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Thursday, March 15, 2001

Thai women, twice victimized


By PIERRE FULLER
Staff writer
OWED JUSTICE: Thai Women Trafficked into Debt Bondage in Japan. Human Rights Watch, 227 pp., unpriced.

For many women, the journey begins in northern Thailand, where refugees and hill-tribesmen languish in poverty and statelessness. The favored prey of sex-trade recruiters, these undocumented Thai residents can only migrate for work through illegal channels, easily falling into the hands of traffickers. Thousands end up in Japan.

Human Rights Watch, the worldwide rights watchdog, has interviewed 23 women after their time here, studied the interviews of 35 such women with Japanese researchers, and recorded the experiences of 170 more who passed through a women's shelter in Japan.

This is just a sampling of the 22,574 Thai women who the Japanese Immigration Bureau estimated were overstaying visas as recently as 1997. (The latest number available, according to the report, this figure doesn't include Thai women with unexpired visas, nor those who entered with forged passports of other nationalities.) Of these women, a Thai Embassy official reckons 80 to 90 percent end up in the sex trade.

From fragments gathered in research from 1994 to '99, Human Rights Watch has assembled their story.

Although some have already worked in the sex industry in Thailand, the majority leave home voluntarily with the specious promise of waitressing or factory jobs abroad.

Upon landing fully escorted in Japan, they first learn of their "debt."

It is too late to run. If the trafficked women do ever see their passports, it's for a few moments at airport immigration control. Thereafter, their handlers keep all documents that the women could use for free movement and escape -- that is, for freedom.

Soon, the women are sold by a "broker" to a bar for between 3 million yen and 5 million yen, which includes visa, travel expenses, (forged) passport, any cosmetic surgery done in Thailand, payoffs to Thai and Japanese border officials, new work clothes, and a large profit.

Most of these women end up in low-end brothels or "dating" snack bars (some even take weeks to figure out exactly where in Japan they are), where men have the option of taking them outside to a local "love" hotel for a few hours (for some 25,000 yen) or the night (for some 35,000 yen).

A prostitute rarely sees this money. It is pocketed by the boss, or "mama," usually an older Thai woman, illegal herself, and the payment is taken off the prostitute's "debt."

The report cites one woman who would roll tips in saran wrap and insert them into her vagina to escape detection from her boss (she, like many, had to surrender all tips) so she would have something to send home to Thailand -- the ultimate purpose of all the women's journeys.

Work involves on average two to four clients a night between 7 p.m. and 2 a.m.

The prostitutes must work even during their period, if, that is, they ever menstruate: Most are forced to take birth-control pills whenever they work, which is every day.

They're told never to tell clients they're Thai, since many Japanese consider Thai women certain AIDS carriers. Yet rarely, if ever, do their clients use condoms, often believing they're paying for the privilege not to.

Treatment for pregnancy or disease is up to the boss, with the cost added to the "debt." Contracting AIDS is also grounds for resale to the manager of another bar, who is usually told the prostitute is "fresh from Thailand."

As illegals, these women rarely seek help on their own: A hospital appearance can mean a trip to an immigration detention cell.

Escape is very unlikely. If brute force is not enough, then threats of resale compel the women to work off their "debt" to their first boss without incident. Resale means starting all over again.

Submission is exacted by still other means: In the prostitutes' dormitories, often above the bar itself or in the neighborhood, motion sensors, video monitors, doors that buzz upon opening are used to ensure 24-hour surveillance of the women, who are hardly ever let out alone.

Stories also circulate of runaways ending up dead, and, true or not, they instill fear, another control tactic.

The yakuza permeate the industry, playing a policing role: In return for 80,000 yen a month (the sum cited by a bar manager in Kofu in the early 1990s), the yakuza will pursue runaway prostitutes or delinquent clients and offer general protection from, say, official raids. (Warning phone calls can precede police raids for a price.)

The ordeal does end: Almost all of these women eventually return to Thailand. A few even become the mistresses of clients, or even their wives.

Human Rights Watch also interviewed government officials, police, social workers, activists and professors in both Japan and Thailand.

The report finds Japanese authorities unmotivated to assist these women, sometimes complicit in their bondage, and treating them as illegal aliens and prostitutes first, and victims second.

Linguistically, culturally and legally helpless, these women are forced to repay a fraudulent debt through whatever amount of abuse they can sustain as veritable sex machines over a period of months to two years.

Yet, the report finds that, when arrested, these women -- indeed, aliens in general in Japan -- are often presumed guilty, that they have restricted access to legal counsel and interpreters, and their embassies are only contacted after their deportation process has begun.

Sadly, the report finds that any hope for justice or redress is dashed by a Catch-22 in Japan's Penal Code. Labor law applies to all in Japan, legally resident or not, but it also requires reporting illegal-alien cases to the Immigration Bureau, which then begins deportation proceedings.

Pimps and mamas can then be prosecuted for violations of immigration law, but not labor law, since by this time the case is often off the desk of Labor Ministry officials.

Few women then pursue payment of back wages, let alone criminal justice, if it means prolonging their detention in overcrowded deportation centers.

"As a result, the deception, coercion, violence, intimidation, illegal confinement, debt bondage and forced labor to which trafficked women are subjected continues to go unpunished," the report concludes.

Thorough and pursuasive, Human Rights Watch's report has hardly anything to take issue with, aside from its repetitiveness, which could do with some good editing. But it isn't meant to be a good read, only a call to action.

The question arises: How high on Tokyo's agenda is the welfare of aliens? Or on that of the Japanese public?

A recent Cabinet Office poll printed on the front page of this newspaper found that, while nearly half of the Japanese polled want illegal aliens forcibly deported, more than that -- 64.6 percent -- would tolerate them if they performed "difficult, dirty or dangerous" jobs unwanted by Japanese.

It should come as no surprise that the burdens on these bonded prostitutes go unrelieved -- and unpunished.



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