April 2014 FEW Meeting Recap: Sold for Sex: The Story of Japan’s Invisible Women and Children Trapped in Sex Trafficking

Recap “Sold for Sex: The Story of Japan’s Invisible Women and Children Trapped in Sex Trafficking”
FEW Meeting April 10, 2014

Speaker: Shihoko Fujiwara

Recap by Christina Hanazawa-Gallagher, Vice President of FEW

In 2014, it was estimated by Lighthouse: Center for Human Trafficking that there are approximately 80,000 people in Japan who are labor and sex trafficking slaves. Yet, in 2013, police only identified 17 victims nationwide.

Part of the reason for the lack of detection is that traffickers have become more sophisticated. “Trafficking used to be foreign women, yet ten of the victims identified last year were Japanese,” said Shihoko Fujiwara, Executive Director of Lighthouse, who spoke at FEW’s April meeting.

“It is much easier to trick a Japanese runaway youth from another area and bring them to Tokyo; there is no red tape.” She also said after the 3/11 earthquake, Tohoku women came to Tokyo to find work as prostitutes.

Another reason so few cases are on record is that victim protection in Japan is weak. In Japan there is no specific law that regulates sex trafficking, so law enforcement have to use domestic violence or related laws to prosecute offenders.

To generate more awareness, Shihoko and her team educate law enforcement, including immigration officials, about the issue. Once she and her team identify the victims, they typically support them through the legal and if needed, medical process, for 3 days before they are referred to partner agencies, which provide shelter and more tailored assistance.

But finding victims, is not easy.

“Before traffickers used to take away the woman’s passport and made her work as a prostitute,” said Shihoko. “Now it’s more more subtle and the exploitation last longer. They promise women that they will open a savings account in their name and the day before their departure they say they will give them the money.” So these women live in hope that they will get their money when they are ready to leave Japan.

The prostitution system has also changed. Rather than being escorted to buildings by their pimps, women are now forced to be on call for clients who order their services, which are advertised online. The women are contacted using a cellphone and are sent alone to a rented office space in a building.

“This is more dangerous because they are alone with clients, who may not pay. If they become violent, she still has to bring money back to her pimps.”

Despite these conditions, it is still difficult to gain access and provide help. Sometimes friends of the women or the clients themselves phone Lighthouse’s hotline anonymously.

And other times, the women phone for help. “Instead of dying in this country, they would rather be arrested or go home, “ said Shihoko, who recounted a story of a Korean woman who had was gravely ill from multiple STD’s. At 31, she had been a prostitute for the past 13 years and came to Japan because she was told she could make triple the amount of money. This was appealing since her father had filed for bankruptcy.

“She was working to serve up to 3 men a day or she wouldn’t get fed. She was also supposed to take medicine for STD’s. Within 2 months, she had lost 8 kg’s, but she couldn’t go to the hospital because she was on a tourist visa and she didn’t speak Japanese.”

“When she contacted us, we had a small window of time to get her out of the apartment (10 minutes). We went to the Korean consulate to get her a temporary visa”

Shihoko continued, “We had to push and this is when we do our job. Embassies don’t want to help because there are so many women like her.”

Although prostitution is technically illegal in Japan, it is defined as only women serving men. “All other sexual acts are tolerated,” said Shihoko.

Now, in a run up to the 2020 Olympics, with more migrants expected in Japan, Lighthouse is lobbying the government to pass a stricter human trafficking law and to even grant a trafficking visa for victims to stay and receive health care, if needed.

About Lighthouse
Information (English) | Information (Japanese) | Facebook

Established in 2005 and formerly known as Polaris Project Japan, Lighthouse – Center for Human Trafficking Victims is the only organization working exclusively on the issue of human trafficking and modern day slavery in Japan.  Like a lighthouse that guides people who are lost in the dark to safe harbor, we hope to be the beacon of hope for victims of human trafficking and be their voice.

Our passionate staff combine street-level experience and technical expertise, working everyday to provide victim services, conduct advocacy, and build the anti-trafficking movement. Our staff work on projects to combat trafficking in Japan, especially the sexual exploitation of women and children.

  • National Toll-free Multilingual Hotlines
  • Law Enforcement Training, Workshops, and Collaboration
  • Training Social Service Providers
  • Advocacy and Raising Public Awareness
  • Victim Identification Through Field Research
  • Leadership Development Through Our Fellowship Program
  • Grassroots Community Mobilization and Organizing



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