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Sunday, Feb. 1, 2004

Speaking out from the streets

Here, in her own words, a young woman from Colombia lays bare the life she and tens of thousands of other foreign women lead as illegal sex workers in Japan. It is a tale of vulnerability, greed and exploitation that is both shockingly explicit and, at times, surprisingly moving

Diana was born in Santa Marta, Colombia, in 1973, the third of four children. Her father was an electrician who worked on construction projects that often took him away from the family for months at a time. There wasn't much money in the house, but all the children went to school -- their sharp-tongued mother insisted on it. Diana was a bright girl, though she often got into fights with other children who teased her because of her dark skin -- her father was black; her mother, white.

News photo
A prostitute waits on a Tokyo side street for her next customer to come along.

After graduating from high school, she went to Bogota to live with her older sister and work in an electronics store, where her vivacious personality made her the top saleswoman. One of her customers was a young British expat who introduced her to a new world of posh restaurants, expensive presents and foreign travel -- an idyll that lasted three years. When he abruptly broke off their relationship, she was devastated, but found a new job as a greeter at a large night club.

The job paid well, but Diana wanted to earn more, both to support her lifestyle in a trendy Bogota neighborhood and to help her mother, who was now living with her younger brother in Santa Marta. (Her father, who had had numerous other women over the years, was now only an occasional visitor.)

The following is Diana's account, in her own words (translated from Spanish), of how she found another job, another country and another life.

One day a friend told me she knew someone who could take me out of the country, to a place where I could make a lot of money, enough for jewelry and other kinds of luxuries. It was the fantasy of every woman who had been born poor and had never had anything.

The place was Japan.

I had seen some Japanese tourists and businessmen in Santa Marta, and I had met others at the club in Bogota, including some who worked at the embassy. For me Japan was much like China -- I mean, the faces of the people were alike. I didn't have a lot of interest in Japan, to be honest. All I knew, basically, was that it was where they made cameras, computers and other products I had sold at the electronics store.

But the thought of living and working in a foreign country appealed to me, especially a country as rich as Japan. I didn't see how I could go wrong.

The friend introduced me to a Japanese-Colombian broker, who worked with the Colombian mafia. I was scared, to be frank -- I knew I would end up owing a lot of money for the fake passport and plane tickets -- but I decided to go through with it.

So the adventure started. I found myself with two girls from different parts of Colombia. The broker brought us to an apartment in Bogota. We stayed there for two days while we waited for our passports and tickets. We were scared, but excited at the same time -- it was a funny feeling. The broker told us we were going to be exotic dancers, appearing on stage in gorgeous costumes. All we had to do was dance and pose and scream like cats -- it would be so much fun. At least that's what he said. I had a feeling he was lying -- and later found out I was right. Everything he said was a lie.

At the airport the three of us all boarded different flights. We were worried -- we didn't know if we would get into Japan or not. I called my family to tell them that I was going on a long trip, to Japan. No one could believe it, but they couldn't do anything about it -- it was too late. Twenty minutes later I was boarding the plane.

News photo
Prostitute in Tokyo's midwinter streets
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I flew, not to Japan, but to Paris, France, where I stayed one night. There I exchanged my Colombian passport for a fake Portuguese one. I was nervous -- I knew I was doing something wrong, but when I arrived in Japan and showed the immigration official the fake passport, he welcomed me as if I were a real European. The customs people didn't even check my luggage, as they do with most Colombians. I felt so excited and relieved at my success. I was already thinking about all the money I was going to make, but without really knowing how I was going to make it.

A Japanese man met me at the airport -- someone working for my Japanese manager. He gave me a cell phone and told me to call him if I had a problem. Then he bought me a ticket for the train. I boarded alone -- and that was the last I saw of him. I had thought that Japan was all green and hilly, but when the train left the airport, all I could see were houses. When I arrived in Tokyo, a black Colombian man was waiting for me. He asked for the money I had shown at Immigration -- about $1,000 -- and the Portuguese passport. There was no sign of the two Colombian girls I had left with -- I never found out what happened to them.

The Colombian man took me to an apartment where I met a Colombian woman named Kamila, who was working as a dancer. She explained about the job; she was very sweet and would become a special friend.

That same day, a Saturday, the Colombian man took me to a strip club to give me what he called "a taste of the Japanese atmosphere." It wasn't anything like I had been told. The girls showed everything, in ways I had never seen before in my life. They even had sex with men on stage. I had to cover my eyes, it was so shocking. I could never imagine myself doing that. The Colombian man laughed at my innocence.

Backstage, the girls acted snobbish, as though they were better than anyone else and had tons of money. But however superior they looked, they had come to Japan the same way I had.

The next day I was put to work as a prostitute on a street in Shinjuku. The Colombian man told me that if I had come to Japan to earn money, this was the only way to do it -- They had no job for me at the theater yet. "It will be hard at first, but once you see how much you can make, you'll find it easier," he said. In any case, I had no choice, I had nothing, and no way of escape.

On the street I was so afraid -- I didn't know what to say or do. Men came up to me and said ikura (how much)? Now I can barely remember their faces or anything about them -- they came and went in a blur. At much as possible I tried to feel nothing -- to imagine myself somewhere else. The price was 15,000 yen or 20,000 yen per hour. There were many other women working there. Some of them helped me, but others tried to steal my clients, taking advantage of my ignorance of Japanese.

The street was dangerous. There were many Iranians there selling counterfeit phone cards and drugs. Also, the police passed by every so often. The Iranians warned us when they were coming -- I had to hide five times that first night, as did the Iranians. The police were looking for them as well.

The second day I called my family, using a prepaid phone card, and told them I would send them some money.

I stayed in a house that belonged to a Colombian man. He was a thief. He never admitted it, but it was obvious. He would say he was "going shopping" at a store called Don Quijote. Inside he would grab a basket, take anything he wanted and then leave without paying, looking as cool as you please. I knew he was a bad character who might get me into trouble.

I kept working on the street at night, usually finding from one to three customers. I made a lot of money and could buy a lot of things, but I felt nothing but sadness and emptiness inside.

On my fifth day in Tokyo I was told that a Japanese man had "bought" me. I felt like a dress in a shop, but there was nothing I could do about it.

The Japanese man took me to his apartment in Shinjuku and told me that I had to pay him 5 million yen. He said I had to work only for him from now on. He took my passport and asked me the address of my family in Colombia. "If you try to run away, your family will be in trouble," he said. I felt so lonely then, but the man decided to buy Kamila as well, so that made it easier. With her beside me I felt stronger -- I knew we could support each other. Even so I wanted to escape somehow.

When I had been in Japan 20 days, the Japanese man was arrested. This was a big surprise, but then his men took me and Kamila to a theater in Hiroshima. There were a lot of girls there -- Japanese, Filipino and Colombian. They were all different, but the basic job, dancing, was the same for all of them. First, you went on stage and danced to recorded music, while the audience -- mainly old Japanese men -- devoured you with their eyes. When the dance ended, the men would play a game -- jankenpon (paper-scissors-stone) for the honor of going up on stage and having sex with you. While the winner was "performing," the rest of the audience watched intently. Then, when all was over, you smiled, bowed and walked off the stage.

The theater attracted men of all ages -- old ones, young ones -- but most were lower class. There were also foreigners, mainly dusky-looking guys from Third World countries. There were even a few intelligent-looking professional types. In short, any and all kinds of men came to the theater.

The first time I appeared on stage I danced four times and had sex with more than 60 men. It was incredibly painful -- at the end I felt as though I had been torn to shreds. To make the men finish more quickly, I had to pretend I was enjoying it, yowling like a cat. Every day for 10 days it was exactly the same and then I'd be moved to a different theater for another 10 days. It was nothing like I had been told it would be. My manager would call me, telling where and how to go. There were moments of fright and panic along the way. One time a phone call came to the club, saying the police were making a raid. The five Colombian girls, including me, ran away, while the two Japanese girls stayed. I was in such a hurry to get away that I leaped out a window. I was later fined for missing a show.

I always had to be ready -- the police could come at any time. I carried few possessions, in case I had to suddenly grab everything and run off.

My meals were totally haphazard. Sometimes I ate alone, sometimes in strange houses and sometimes with clients. They would bring me food from KFC or McDonald's or Dunkin' Donuts. These were the only times that I could feel that I was somehow myself, not just a sexual toy.

In the end, though, it was worth it. I was making a lot of money and I was satisfied. I was working toward my dream.

Even though I changed work places every 10 days, I had few problems adjusting. I was accepted everywhere I went. Some of the mama-san didn't care for black girls, but most made an exception for me. Only one wouldn't take me because I was black, but my manager soon found me another place where there were a lot of Colombian girls.

At this theater, though, there were problems of another kind. Some of the girls were always fighting with each other. Others spent too much time with clients in the private rooms or tried to boss everyone. I kept my distance, not taking one side or the other. At the same time, I wouldn't let people step on me.

Most of the managers were Colombian men who had been in Japan a long time. They were bringing in more and more girls and charging more and more for their "services." I wanted to get free as soon as possible, but to do that I had to work.

There were all kinds of shows, with something for everyone -- sado-masochism, lesbianism, you name it. The Colombians would mostly do the lesbian shows, some because they enjoyed that sort of thing. I didn't myself so I never worked in those shows, but in time I got used to them, just as I had gotten used to everything else. Whatever happened, I had to keep going.

I had to be careful with my money and possessions because some of the girls were thieves. I wasn't always careful with money, though. The first time I went shopping on my own I went wild. I wanted to buy so many things -- shoes, bags, clothes. I would go from one shop after another in a kind of frenzy, until I was totally lost.

Always, though, some kind-hearted person would give me directions or even take me to where I wanted to go. They would always ask me where I was from. I would lie, saying I was from America. Then they would start speaking to me in English. I didn't understand a word they said, but I would nod my head and say "yes, yes, OK." I had to laugh, it was so funny.

I lied because I was afraid that, if they knew I was from Colombia, they wouldn't help me or that, even worse, they might be a plainclothes policemen -- and ask for my passport.

After a year and a half, I left the theater circuit and started working on the streets of Ikebukuro [in Toshima Ward, northern Tokyo] -- I did this for several weeks. This was a stressful job since I was always running away from the police. Whenever I saw a car with a red light on top I beat it to the next street or the nearest dark corner.

Ikebukuro was crawling with weird men with every imaginable perversion. After sessions with them, I felt sick to my stomach, but the money was good and I still had a big debt to pay. Anything for money.

One client wanted to buy my dirty underwear so he could sniff it as he masturbated. Another bought my saliva, which he kept in plastic bags, for who knows what.

There is no end to the dark and crazy stuff that goes on in this kind of work. In the end, I told myself, it was all just an experience, something to someday look back on and remember.

I knew a Colombian girl named Miriam who fell in love with a Japanese-Peruvian guy who had a working visa. He was always giving her presents -- all of which were stolen. She couldn't work because he wouldn't let her. He was a very jealous, very machista type. A lot of these kind of guys told girls who were in Japan illegally that they could get visas for them. The price was 1 million yen, but they wanted half up front to start the paperwork. In the end, though, they always ran away with the money -- their promises were nothing but lies.

A certain Colombian woman charged 250,000 yen to put a fake permanent visa on a passport. Several Colombian girls got caught with this visa -- it was such an obvious fake. They ended up going to jail for having false documents. The woman who gave it to them is in jail now too, so there is some justice in the world.

I knew many people who had fake ID, such as a fake work permit, so they could get jobs in factories and other places. Sometimes the police just glanced at the ID and nothing happened, but sometimes they checked it carefully. They even put the ID card into a kind of testing machine. If it was fake the machine blipped -- and the owner of the card went straight to jail.

In Japan it is all about luck -- you can't survive here without it.

Sometimes I worked in the countryside for a month, sometimes for two months. I had a chance to go to hot springs, to breathe fresh air. It was so relaxing after the stress of Tokyo -- for one thing, the police seldom bothered us. Also, the people in the countryside were very sociable and had good hearts.

As I worked and traveled around the country my spoken Japanese gradually improved. I talked with clients, watched TV and tried to become better little by little until I could express myself clearly. Clients in the countryside liked to talk, go for walks and show me the local culture. They looked after me and respected my feelings. Unlike in Tokyo, I felt valued as a person, not just a piece of meat.

But after a while, it started becoming dangerous. Some Colombian girls disappeared -- I heard of one who was later found dead, floating in a harbor -- while others were severely beaten by their managers.

Several girls couldn't handle it any more. They were so desperate they went to the police and asked them to bring charges against their manager, offering proof of his crimes. He was a Japanese who dispatched girls around the country and collected a cut from their pay. He acted less like their manager than their owner, doing all sorts of terrible things to them -- slapping, punching and karate-kicking them, until they were bleeding. The girls thought that, by going to the police, they could rid themselves of him.

Instead, the police raided more than 20 theaters, arresting all the foreigners with improper documents. They caught more than 70 girls, most of them Colombians.

No one had expected such a large raid. It was a day of tension, panic and, at the same time, sadness. Many girls were just starting to make their dreams come true -- their dreams of having real money and helping their families economically. It was so hard for them. Some didn't even have enough money to buy a plane ticket back to Colombia.

Iwas so scared that I stopped working for a while. I didn't want to work again in the theaters anyway, so I decided to "retire." Most of the women who escaped the big raid did the same. The owners became desperate, calling us repeatedly. When we refused to come they got angry and said that they would never hire illegals again.

After that I worked at "pink" clubs. Sometimes you can earn a lot of money at these places. You have to wash the client's privates, give him a back massage and then masturbate him.

In Japan any woman can make money doing this. It doesn't matter if you're skinny or fat, black or white, pretty or ugly. You just have to know to how to do the job -- and be lucky with money.

But then even the "pink" clubs became dangerous, with the police raiding everywhere, so I decided to change jobs yet again. I found work in a nightclub as a hostess. At some of these places the girls just sit and drink with the customers. At others the girls go out with the customers and at still others they work almost completely naked.

I first worked at a club in Shinjuku where the mama and papa were African. I had to sit with the customers and ask them to buy me drinks. From their drinks I got a small commission. I also did private dances, which lasted one song and cost 7,000 yen. There was also pole dances where the girls stripped down to almost nothing. When they finished the show they went to the clients and asked for tips.

The two managers were bad people who took advantage of clients, especially when they got drunk. They would hand them outrageous bills; the clients would get angry but the managers didn't care. They would shout insults at the clients and even punch them. When the clients threatened to go to the police, the managers would call in the yakuza, who would force them to pay. But though I didn't trust or like the managers I was so desperate for work that I stayed in the job. But I finally couldn't take any more -- I was getting stressed from everybody and everything. I told the managers I wanted to quit, but they asked me to stay, making excuses.

Sometimes Western guys came to the club. I met one guy who was teaching English in Japan. He looked down on me and the other women, as though he were better than the rest of us. But we gaijin are all the same -- we all came to Japan for the good money we can make here. This guy, though, made it clear that he thought I was his inferior. I hate it when someone discriminates like that. I got so angry at him! "You idiot, you're a foreigner just like me," I shouted. "Why are you so special, asshole!"

The guy apologized, but I have no patience with people like that. No one should set themself above others simply because of their race or nationality.

Also, some people may have less formal education than others, but have learned more in the course of their lives. I think that is what is important, not just a degree.

Finally, I decided to leave the club. A week after I quit I went to get my wages, but the managers refused to pay me. They said they didn't care what I did -- "Call the police, call the yakuza -- see if they help you," the papa said. They kept two weeks of my wages. At that moment I was so sorry that I didn't have proper papers; I could have complained to the police and claimed my money. All my work, all my nights were wasted. Here in Japan if you don't work you don't eat. If you don't have money, you are nothing. Life is so expensive here, but you have to have faith to go on and reach your goals.

Many times I have felt that I wanted to explode, that my patience has reached its limit. I'm so tired of this life that I want to leave everything and go to Colombia for a holiday, but I don't have the right papers. Being caught as an illegal is my biggest fear, my biggest worry.

I'm now working in another club in Shinjuku, but one that is much nicer. The manager is a Japanese woman who is very friendly and pays everyone every day. She doesn't want to have any trouble so she treats us well. When it is quiet in the club she even prepares food and shares it with everyone. Most of the girls are foreigners from Colombia, the Philippines, Africa and Europe, together with a few Japanese. The atmosphere is much better than the other place. The girls help each other, with no envy, like a team.

I feel good about that, but I am still afraid of the police. My troubles are still far from over.

Sometimes I feel I have not been so lucky here. Some Colombian girls I know here are lucky -- they reach their goals in a year and go home. I have been here three years but am still a long way from mine. I have bought some farmland and made a down payment on a house, but I still have to pay nearly 1 million yen more before it is mine.

The difficulty is, I have been supporting my family. I paid for my younger brother's college tuition. I send my mother money every month for her medicines and living expenses. Then there are presents, emergencies -- the demands never end. I suspect that some people may be using me, cheating me. I need to go to Colombia now and confront them directly, to take care of problems that never seem to get settled, but for that I need money and the right papers, if I ever hope to return to Japan.

And I do want to come back here. My dream is to work and study in Japan with a proper visa and never go back to the job I am doing now.

Despite struggling here, I like Japan and its people. Sometimes it is hard to communicate with them because of the language barrier, but they have been so patient and kind to me. I want to thank them for everything. Domo arigato.

Diana told her story to Mark Schilling, a Japan Times film writer and the author of "The Encyclopedia of Japanese Pop Culture" (Weatherhill; 1997).

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