Twenty Years of Human Trafficking

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1 Twenty Years of Human Trafficking E x p e r ie n c e s a t th e W o m e n s S h e lte r, H E L P Interview w ith Ms. Rutsuko Shoji As part of its 100 th anniversary in 1986, the Japan Woman s Christian Temperance Union's (JWCTU) founded a temporary shelter for women called The House in Emergency of Love and Peace (HELP). Since its inception, HELP has been providing a temporary shelter for hundreds of non-japanese victims of human trafficking. Ms. Rutsuko Shoji had worked at HELP for years (since the early nineties) and is presently the director at JWCTU s Step House, a short-term boarding house for single women. In light of her vast experience at HELP and elsewhere, we interviewed Ms. Shoji to hear her perspectives on historical developments regarding human trafficking as well as support methods for victimized women in Japan. The Eighties An Entertainer Visa as Filipino Women's Ticket to Japan When HELP was founded in 1986, clients were predominantly Filipino women and the house was always full; if one woman left HELP, another immediately took her spot. Because the majority of women would go back to the Philippines after their stay at HELP, those with valid passports often stayed for less than a week. The women, most of whom came to Japan with an entertainer visa, commonly had their salary withheld by employers who said the women would receive six months of wages at the airport before their return to the Philippines. Unfortunately, though HELP received many distraught calls from women at the airport complaining that they did not get what they were promised, there was often nothing we could do. One night police officers brought around ten Filipino women after receiving a distressed call from one of them and raiding the place where the women were working. Nevertheless, when the women were supposed to arrange their return to the Philippines the following day, seven of them disappeared, suggesting there was some reason that prevented them from returning home without a large sum of money. Upon arrival at HELP some women were so shocked at having been deceived by their brokers that they could not even say a word. In one case we could not tell whether the woman was Japanese or Filipino nor figure out if she understood Tagalog, Japanese or English. She had only arrived in Japan some 4-5 months earlier and must have been going through an unimaginably difficult time. She is still in Japan, living at a women s asylum and receiving welfare. There was another woman who could not talk when she arrived at HELP. Her shoes almost torn apart, she came to HELP on foot from Tochigi prefecture which is about 100 km away. The woman was found wandering around a Filipino restaurant near HELP, and taken into protective custody. She did not say 4

2 a single word, but insistently held on to a guardrail with a ten-yen coin (about 10 cents) in her hands. I suppose she badly wanted to take her money back from the place where she was working. She then stood dead still in front of a children s shop, which is why we thought she might have children. In her case, we contacted a women s self-support group in the Philippines and asked them to care for her when she returned. Considering communities who see people coming back from Japan with a chunk of money, or sending money to their families and buying a huge house with a fancy full-equipped kitchen, it is understandable that Filipinos are interested in coming to Japan. In the Philippines, however, nobody would or could tell of the harsh reality in Japan. While in Japan, women complained they had been misled; for example, some women were told they would be waitresses but were then asked to be bar girls, a job that involved drinking more than five glasses of juice in order to make customers spend as much money as possible it was just like a torture, they said. The women also complained about DOHAN (a service in which women go out on a date with male customers before/after their work at bars) because there was no clear distinction between forced dating and voluntary dating. When I visited the Philippines, I once stayed at the house of a woman who had worked in Japan. She had a two-story house, built with the money she earned, and there was a nice dining table but no food. She had given birth to a baby whose father was Japanese but unknown, and washing the baby on a frying pan she picked up on the street, she said she would prefer the baby died; she was too sick to work, and even when she was feeling better, there were no available jobs. People as Commodities The Systematic Violation of Human Rights Currently, as a result of the labor exporting policies of the Filipino government, migrant workers make up some 10% of the Philippines adult population. Additionally, labor export policies have allowed vicious recruiters and brokers to exploit Filipino migrant workers, exploitation for which Japan, as a major receiving nation, shares responsibility. In 1993, the Foreign Entertainer Promotion Association was established in Japan. Its board of directors, which included retired immigration officers, promised to help shortening the time for getting an entertainer visa. Sadly, instead of preventing rampant human trafficking the Association was encouraging trafficking in the guise of the entertainment business. The Association was only closed in Ironically, when the media played up the issue of Filipino women with entertainer visas working at bars or nightclubs, visa regulations tightened and protests ensued in the Philippines. I heard that in Japan, the shortage of Filipino women resulted in the closure of over a thousand bars and nightclubs around the country. I also heard that KDD (a Japanese international telephony company) distributed free instruction handbooks in the Philippines on how to get an entertainer visa for Japan. KDD was cynically doing everything it could to maintain profits on calls to the Philippines (which stood at an annual about 20 billion yen). Furthermore, due to pressures on both the Filipino and Japanese governments from related industries, entertainer visa requirements were quickly relaxed. It is clear that some people are making a huge profit on human trafficking, and one wonders why the Labor Standards Bureau is not involved in issuing entertainer visas; unless it does not consider the work of 5

3 immigrant workers labor. Today, according to Immigration Law revisions, bars and nightclubs with five or more employees are required to submit a list of employees. They also have to create a several-meter distance between show stages and customers. While good in principle, the transition has had no influence in halting underground businesses such as coercive prostitution. The Nineties An Increasing Number of Women from Thailand and South America In the mid nineties, most of the women at HELP were from Thailand, and many were also pregnant. These women had been abandoned after getting pregnant. The number of such women was really enormous. I cannot forget the phrase commonly used by those women Poi sareta which means that they were dumped just like a trash being thrown away. Some women were desperate to escape and find a way to HELP, putting a piece of paper with HELP s telephone number in their purse. Other women, finding our number in the papers, carried it with them just in case, even if they believed nothing dangerous would happen to them. There was a wide variety of women from Thailand those from North Eastern agricultural areas and refugees, as well as office workers who were deceived when they were seeking better jobs. One Thai woman told me about her experience. At a hotel, she saw a guy paying another guy 4 million yen right in front of her and realized she had been sold. She wanted to escape but could not find a way. Refusing to be a prostitute, she was brought to a bar and chained. Ultimately, she managed to escape with a customer's assistance and came to HELP, where she reported to the police and led to the brokers arrest. In the end she happily returned to Thailand. While I was working at HELP, there were only two cases in which Thai women reported trafficking to the police. In both instances, the brokers were arrested soon after the reports. Most Thai women, however, were so afraid of their brokers and they did not even try to report their cases. The Thai embassy recounted the story of one Thai woman who had told the embassy everything and had the Thai police investigate the suspected people she had mentioned. After going back to Thailand she was murdered in a fake car accident. Since the late nineties, more and more Columbian women have come to Japan. Many of the women entered through local airports such as Okinawa or Hiroshima and were resold from one hot spring town to another. They were controlled by one or two brokers but forced to keep relocating because customers liked to see different women one after the other. It seems that the worse the economy gets, the more frequently women are resold to improve business. One day, American police officers in charge of human trafficking visited HELP on the way back from an investigation on human trafficking in Russia. In Russia, those who are engaged in smuggling fur and ivory are also engaged in trafficking. In Columbia, women are sold with guns and drugs. Women always come to Japan alongside illegal commodities, but even worse, they arrive as commodities. Regarding Columbian women, the police hardly do anything because intimidation by Columbian traffickers, who are Mafioso s working closely with the Yakuza (the Japanese mafia). Women Living with HIV/AIDS Since 1995, the number of Cambodian, Burmese, and Vietnamese women living in Thailand as refugees has been increasing. Living in extreme poverty, they were an easy 6

4 target for traffickers. The traffickers would approach these refugees (of no nationality) and easily lure them into coming to Japan with the promise of a forged passport. Because it is later very difficult for refugee women to return to their country of departure, they are probably the group that suffers most. Once there were simultaneously five women with no nationality at HELP, two of whom were HIV-positive and wanted to go home. With assistance from many sources, the two women managed to return to their families. One of them started living at a place where a Catholic nun takes care of women who used to work as prostitutes abroad, giving vocational training such as typing and sawing. The other woman, however, was deathly sick and sent to a hospital where it took five years for all her problems to be resolved. The three remaining women were all mothers. One was Burmese and had a Japanese Brazilian partner, and the other two had children whose fathers were Japanese married men. We succeeded in having those fathers recognize they were the fathers of the children so that the children could obtain Japanese citizenship. Additionally, we managed to have the Ministry of Justice issue refugee passports for the three women, who are currently living in Japan with their children. During the nineties we had a lot of support for women living with HIV. Among others, Tokyo Medical University (TMU) was especially supportive; when the women living with HIV left for their countries, TMU gave them a month s worth of medicine because medicine was not easily obtainable in their countries and even if they could get medicine, it would be low quality. TMU was also helpful when we had a Thai woman with AIDS. When Thai friends brought the woman over by cab, we could immediately tell she was developing AIDS. We let her friends go home and contacted a welfare agency who we asked to recognize her as a sick traveler" and then brought her to TMU to get treated. On the other hand, there were some horrible hospitals. One Tokyo municipal hospital was particularly bad, discriminating against non-japanese women. For example, there was a Vietnamese woman who came to Japan with a counterfeit passport and had AIDS. She said she wanted to see her family before she died. In order to make her eligible to return to her home country, we contacted her family, got proof of her relation to them, and changed her name from the fake one to the real one on an official document. A doctor who was treating her at the time got angry when he saw her name had changed believing she had changed her name in order to get free treatment. To explain everything to the doctor, I immediately flew back from the US, where I was visiting for vacation. Otherwise, she would not have been treated at the hospital. There is another example of a woman with HIV who got pregnant from an HIV positive man. When she had an abortion at a hospital, a nurse intentionally left the aborted fetus on her bed for one day and put it in a plastic bag in front of her. The fetus s cry 7

5 almost drove her insane. It was obvious discrimination against prostitutes and foreigners. Permanent Residency, Domestic Violence, and the Future Since 1998, HELP has become a shelter for Filipino women who have settled down in Japan and subsequently suffered domestic violence. I have personally witnessed around a hundred cases of really terrible violence. Once I picked up a woman at a hospital, where she was seeing a gynecologist, an orthopedist, and a plastic surgeon simultaneously. Her husband burned her toes with boiled miso-soup, hit her with a baseball bat and broke her legs. He did it to get insurance that would cover the expenditure for delivering their second baby. After delivering the baby, she prepared to escape to HELP before her husband picked her up. Unfortunately, the gynecologist s head nurse was so afraid to get involved in this risky situation that she disappeared when we needed her. As a result, we asked a medical/welfare adviser to get permission from a general head nurse for the abused woman to leave. We managed to let her take a cab at the last moment. After a custody battle going to the Supreme Court, she won custody of the children and a visa. She is now living with her two kids, one of whom is the one she was holding when she escaped from the hospital. The child is now a first grade student. A common problem is that Japanese husbands use violence against their wives without any hesitation because they assume their wives cannot understand Japanese and therefore cannot do anything. The men insist their wives do not do what they tell them, cannot educate their children, or have mental problems. At the same time, the wives are dealing with various causes of instability such as children s custody and nationality as well as their own visas, without any assistance from their husbands. Many husbands do not even submit a birth certificate, sometimes going to hospitals to do the necessary paper work when the five-year period of recording almost expires. On another sad note, it seems cases of sexual abuse by fathers towards their own children are quite numerous. Abused children suffer from the impact of sexual abuse even seven or eight years after they separate from their fathers. The problem also lies in the Japanese administrative system, where you cannot separate children from their parents even if the risk of keeping the children close to their fathers is obvious, as long as the child wants to stay with the abusive father. Considering how detrimental this provision can be, it is one of the most painful realities for me. During my tenure at HELP I assisted more than a thousand non-japanese women to return to their countries. It is not their fault that they became victims of human trafficking, it is the sending and receiving countries who must work together to address the issues. I cannot stop wondering how those women who had returned to their countries are doing now. It has long stayed in my mind. Rutsuko Shoji, a director at Step House and a co-representative of V iolence against Women in War Network (V AWW-NET) Japan. Based on expertise in Feminist Theology and experiences with various minority women, Ms. Shoji has a personal history of deep involvement in the South Korean democratic movement and in the movement for ratification of the Convention of the Rights of the Child, as well as a continued engagement in working women s issues. (Interviewed by Masayo Niwa, a board member of Asia-Japan Women s Resource Center) 8