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Japanese flesh traders targeting Western women

Many unaware of sex trade dangers

By Akemi Nakamura
January 13, 2005

A 23-year-old Russian woman became intrigued with the idea of working as a hostess in Japan a few years ago after a friend returned home flush with cash from hostessing and opened a boutique.

But if there's a silver lining, there is also a dark cloud.

"There are few job opportunities in my country," said the woman, now a hostess at a nightclub in the Kinshicho district in Tokyo's Sumida Ward. "I want to start up my own business (in Russia) like my friend."

The woman began hostessing two years ago and now earns 60,000 yen to 70,000 yen in basic monthly salary, plus tips from customers and commissions from the club. But there are also extracurricular activities that come with the turf.

"I don't like this job because (Japanese customers) do indecent things and talk about sex. If I go for a drive with a customer, I fear I might be taken to a strange place," she said. "It's very stressful."

But the woman, who is now married to a Japanese, said she will stick with the job for a while so she can save more money and achieve her dreams.

Women from Europe, North America and Oceania find working as hostesses or dancers here an easy way to make a quick fortune to pay for travels, education or investments. But many may not be aware of how close they are to danger.

People familiar with the sex trade said that like many of their counterparts from developing countries in Asia and Latin America, Western women have since the late 1980s been victims of sexual and financial exploitation here.

Rob Cox, an Australian who worked as a nightclub agent in Tokyo's Roppongi district for three years since 2000, said he heard from many Australian hostesses and strippers about various forms of abuse.

For example, a 23-year-old stripper from Sydney was raped by four customers at a club after she had drinks probably spiked with drugs.

Others told him they were promised 24,000 Australian dollars a month to work as strippers but got A$15,000 or less, according to Cox, who now lives in Australia.

His job was to provide daily support for hostesses and dancers at several clubs for their accommodations and problems at the workplace, which made him learn how badly the victimized women were suffering physically and mentally, he said.

Cox wrote a book about the women's difficulties and hopes to publish it to raise public awareness in Japan and Australia about the true nature of the industry.

"Girls do know that they would come as hostesses (or dancers) . . . but what they are not told in Australia before they come is that they come to work illegally" or that their jobs could involve sexual abuse, he said.

Western women are often recruited by shady "model agencies" or "promoters" and enter Japan with tourist or entertainer visas. But since neither visa allows them to work as hostesses, many are counted as illegal workers.

This allows sleazy brokers, club managers and patrons to take advantage of them.

Cox said the foreign victims he met in Tokyo did not report their sexual or financial exploitation to police because they were afraid of being detained and deported.

They also feared people back home would find out what happened to them in Japan if their cases were made public, he added.

Taiyo Akagi, a journalist familiar with the nation's sex industry, said Russian hostesses and dancers are often warned by their recruiters that their kin back home could be harmed if they tried to run away before their contracts expire.

Masamitsu Goda, who runs a Tokyo bar that employs Russian hostesses, claimed few of them actually become victims of sexual or drug abuse.

"Only a fraction (of the promoters) bring women in without elaborating on their job (conditions) and force them into prostitution," he said.

Goda, however, warned that some patrons at these types of bars can be dangerous, noting the "standards of morality" are lax.

Businessman Joji Obara is currently on trial, charged with fatally drugging Briton Lucie Blackman and raping her during a "compensated date" in 2000 after meeting her at a Roppongi bar.

Obara is also accused of fatally drugging an Australian woman in 1992, and drugging and raping eight other women, two of them Westerners, from the late 1990s to 2000.

Western hostesses and dancers who are sexually and financially abused should be counted as victims of human-trafficking in a broad sense, said Keiko Otsu, director of HELP Asian Women's Shelter, a nongovernmental group that works on behalf of foreign women in Japan.

Most human-trafficking cases in Japan involve women from other parts of Asia and Latin America. They are usually forced into prostitution after unknowingly incurring millions of yen in debt upon arrival in Japan.

According to the National Police Agency, 46 human-trafficking cases were reported between January and September involving 27 foreign women -- 21 from Thailand, four from Colombia and two from Russia. The women had been forced to work as hostesses, strippers or prostitutes, and 12 brokers and 18 club owners and managers were arrested.

Of the 27 women, 22 Thais and Colombians were told upon arrival that they owed the brokers between 2 million yen and 6.6 million yen for air fare and passport and other miscellaneous expenses they were unaware of before agreeing to the jobs, an NPA official said. The Russians also told the NPA their employers were taking some of their pay.

But these figures represent just the tip of the iceberg. Last June, the United States put Japan on its special watch list of countries on the verge of falling into the worst category of human-trafficking.

The government hopes to correct the situation by revising laws this year.

The NPA meanwhile has formed contacts with 22 embassies in Japan, the International Labor Organization, the International Organization for Migration and a few other groups working on behalf of foreign women in this country.

The organizations are cooperating on information exchanges, trafficking cases and victim support, the NPA official said.

Otsu of HELP said Japan needs to take more concrete measures to reach out to victimized women, such as launching 24-hour hotlines. She also said the government should reach out to more Westerners.

"Many Asian women knew about our group, but we'd like (Western women) to know about us," said Otsu, adding that Western women have not sought help from her group in recent years.

To provide better care for foreign women, "we also need cooperation from their fellow communities" in Japan, she said.

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