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Human trafficking in Japan
Friday, 01 July 2011 08:11


Japan should be ashamed of its record on human trafficking, or modern day slavery.  And its government needs to do a lot more to tackle this problem.


But first, what is human trafficking?  The US State Department defines human trafficking as the use of force, fraud, or coercion to exploit a person for profit.  Traffickers can subject victims to labor exploitation, sexual exploitation, or both.  Trafficking for labor exploitation, the form of trafficking claiming the greatest number of victims, includes traditional chattel slavery, forced labor, and debt bondage.


The International Labour Organisation estimates that there are at least 12.3 million adults and children in forced labor, bonded labor, and commercial sexual servitude at any given time.  Of these, at least 1.39 million are victims of commercial sexual servitude, and 56 per cent of all forced labor victims are women and girls.


The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) is responsible for implementing the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children.  It offers practical help to states with drafting laws, creating comprehensive national anti-trafficking strategies, and assisting with resources to implement them.


Half of the world’s countries now have criminal legislation prohibiting all forms of human trafficking.  But the global financial crisis has raised the specter of increased human trafficking around the world.  A shrinking global demand for labor and a growing supply of workers willing to take ever greater risks for economic opportunities, seems like a recipe for increased human trafficking.


Human trafficking is the third largest criminal industry in the world, after arms and drug dealing.  It is also the fastest growing, with sex trafficking being the most lucrative sector.  Human trafficking has been facilitated by open border and advanced technologies, and has been a truly global industry.


The US State Department recognizes that human trafficking is prevalent throughout the world, even in the US.  Subtle but potent forms of coercion are often used against victims, including threats of deportation or imprisonment, or severe reputational and financial harm that make them feel they have no choice but to continue in service.  Factors contributing to trafficking include fraudulent recruitment practices, excessive recruitment fees and debt, and lack of legal protections for migrants.  There remains a stark disparity between the large global problem of forced labor and the low numbers of prosecutions and convictions of labor trafficking crimes (less than 10 percent of all convictions).


The US State Department Report puts countries onto one of three tier lists, based on the extent of government action to combat trafficking in terms of prosecution of offenders, protection of victims, and prevention.  Governments that fully comply with minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking are placed on Tier 1.  Governments making significant efforts to meet the minimum standards are placed on Tier 2, wheeras governments that do not fully comply with the minimum standards and are not making significant efforts to do so are placed on Tier 3.


Countries ranked in Tier 1 are: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Colombia, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Italy, Korea, Rep. of, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Macedonia, Mauritius, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Nigeria, Norway, Poland, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom.


Japan finds itself in Tier 2, better than Tier 3 or the Tier 2 Watch List, you might say.  And countries like Greece, Hong Kong, Iceland, Ireland, Israel and Singapore are there too – but so are Afghanistan, Mexico, Romania, Serbia, Thailand.


What does the State Department have to say about Japan?


It “is one of several destinations and transit countries to which men, women, and children are trafficked for the purposes of forced labor and commercial sexual exploitation. Women and children from East Asia, Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe, Russia, South America, and Latin America are trafficked to Japan for commercial sexual exploitation and male and female migrant workers from China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and other Asian countries are sometimes subject to conditions of forced labor.”


“A significant number of Japanese women and girls have also been reported as sex trafficking victims. …Most independent observers and organized crime experts believe that organized crime syndicates (the Yakuza) continue to play a significant role in trafficking, both directly and indirectly. …Female victims, both foreign and Japanese, are often reluctant to seek help from authorities for fear of shame or of reprisals by their traffickers. …Japanese men continue to be a significant source of demand for child sex tourism in Southeast Asia.”


“The Government of Japan does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; however, it is making significant efforts to do so.  The government increased the number of sex trafficking prosecutions initiated in 2008, yet most convicted offenders of trafficking were given suspended sentences. Japan has not yet effectively addressed the problem of trafficking for labor exploitation. The government’s efforts to identify victims of trafficking remained inadequate.”


Reading this, it seems like the State Department was generous in giving Japan a Tier 2 grading!  As one NGO website says, “it has been hard for Japan to move out of tier 2 status … Japan has a one billion dollar sex entertainment industry. It’s part of their corporate culture.”  Fuelled by its massive sex industry, Japan is the major destination country in Asia for international trafficking of women, especially from the Philippines and Thailand.  But internal trafficking of Japanese nationals is also a severe problem.


That said, there may have been some improvement in the Japanese situation (in earlier years, it had been on the Tier 2 Watch List).  An ILO report of a few years ago paints a terrible picture of human trafficking for sexual exploitation in Japan – mainly women from Southeast Asia, Latin America and increasingly from Eastern Europe.  It documents human trafficking as a complex process that involves recruitment, transport, deceptive enticement, coercion and control, physical abuse, and exploitation.


As the State Department says, with limited resources in great demand, government, business and NGO leaders are coming together to find new ways to combat human trafficking.  NGOs and embassies of trafficking victims play an important role in putting pressure on the Japanese government.  They can also provide victims with protection against yakuza criminals and unenthusiastic police, as well as shelter and support.



Trafficking in Persons Report, June 2009




Polaris Japan


United Nations Office on Crime and Drugs


Human Trafficking for Sexual Exploitation in Japan, International Labour Office





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