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     News: Japan cracks down on human trafficking, but sprawling sex industry is a toug

    Human TraffickingUpdated at 15:12 on May 1, 2005, EST.

    TOKYO (AP) - Monica's life as a Tokyo prostitute was her own choice. Like thousands of others over the past two decades, she took what she thought was a good offer of lucrative work in Japan's multibillion-dollar sex industry.

    But the Colombian woman had no idea of what awaits foreign prostitutes in Japan: debt bondage, sometimes violent working conditions, "fines" imposed by pimps or brothel owners for any attempt to escape - and an utter lack of help from authorities.

    "The reality is different once you arrive. It's much harder than you ever imagined," says Monica, 31, a single mother who still works the Tokyo streets. She spoke on condition she only be identified by her first name.

    Thousands of cases like Monica's are at the centre of a new crackdown on human trafficking in Japan, which was placed on a U.S. watch list last year, and again cited for trafficking in a U.S. human rights report in February.

    Affluence and a lack of laws against sex trafficking have combined to make Japan one of the world's top destinations for women like Monica.

    Sometimes, human trafficking involves women who are kidnapped or otherwise tricked into working as prostitutes. But experts say in Japan the women have usually come voluntarily but not expecting the slave-like conditions they find themselves in on arrival.

    Kazuo Inoue, an opposition politician and anti-trafficking activist, importantly points out that the crackdown on trafficking also needs to address the root cause - demand and lax policing of the red-light districts.

    "The Japanese human trafficking problem is the sex industry," says Inoue.

    The Japanese government is expected to pass a law by this summer that for the first time would make trafficking of foreign victims into Japan a criminal offence. Authorities also have tightened visa requirements for "entertainers," a category that is suspected of providing legal cover for foreign sex workers.

    "We are in the process of drawing up the necessary measures to effectively battle this," said government spokesperson Masaru Sakamoto. "I think once those are in place, the fruits of our efforts will become more evident."

    Critics, however, are waiting to see if Japan is serious about protecting victims. Japan has long treated women like Monica as accomplices to the traffickers who bring them here, deserving of few rights as sex workers and illegal migrants.

    A mother at age 13, Monica was struggling to survive in a poor, violent barrio of Bogota more than a decade ago when she was approached by a broker with the offer of sex work in Japan, something that would pay enough to buy her daughter a better future back home in Colombia.

    "No one comes because they want to do this work. But we choose to because there's no better option," in Japan or back in Colombia, says the petite redhead during a late-night interview at a cafe near one of Tokyo's busiest red-light districts.

    Arriving in 1993 at age 20, Monica was slapped with a debt of $48,000 US - much larger than she had been led to believe - and warned of reprisals against her family if she tried to escape. Minor infringements, including illness, can inflate that debt, she says, and women suffer a brutal physical toll in serving dozens of customers a week, with no days off to work off the debt.

    She managed to repay her debt in several months, since Japan's economy was stronger then, and now works on her own. She says women who come these days aren't as lucky, with some finding themselves in bondage for more than a year amid ever-increasing fines for various infringements.

    Statistics on women trafficked here are hard to get. Activists estimate more than one million may have come since the early 1980s. The Switzerland-based International Organization for Migration calculates Japan's sex industry has about 150,000 foreign workers.

    The Philippines, Colombia and Thailand are the top sources, according to the International Labour Organization's Japan office, although anecdotal evidence on the street points to a surging number of Russians, Koreans and Chinese as well.

    Red-light districts have openly thrived in Japan from the patronage of legitimate businesses.

    Critics have repeatedly alleged ties between traffickers and law enforcement, from immigration officers taking bribes to allow prostitutes into the country on fake passports, to police who return escaped, abused sex workers to their captors. Those allegations are denied by the National Police Agency.

    Kinsey Alden Dinan, a Columbia University researcher, said the Japanese government does little to safeguard sex workers' rights and well-being or ensure they have ways to quit the business.

    "When there's clearly a demand for these people to work in your country, you have an obligation to work out a system that they can do it in legally and safely," she said, charging that for Japanese officials "it's easier to deport them than to deal with them."

    The government's anti-trafficking plan will include some counselling for prostitutes and plans to postpone immediate deportation to encourage victims to testify against pimps and traffickers and co-operate with authorities.

    But it's expected only a few women will qualify since the government does not recognize those who have willingly entered the country for unauthorized labour as victims, regardless of what happens to them.

    "I don't see a clear plan to protect and support victims," said Yoko Yoshida, a lawyer and director of the Japan Network Against Trafficking in Persons. She said there is a need for medical attention, legal advice and job training for victims.

    If successful, Japan's crackdown on the sex trade could have far-reaching economic consequences. If it dramatically reduces the number of entertainment visas it issues - a category which critics say is a cover for the sex trade - it could threaten the flow of $400 million sent home each year by Philippines citizens working in Japan. The Philippines government has urged leniency for its citizens already working in Japan with entertainment visas.

    Origionally Published The CJAD 800

    Associated Topics

    Porn, Prostitution, Sex Industry

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