Thu, Feb 17, 2005 - Page 5 News List

Japan to enact anti-sex trafficking law

SEX WORKERS Japan is putting the finishing touches on a law that would make the practice illegal and help foreigners who have been forced into the sex industry

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , TOKYO

Filipina entertainers wave Japanese flags during a protest rally outside the Japanese embassy in Manila last month, to demand that the government intercede on their behalf following the Japanese government's move to lessen the number of Filipino entertainers working in Japan. The move allegedly will force more than 80,000 Filipino entertainers to be jobless. The entertainers also protested the ``prostitutes'' tag allegedly leveled against them by the Japan and US governments.

PHOTO: EPA

After years of denying it had a problem with trafficking in humans, Japan is now putting the finishing touches on a law that would make the practice illegal in this country and help foreigners forced into the sex industry here.

Over the next months, the new law, along with programs to assist victims testifying against traffickers, could begin to staunch the illegal flow of women into one of the world's biggest destinations for foreign prostitutes.

In Japan, the foreign women who are victims of trafficking end up working everywhere from Tokyo's sprawling red-light districts to rural areas unfamiliar to most foreigners. They stand on street corners and sit behind glass windows; they serve as sex performers or hostesses at clubs outside of which they are expected to date customers.

A Colombian woman, age 28, spent four years working as a prostitute in Japan, mostly to repay US$45,000 she owed criminals who sold and bought her, finally fled to her embassy here late last year. Having given testimony that could help arrest her traffickers, she now waits for authorization from immigration officials to return to Medellin, Colombia, to be reunited with her 12-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter. "We shouldn't be treated as criminals to be deported out of Japan, but as victims," she said in an interview at the Colombian Embassy.

Starting in March, the government is expected to severely restrict the number of entertainer visas granted, a category that has allowed the entry of, and sometimes trafficking in, women with dubious skills as entertainers. The number of such visas granted Filipinos alone, now 80,000 annually, could be slashed to 8,000.

But advocates for trafficking victims are watching cautiously. They say the government seemed ambivalent about addressing this problem, which they describe as a form of modern slavery, and began taking serious steps only after US pressure.

John Miller, director of the US State Department's Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, said the Japanese authorities were skeptical about the problem one year ago.

"We had some frank and candid discussions, and there was a lot of tussle back and forth," Miller said. "In the course of the succeeding months, there was a turnaround."

"But the final result is not in," he added. "We don't know whether the proposed law will lead to real change and whether these anti-trafficking programs will be funded. Nonetheless, the foundation seems to be in the process of being laid."

Japan, which signed the 2002 UN protocol against human trafficking but could not ratify it without a law against it, has long been known for its lax attitudes on the issue. The State Department in June placed it on a watch list in a report that ranks governments' efforts to fight human trafficking. It was the only developed nation on the list.

In Japan, some come knowing they will work in the sex industry. But few are aware that they will incur huge debts to traffickers, who typically confiscate their passports, restrict their movements and sometimes sell them to Japanese criminals.

Japan has always taken a business-like attitude toward the sex industry, regarding it as necessary, and not necessarily evil. The Japanese government organized Asian sex slaves for its soldiers during World War II and brothels for American soldiers during the postwar occupation.

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