Beneath the glitter

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 27 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 27 October, 2007, 12:00am

Petite and composed despite her ordeal, the 29-year-old Colombian woman calmly tells a tale of a nerve-wracking start to life in the bright lights of Japan where, using a fake Norweigan passport, she hoped to work in a casino. She also describes her subsequent descent into a hellish existence of prostitution and exploitation.

Lucy - not her real name - even retains her composure as she recounts how she was required to service as many as 15 men a day when she was seven months pregnant. She only breaks down after revealing that since she escaped from the gangsters who had tricked her into sexual slavery, she has learned they are still looking for her and have threatened to kill her three-year-old son.

'After I was deported the first time [from Tokyo], I only came back to Japan because the traffickers threatened they were going to kill my family,' she said. This time, 'I arrived at Osaka airport and took the train to Yokohama, where I met a Colombian woman. Until then, I thought I was going to be working in a casino, but that night she sent me out onto the street to work.

'I was terrified. I wanted to die. But they knew where my family was so I could not run away and they told me I had to pay back the debt of 5 million yen [HK$340,000] that I owed them. I had to work every day, from 11am until 3am in summer and three hours longer in the winter. I only got a few hours' sleep. They had no compassion.'

Lucy's story is shockingly common, according to an official at the Colombian embassy in Tokyo who helps dozens of her compatriots escape from the clutches of slave traders and tries to help them recover from the ordeal. She also preferred not to be identified.

The case also highlights the gravity of the battle Tokyo crime-fighters are waging against people- smuggling in a country that issues 50,000 entertainment visas a year.

'There are lots of misconceptions surrounding human trafficking, one of which is that it only affects people from poor countries,' said Shihoko Fujiwara, head of the Tokyo branch of the Polaris Project, a global campaigner against people-trafficking that has been operating in Japan for five years.

'It is also a mistake to think that organised crime is entirely to blame; there are an increasing number of 'family-run' operations that involve foreigners living in Japan who go back to their own country a couple of times a year and woo young girls with stories of the money that can be made in Japan waiting on tables in restaurants.'

Illustrating her point was the raid by Japanese police on October 8 that led to the arrest of two women, one from Taiwan and the other from Thailand, in the northern prefecture of Nagano, on suspicion of human trafficking. The women were charged with violating the law on entertainment businesses in Japan. Local police said the women 'bought' a 27-year-old Thai woman for 2.4 million yen from a broker in May to work at a bar in Matsumoto. The woman was then told she had run up a 5 million yen debt to cover the cost of bringing her to Japan and she was forced to have sex with customers to pay off the debt.

As in many cases, the police only became involved when the woman managed to escape from the bar and made her way to the Thai embassy in Tokyo. Lucy took a similar route, turning up at the gates of the Colombian mission three years ago.

With the help of a Japanese customer who eventually became her husband and gave her money to pay off the debt, Lucy was able to get away from the woman. But later, her marriage failed and she fell into the hands of a group of Japanese gangsters. 'There were about 50 of us and we were their slaves,' she said. When she plucked up the courage to go to the police to file a complaint, they failed to act, she said. She is staying in Japan - despite the danger she faces if her tormentors find her - because she says it is safer for her family not to know where she is. She is now in training for a job.

'I'm getting psychological support from the embassy, which helps, but I have suffered,' said Lucy. 'I have thought about committing suicide by jumping from the window of the apartment, but I'm still here. And I have my son.'

The Colombian embassy official said Japan's problems were rooted in the 1980s, when the country was at the height of the economic bubble and a lot of Colombians started arriving. 'Pretty soon, Colombians saw the opportunities and became traffickers themselves, working closely with Japanese gangsters and bringing in larger numbers of victims,' the official said.

'The peak years were between 1992 and 1996,' she said. 'In 1996, we received 173 official requests for assistance and double that number approached the embassy for help and advice but refused to give their names because they were frightened. Every year, 50,000 women enter Japan on entertainer visas, but there are never that many working as dancers or singers.'

Ms Fujiwara admits the huge scale of the problem facing organisations such as Polaris.

Human trafficking is the world's third-largest criminal industry, after drugs and weapons, but it is the fastest-growing sector. Fuelled by its colossal sex industry, Japan is ranked as one of the largest destinations for international trafficking of women and children for sex and forced labour. Some are as young as 12. The victims are not always foreign women, however, as trading in Japanese women and children is also a serious problem, according to Polaris.

The problem has been recognised by Tokyo in recent years, spurred by a US State Department decision in 2004 to place Japan on its tier-two watchlist for people trafficking. Within months, Tokyo's Foreign Ministry outlined a range of measures to combat the problem and the government made people- trafficking a crime. Immigration procedures were also revised to allow victims to remain in Japan for their own safety - although the temporary visa they are issued does not permit them to work and leaves them reliant on shelters or support from the public.

In 2004, the National Police Agency set up the Organised Crime Control Department to deal with trafficking and in 2005 it announced 81 arrests. Courts do not appear to be keeping pace with the changes, however, with just five cases reaching the prosecution stage in the first eight months of the year - and all ended with suspended sentences.

While the plight of women from South America and Asia is well documented, there are also the rarer cases involving western women.

Arriving with a singing contract, American victim Rhoda Kershaw said she 'knew nothing of a world of real evil' when she came to Japan in April 1989, aged 18. Contracted to different agencies in the US and Japan, she said they were simply fronts for the business of selling naive young women to the highest bidder. With the promise of a chance to sing, she was put on display in a hostess club in Osaka frequented by yakuza, who were attracted by her red hair.

Invited to an after-hours gathering - and admittedly awestruck by the gangsters she was drinking with - she accepted a drink. Within minutes she was passing out; the last thing she remembered was being carried to a car. Coming round in a luxurious suite, she was surrounded by gang members wearing full body tattoos. Ms Kershaw made a bolt for the door but was caught and beaten. She woke up on the bed and was gang- raped over several days. She recalled them laughing as she called out for her mother.

Ms Kershaw estimated she was assaulted by at least 40 men in the first 24 hours. 'The things done to me over the next three days are inconceivable to most human beings,' she said from her home in Tennessee. 'Each one had his own perversion and I was tortured.'

The abuse she received meant she would never be able to have children.

Ms Kershaw made a second attempt to flee and ran naked through the streets. She hammered on the doors of apartments until a stranger took her in and helped her call the police. But with the arrival of the authorities, a second terrifying experience began.

'I found myself being treated like a criminal,' she said. 'I was treated cruelly at the hospital, by the police, a lawyer and the media - and all the while, no one bothered to call my embassy.'

She was initially taken back to the apartment where she had been held - followed by TV cameras and reporters after someone had tipped off the media - and she had to identify the gang members and undergo questioning over the next three weeks. She was unable to find a Japanese lawyer to join her American legal representative before the statute of limitations ran out in 1994. No one has been prosecuted for what happened to her.

Despite such tales, the US State Department two years ago applauded Japan's progress in battling the trade.

But Ms Fujiwara said there was no indication the demand for women in Japan's brothels was declining. 'The demand is huge and seems to be growing,' she said. 'Of course, if the demand no longer existed then the traffickers would be out of business within days, but as long as 'entertainment districts' such as Kabukicho exist then women will be forced to work in these establishments.'