Polaris Project Japan has been working to help victims of sex trafficking in Japan for the past eight years. The people served are primarily women and children, both foreign and Japanese nationals. While there are laws on the books regulating labor conditions, preventing child abuse, and prohibiting prostitution (although its definition is extremely narrow), Japan does not yet have laws to tackle this new type of slavery. Oftentimes, the victims are arrested for breaking prostitution laws or overstaying work visas. The current legal system in Japan supposes the sex industry is a victimless economic activity, but we estimate that over 54,000 women and children are being forced to work in this massive, $73 billion national industry.
Japan is a culturally rich and economically affluent society. In terms of human rights for minorities, women and children, however, I think we are far behind our global allies in the West. We are the third-largest economy in the world, yet we rank 98th in gender equality . Our child abuse law is just twelve years old and our domestic violence law is only ten. We still do not have a trafficking law, which makes it difficult to institutionalize the fact that human trafficking exists in Japan, and its victims live in our communities.
After decades of criticism, internally and internationally, the Japanese government launched an ""Action Plan"" against trafficking, but without any provisions for enforcement. Police and immigration officers lack a standardized understanding of how to identify victims, and there is little protection of victims once they are rescued. This makes it extremely difficult for victims to reach out to the authorities.
Last year we helped dozens of trafficked victims in Japan, but most of the foreign victims refused to go to the police to receive public assistance. They saw no benefit in receiving public support. There is no promise of being identified as a victim of a crime, and even if they are identified, the support is often mismanaged. Victims want safety, economic stability, the ability to pick up their lives and move on, forget what happened to them. What Japan provides to identified victims is a safe trip home, which is of little help to those who had to borrow money to pay to the broker/trafficker who deceived them, or who wish to fight their traffickers with a civil suit. The current makeshift victim services (temporary permission to stay in Japan, domestic violence shelters rather than shelters specifically for trafficking victims, and extremely cumbersome medical services, for example) further jeopardize the already traumatized victims.
We advocate a comprehensive anti-trafficking law. The law should include a budget for awareness-raising campaigns (if we don’t know trafficking is a problem, no one can report it!), the launch of a 24-hour hotline, training for law enforcement and social service providers, and comprehensive assistance for victims to regain their rights (safe shelters, counseling, access to education and work, protection for their family from retribution by traffickers, etc.).
We know many of our clients are struggling to sustain themselves—some girls are in medical institutions for years, many still work day-to-day in sex industry, and some remain in women’s protection centers, unable to sustain themselves independently. It is difficult for them to get by; public funds must be used to support victims now, because no help was offered or available when they were exploited.
We should also consider the risk of letting sex traffickers freely do business in the quasi-legalized sex industry—the money flows into organized crime groups. Continuing to ignore trafficking is ultimately a security risk. I hope to see more leaders in Japan who share Polaris Project Japan’s vision. "