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Saturday, Aug. 25, 2007

Ami, guitar team up against sex trafficking


Ami & Her Guitar revolve dramatically through the doors at What the Dickens pub in Tokyo's Ebisu. She's late, she's late, for a very important date, but on a day when temperatures have hit 40 C plus, she is easily forgiven.

Ami performs with her band to help fight human trafficking
Ami (above) and her band (below) work together to help fight human trafficking with a concert Sunday at What the Dickens! pub in Tokyo's Ebisu.
Ami & Her Guitar at What the Dickens pub in Tokyo's Ebisu

Ami & Her Guitar sing and play here once a month, and this is their night. August is special, however, because they will be back on Sunday, Aug. 26 to perform in the charity benefit that Ami is organizing on behalf of The Polaris Project to raise awareness of the human trafficking feeding the world's rampant sex industry.

"We've just come back from the beach in Okayama," Ami explains, while at the same time leaning her guitar carefully against a wall, ordering drinks and making sure her British musician-partner (leader of the Foot Aim Fire band) is OK about her being interviewed alone.

"What were we doing down there?"

"Hanging out for a couple of days at Amy's place."

"Amy Chavez?"

"She has a bar on Shiraishi Island, writes for your paper." (Well, of course she does; see column to the right!)

Why does Ami go largely by the name Ami & Her Guitar? "Because we're inseparable, an extension of one another."

Ami (without her guitar) was born in San Francisco. She grew up with her mom, who made it cool to be a single parent family.

"I had no problem with other kids having both mothers and fathers. I knew I had a father. He just didn't live with us."

Appearing nerdy to other kids — she loved music and math — Ami chose to start strumming strings because it was cheaper than buying a piano and lessons. "I was a bit jealous of friends who had pianos at home."

Growing up, Ami (now with her first guitar: a miniature that she was given at age 6 and still owns, though it's broken) dreamed of being either a doctor or a mathematician. Since coming back to Japan the last time two years ago, she's become addicted to her guitar, writing songs, journalism and activism."

It was while in Bangkok, working on an article about child labor, that she hooked up a girl of 13 desperate for some education with a woman needing help in her home. "In return, that girl now goes to school. It was the first time I realized that something can be done, that each and every individual is able to make a difference."

The more she traveled in Southeast Asia, the more aware she became of girls of her own age and even younger turning tricks on the streets. These young working girls were to haunt her, until two and a half years ago she saw an ad for The Polaris Project, based in Washington D.C.

"An NPO working against sex trafficking, Polaris was looking for an interpreter. Speaking Japanese, English and Spanish, I thought I might be able to help, but they were fixed up. Then they called to ask if I'd help with meet-ups — sessions where trafficking is discussed and cases introduced. I did my first in June this year, a great learning experience."

The Polaris Project was founded in Washington D.C. by Derek Ellerman in 2000, the year that the U.S. Congress passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. Two years later Ellerman was joined by Katherine Chon.

Today, Chon and Ellerman have a paid staff of nine and an army of volunteers who together contribute about 16,000 hours of labor a year. With U.S. State Department funding, Polaris runs a satellite office in Tokyo, operates three informational Web sites (humantrafficking.com, slaverystillexists.org, and polarisproject.org), and runs 24-hour hot lines in several languages in Washington, D.C. and Tokyo.

Ami, who now works actively for Polaris Japan, says that human trafficking is the third-largest criminal industry on earth — after drugs and arms — and the fastest growing.

Last year the U.S. State Department estimated that the number of people (mostly women and girls) trafficked annually worldwide is between 600,000 and 800,000, with 15,000 in the U.S. With such conservative figures, little wonder that a New York Times Magazine article's contention that as many as 10,000 new sex slaves arrive in the U.S. each year triggered a fierce debate.

To the victims of human trafficking, the Polaris Project is an important stop on a 21st-century underground railroad. In Washington, members work closely with the D.C. metropolitan police, training officers and providing such help as shelter, clothing, and legal and immigration advice, mostly to women trafficked through the city's brothels who either managed to escape or are rescued.

Ami: "In Japan, the picture has changed a lot in recent years. I know a nurse who three years ago was working at a hospital in Shinjuku. A Thai woman — brought by traffickers to Japan to work in the sex industry and infected with AIDS — was dumped there to die. It was very upsetting to learn someone could be so cruelly mistreated."

With the Japanese government making it more difficult for women from Southeast Asia and other poor parts of the world to be imported as sex slaves, the industry here is now targeting Japanese girls.

"Enticed into bars and clubs, encouraged to run up huge bills, then being unable to pay and too scared to tell their parents, they are being pushed and forced into prostitution."

Korean girls are also being trafficked. "The downside of the World Cup is that since visas are no longer required between Japan and South Korea, they can be brought in easily. There's been a huge rise in numbers working in the sex industry in the last five years."

Ami says that people here are interested in the subject, but there's little genuine awareness. For one thing, it's the girls who are stigmatized. But what about the traffickers? And what about the men who buy sexual gratification, exploiting the women's helplessness?

"That's why I thought a charity concert might be a good place to start."

She'll be joined by Kanako & Otsuka, a jazz piano and bass, also the funky soul band Buddy Notes & X Plus. The Beatles band Liverpool brings down the house wherever they play, and there's standup comedy with Kevin and Ken.

Ami & Her Guitar will play stuff they like, including a lot of original songs. There's a CD in the making, under the label TKO Records, with a fair number of tracks already laid down, including "Quiet Night," "Fate" and "The Alien Song" — a favorite because songwriter Ami believes it reflects the feelings of foreigners wherever they are.

Ami & Her Guitar are almost too busy to be true, playing gigs right, left and center (parties, weddings, benefits — "any legal venue is a good venue"). Ami is also setting up a company for interpreting and translating, working for Polaris, and thinking about how she might go back to school to study in the arena of political activism.

While her latest published piece as a writer is a restaurant review in Tokyo Noticeboard ("I like the way the company operates"). Ami also specializes in travel writing and taking her own photographs.

"As globalization seeks to make us all the same, I'm interested in reporting and recording what remains of local cultures. Shiraishi, for example. Local people say they feel like foreigners when they come to Tokyo; the margin of difference is still enormous, and that I find fascinating."

Charity Concert, organized by Ami & Her Guitar, at Roob 6 Building, 4F, Komazawa-dori, Ebisu-nishi. Door opens at 6 p.m., for a 6:30 start. ¥1,000 entry fee. All profits to The Polaris Project


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