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Human Trafficking and the Japanese Sex Industry: A Cultural and Political Analysis

Aug 1, 2011 by     No Comments    Posted under: Volume I, Issue 1

By Jennifer Lunny, Webster University

This article offers a social and political analysis of Japan’s sex industry in the context of human trafficking for the illegal sex trade. Points of interest include an exploration of gender roles and sex in Japan’s society, the subculture phenomenon of sex as an industry for Japanese male consumption, and the Japanese government’s response to human trafficking in its sex industry. The article concludes with what is being done on part of NGO efforts to aid trafficking victims in Japan, as well as suggestions for new policy the government could use to address human trafficking and victim rehabilitation.

Human Trafficking and the Japanese Sex Industry: A Cultural and Political Analysis

Human trafficking for sexual exploitation is a crime that disproportionately affects women on a global scale. Up to 80% of the people who are trafficked for the international sex trade are estimated to be women, a percentage that reflects nearly 1.11 million trafficked women annually, worldwide (Polaris Project, 2009; US Department of State, 2009). Of those, more than 75,000 are estimated to work in Japan’s notorious sex industry, and Japan is ranked as a Tier Two nation for human trafficking in the US Department of State’s annual Trafficking in Person’s Report (Dean, 2008; US Department of State, 2009). The Japanese sex industry has been booming for over a decade, thanks in large part to the effects of globalization, capitalism, and advances in communications technology, especially the Internet (McNeil, 2003). These same factors are at play in the global trafficking market, however, and in order to understand what is different about Japan, we must look at the cultural and political conditions that allow the trafficking of women to persist in this most westernized of Asian nations. Here I will explore the cultural contexts of sex, gender, and political policy in Japan in an effort to realize what is unique to Japan with regard to human trafficking in the Japanese sex industry.

In order to understand the cultural background of sex, women, and men in Japan, a brief historical overview is necessary. Geisha and royal concubines come to mind when thinking of the ancient sex industry in Japan. These forms of female subordination, while they don’t exist in explicitly the same way today, provide the cultural background for the modern sex trade in Japanese culture. They show how Japanese men idealized the role of certain women in society, as Geisha were often more revered by men in Japanese society than wives or mothers, even though Geisha did not perform the services of prostitutes as we know prostitution today (Akita, 2009). Japanese men and women played very strict traditional roles in society, with very few variations from the norm of women stay in the private sphere, while men inhabit the public sphere (Henshall, 1999).

One of these variations was the institution of the Geisha house, which in ancient Japanese society meant a semipublic space men could enter and be entertained by educated courtesans (Akita, 2009). The key role of the Geisha was to provide intellectual and emotional companionship to men in the public forum, something wives were not allowed to do as they were kept in the private sphere of the home (Henshall, 1999). Here we see the shaping of the idea in Japanese culture of the ideal female companion, not as a wife, but as a paid servant whose sole purpose is to entertain and stimulate intellectual conversation.

During the mid twentieth century, this type of paid female companionship shifted to prostitution, and then to sex slavery, most visibly with the use of “comfort women” for Japanese troops during World War II. During the war, foreign women of mostly Southeast Asian descent were trafficked to Japanese troops for the purpose of providing companionship in the form of sexual services (Yoshiaki, 1995). Compared with the ideology of the Geisha, where sex was not officially part of the picture historically, the use of comfort women not only introduced sex into the role of female, nonwife, companionship, but also made sex the main focus of the relationship rather than the emotional and intellectual companionship Geisha once provided. Further, the use of comfort women was largely kept from the realm of public knowledge until the late 1900s, when former comfort women started asking for reparations (Yoshiaki, 1995). Though the Japanese public was sympathetic to the cause, the Japanese government response has thus far not made any policy efforts to give former comfort women any kind of social assistance (Yoshiaki, 1995). This is problematic for a country that today must deal with the modern epidemic of sex slavery via the human trafficking of more foreign women into its commercialized sex industry. If women victims of sex slavery from the last century cannot obtain recognition or assistance from the Japanese government, what chance do the victims of today’s slave trade have of receiving the legislative help they need?

Women in today’s Japanese sex industry are an amalgamation of the Geisha and comfort women models. Within the spectrum of sex workers in Japan today, some women entertain with conversation and visual stimulation only, while others perform “soft” sexual services without physically having intercourse with customers, and still others, in this case mostly trafficked women, exist only to provide sex to paying customers (Sinclair, 2006). It must be noted that in this modern sex industry, Japanese women hold the higher paying “hostess” jobs, where intercourse does not take place, while trafficked foreign women are the prostitutes (Otsuki & Hatano, 2009). There is a remnant of the comfort-women culture in this practice of making the “other” the sexual object of exploitation, while Japanese women, though not considered “pure” in their chosen line of soft-sex work, are largely not involved in intercourse-type prostitution (Dean, 2008). This speaks to the idea in historical Japanese sex culture of using foreign women as sex vessels, and is a direct link to the modern form of human trafficking observable in Japan’s sex industry today. The modern difference from historical paid female companionship among all the modern varieties of sex workers, however, is that sex is not only the main point of the transaction, it is also a form of entertainment. In fact, the sex industry in Japan gives itself the name, “entertainment industry,” and it is the largest of its kind in Asia (Dean, 2008).

Japan is notorious worldwide for its extremely visible “entertainment” industry, though the most private of all sex transactions, prostitution, is reserved for domestic Japanese men more than any other nationality (Otsuki & Hatano, 2009). That these prostitutes are mostly trafficking victims speaks to the domestic demand for sexual services such that the phenomenon is now seen as a cultural institution in Japan. This demand for and acceptance of prostitution, along with the sex industry at large, is at the heart of why human trafficking has become such a problematic issue for Japan.

What is it about the culture of sex in Japan that keeps the demand for the sex industry, and therefore human trafficking, so high? A traditional gender ideology underlies the demand issue in a number of different ways. First, family roles between men and women are very different from each other. Men are expected to go out into the public sphere, make money, influence society, and socialize more in general than women, while women are expected to stay home and be wives and mothers who cook, clean, and tend to all household needs without much outside social interaction (Henshall, 1999). Because of this, the second issue is unwillingness among Japan’s young women to adhere to the traditional gender roles by not getting married. This causes the third issue, which is the young men of Japan citing no marital partners available for sex, so they turn to buying sex, causing a demand for the sex industry, and therefore human trafficking (McCurry, 2005).

This demand creates a culture of sex-for-sale, which is now even challenging the role of sex between men and women who do choose to get married (McCurry, 2005). A recent phenomenon in Japan is that the birth rate has sharply declined, indicating that within marriages, sex is not happening (having children outside of marriage is strictly frowned upon, and therefore does not happen much in Japan) (McCurry, 2005). Instead, the sex industry has become so institutionalized among Japanese men that they use it for sexual desires instead of having sex with their wives! The gender roles, then, have not only separated men and women in the public and private spheres, but have separated sex from women in the private sphere, and replaced it with sex for men in the public sphere. In the words of Kim Myong-gan, in an interview with Justin McCurry, “The men love their companies; they live for work… . Men don’t even think it is a problem if they don’t have sex with their wives. They have pornography and the sex industry to take care of their needs, but their wives have nowhere to go. They just suffer in silence” (McCurry, 2005). Here we see a cultural shift of sex out of the private sphere and into the public sphere, creating a culture of sex that revolves around traditional gender roles in a new, shifting context. Cultural gender role expectations, however, are only one part of the ways the sex industry is perpetuated in Japan. The other is the media.

Sex permeates the media landscape on the streets in Tokyo. Men, women, and children walk past neon signs advertising sex club services, from oral-sex and hand-job “snack bars” to peep shows and casual sexual contact at “hostess clubs” and “soaplands” (Sinclair, 2006). Magazines, newspapers, and comic books (Japanese manga) on newsstands offer sexually explicit images and advertisements that border on pornography to all passersby (Sinclair, 2006). Japanese-produced pornography, a large sector of which is made using trafficked women and children, is widely available to not only Japanese men, but men all over the world via the Internet (McNeil, 2003). As for explicit prostitution, one only needs to call the number in a magazine ad or inquire at one of the many sex clubs to gain access to a woman’s body for sale. We can see, then, how this media landscape, this environment full of sexual novelties, shapes the minds of sex consumers: Sex is literally available everywhere, all the time.

Despite all this visibility, however, the sex industry’s existence is itself a paradox: It is at once highly visible and available to Japanese men, and to foreign men who seek it out, but is also a taboo subject in polite Japanese society (Sparrow, 2006). There is very much an ignore-it-and-hope-it-goes-away attitude toward the pervasive sex industry in Japan at the idealistic cultural level, which the government of Japan is supposed to embody (Sparrow, 2006). In Japan, there is a mindset that separates the idealized, clean version of society from the realities of the sex industry (Sinclair, 2006). This dual mindset phenomenon creates a disconnect between the expected traditional norms of Japanese society and the seedy reality of the Japanese underworld, such that the government’s lax regulation of the industry may be a reflection of this cultural dichotomy. This lax regulation in turn perpetuates the cycle of sex consumerism, fueling the human trafficking sex-slave trade in order to meet the demand from Japanese men. In an effort to turn greater and greater profits, traffickers keep making the sex industry more and more visible to consumers with more magazine ads, neon signs, and backdoor brothels, making it all the more easy for Japanese men to take part.

And take part they do. Japan’s “entertainment industry” grosses an annual profit of over $90 billion, close to 2 to 3% of Japan’s GNP (Dean, 2008; Devine, 2007). Though prostitution has been technically illegal in Japan since 1956, the sex industry is clearly booming. Sex clubs of every imaginable variety abound with little regulation, suggesting a cultural ideology about sex as a commodity that extends to the government level. This cultural acceptance of the sex industry at the level of government is evidenced in the way Japan has, and has not, handled policy making for the eradication of human trafficking within its boarders. In order to understand how the cultural acceptance of the sex industry has affected public policy against human trafficking, an analysis of the contemporary political issues is necessary.

It was only in 2004, when Japan was named a tier-two watch-list nation per the Trafficking in Persons Report by the US Department of State, that the Japanese government sprang into action with new legislation intended to help stop human trafficking into its sex industry (US Department of State, 2004). However, the legislation that has been passed is doing little more than simply paying lip service to the international outcry over the problem (Dean, 2008). For example, the most significant new law intended to curb the trafficking problem involved stricter regulation of the foreign “entertainer” visa, the visa that traffickers use to bring foreign women to Japan legally for work (Dean, 2008). Though the entertainer visa is thinly veiled as a visa designed for cultural dancers, waitresses, and bartenders, it is common knowledge that the visa is used for prostitution via human trafficking (Devine, 2007). The changes to the new visa only require the employer to sign a work contract for the foreigner, where before no contract was needed. Even so, once a trafficked woman gets to Japan, her contract means nothing once she is forced into sex slavery by her captors. This circumstance is also made more problematic because the sex industry is controlled by the Japanese Yakuza crime syndicate, an organization whose profits are in the hundreds of millions, made from coercing these women into debt-bondage sex slavery once brought to Japan (Dean, 2008).

As the richest and most developed Asian nation, Japan is a standout destination country for trafficking in women, especially for exploitation in the sex industry (U.S. Department of State, 2009). This exploitation is kept in motion through the highly organized efforts of the Yakuza, who take it upon themselves to find foreign women to bring to Japan and coerce into becoming sex workers (Dean, 2008). Japan’s Yakuza are speculated to have government connections that continue to allow them to operate, even with legal regulation in some cases (Dean, 2008). Culturally, the Yakuza are at once a respected and criticized part of Japanese society, allowing the criminal operations related to trafficking and the sex trade to exist alongside anti-prostitution laws and an otherwise progressive society (Dean, 2008). That the Yakuza are thus far unthreatened by Japanese antitrafficking laws is a major cause for concern when critically analyzing how Japan has handled, and should handle, its human trafficking problem.

Even without regulation of the sex industry or the Yakuza, Japan has made several policy changes to combat human trafficking during the past decade, but they have not proven as effective at combating the problem as the international community stipulates. None of the policies deal with the underlying problems of the demand for the sex industry and the regulation of it, and none are aimed at providing aid to rescued victims of trafficking. The new policies also don’t address the Yakuza’s involvement in trafficking specifically; they only stipulate the number of years a trafficker may spend in prison if found guilty.

Japan must address theses larger issues if it wants to see an end to human trafficking on its shores. The current policies have only had a minimal impact on the numbers of foreign women trafficked to Japan and working in the sex trade, and these women are still deported immediately when caught, while the traffickers are rarely, if ever, prosecuted. This practice of treating the victim as the criminal is not an effective policy for eradicating human trafficking, but targeting traffickers and those who demand sexual services is, and this will have a much greater impact toward solving the problem.

Because women who are victims of trafficking have experienced the severe dehumanizing circumstances associated with slavery, they are in dire need of aid when rescued from criminal traffickers. International and domestic NGOs currently provide assistance to trafficking victims in Japan by offering aid such as counseling and refuge from traffickers, but there is no legal assistance from the government (Otsuki & Hatano, 2009). The NGOs can only provide so much on limited resources, but if the government were to step in with financial and legislative support, much more could be offered to help victims of trafficking reacclimate to society. Instead of deporting trafficked women back to their countries of origin, the Japanese government should be providing rehabilitative and financial services to these women via the various NGOs that already exist in Japan. Further, the Japanese government could expand these programs, make them more visible to victims of trafficking, and provide the trafficked women with the legal services they need to prosecute traffickers.

Another way Japan can reshape its policy is to actively and systematically target the Yakuza for its involvement in the trafficking sex trade. Because it is widely acknowledged that the Yakuza operate right under the nose of government, a more subversive way of controlling their activity may be the only answer to the organized crime problem. An indirect way of doing this would be to heavily regulate the sex industry such that making a profit from selling sex becomes impossible. This would mean raiding and shutting down places of prostitution, censoring magazine and video production companies who produce pornography in mainstream publications, and making it illegal to advertise sexual services in any form of media.

While targeting the industry in this way, the government can work on educating the Japanese public about the problem of human trafficking so that awareness of the problem will curb the demand for sexual services. Again, the government can enlist the NGOs to spread the word about the trafficking problem and the sex industry, and with government financial assistance, the Japanese people would soon become informed. Until the underlying issue of the demand for sexual services is addressed through public awareness campaigns, the traffickers will still have a reason for bringing foreign women to Japan and coercing them into sex work in order to serve the demand of Japanese men.

In sum, the cultural and political analysis of the sex industry in Japan provides a framework for learning how to deal with Japan’s extensive human trafficking problem, and the problem is getting worse. Trafficking in humans is the fastest growing criminal activity in the world. Sales of humans on the black market have just overtaken the sale of illegal weapons, and will soon overtake the illegal drug trade (US Department of Health and Human Services, 2009). The difficulties Japan faces on its path toward eradicating human trafficking stem ultimately from the enculturation of the sex industry into Japanese society. Until the mindset of Japanese men, who largely control government, the Yakuza, and who make up the population of demand for the sex trade, changes toward more egalitarian ideals, the sex industry will continue to thrive in Japan. It is therefore of the utmost importance for policy makers and advocates to push for social reform through policy and education efforts in the hope of changing public opinion about both the sex trade and human trafficking in Japan. Once the public is informed, the demand for sexual services will go down, the government will be more motivated to appease the public interest, and the traffickers will go out of business. This is the only way to free women from the cycle of modern day slavery, and the worst kind of exploitation.

As for the problem as it stands now, the only resource these women have for rehabilitating from victimization is the limited assistance from the various NGOs in Japan. If nothing else can be done at this time, the most important thing is for the Japanese government to help fund these organizations and stop deporting trafficked women out of Japan. This kind of treatment is just another kind of victimization, so the government needs to realize its place in helping provide aid to these women who need it most. After all, if it weren’t for Japan’s problematic sex industry, and the demand from Japanese men, these women wouldn’t be in such a situation to begin with.


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