are financially strapped and operated by volunteers and private donations. They receive very little money from the government.

The usual way Japan deals with victims of human trafficking is to arrest them for violating immigration laws and deport them to their homeland. Politicians and the mainstream media have long ignored this.

“It’s hard to say that the seriousness of human-trafficking issues is widely recognized in Japanese society,” said Kaname Tsutsumi, a professor who teaches sex and ethnicity issues at Kyushu International University. “In addition, the society casts a very cold eye on foreign women involved in prostitution.”

In this, Japan is not unique.

Trafficking in humans is “among the fastest-growing criminal activities, occurring both worldwide and in individual countries,” reports the State Department Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. Between 600,000 and 800,000 people, mostly women and children, are transported across borders each year to work in the worldwide sex trade, the office said.

If the number of victims within countries were included, the number of people exploited in the paid-sex industry could reach millions every year, other organizations estimate.

“We’re talking about women, and girls as young as 6 years old, trafficked into commercial sexual exploitation; men trafficked into forced labor; children trafficked as child soldiers,” Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said Monday.

This year’s Trafficking in Persons report estimated that 14,500 to 17,500 people are sent annually into the United States for prostitution. According to a 2000 CIA report, while victims have traditionally come from Southeast Asia and Latin America, more now come from Central and Eastern Europe and the countries of the former Soviet Union.

The same can be said of Japan, and probably many other countries.

According to Agnes Chan, an ambassador for UNICEF Japan, this is the fourth wave of child trafficking.

In the first, many children were transported from Southeast Asia, then from South and Central America, and later from Africa for the sex trade of wealthier countries.

But after the collapse of the Soviet Union, because of the disparity of wealth between Eastern and Western Europe, traffickers started to buy children from Eastern European countries to sell in Western Europe, Russia, the United States, Arab countries and Japan, she said.

Now, “the problem of trafficking in children from Moldova is becoming most serious,” said Ms. Chan, who visited that country, also known as Moldavia, in April.

Modern-day sex slavery of women and children from Moldova is “the tip of the iceberg,” said Ana Chirsanov, a psychologist at a rehabilitation center in that country invited to an international symposium last month by the Japan UNICEF Committee.

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