Sexual Abuse and Human Trafficking in Japan

Sexual Abuse and Human Trafficking in Japan

UCLA Anthropologist reports that one injured woman in seven who is hospitalized in Japan is the victim of spousal violence, while 100,000 women a year are imported as sex workers from poor Asian countries.

Sexual abuse is widespread in Japan and widely tolerated, Dr, Sharman Babior, lecturer in the UCLA Anthropology Department, told a UCLA audience October 23. Problems more commonly associated with Western societies have flourished quietly in Japan for a long time, Babior said. She offered some shocking figures from Japanese government studies and her own research that showed that some 14% of Japanese women admitted to hospitals for injuries are the victims of domestic violence, that even among young people half see nothing wrong with this kind of behavior by husbands, and that international trafficking in women for the sex trade is rampant. Dr. Babior's talk was sponsored by the UCLA Women's Studies Department.

Dr. Babior discussed the exploitation of women in Japan by using two separate but related issues: domestic violence, and woman trafficking. "It's only been in the last decade or so where perceptions of Japan have actually been changing. From a culture that has been seen as harmonious, as being crime-free, as being homogeneous, [perceptions are] now shifting -- not only for those outside Japan, but also for people inside Japan. Their culture is actually much more heterogeneous than once thought. They, as a society, encounter the same gamut of human problems that would be found in any human society around the world."

Dr. Babior's research connected her with a shelter for women called HELP, which stands for House in Emergency of Love and Peace. There, Dr. Babior encountered women with harrowing stories of abuse, violence, and neglect. Many women at this shelter had been trafficked to Japan to work in the sex industry, and many others were the victims of domestic violence.
"Fifty-eight percent of these women at the shelter say they've been trafficked and were escaping their situations, followed by partner violence at thirty-one percent." Both of these issues, Babior asserted, have gone unexamined in Japanese society until very recently.

Domestic Violence across Cultures

When Dr. Babior began her research in the early 1980s, she wondered if behavioral characteristics that have been cited in Western literature about domestic violence also applied to the Japanese society.

In Western cultures, Babior said, many women blame themselves for the abuse, experience low self-esteem, feelings of isolation, and alienation. Abused women in the West, she continued, often have a belief in traditional sex roles, and their batterers experience heightened feelings of jealousy. Dr. Babior found that a great deal of similarity exists between the experiences of battered women in Japan and battered women in the West.

"The latest police reports from Japan cite that one third of women who are killed each year are killed by their husbands. This is a number that is surprisingly similar to the number you will find in the United States. So, as we look at the issue cross-culturally, I think what we can say is that there are more similarities than differences that unite women that are found in these sorts of situations."

While similar psychological dynamics are at work between the abused and the abuser, the context of this abuse is very different given the idiosyncrasies of Japanese society. "The setting for all of this of course, and it's a big category, is that Japan has a patriarchal system where there is a very well defined polarization between male and female roles."
She illustrated this point by telling the UCLA audience about a forty-year-old woman from the shelter who had been repeatedly abused by her husband, a retired Tokyo taxi driver. Her 200-pound husband would often wake her up in the middle of the night and slap her for no apparent reason.

"He hit her in the head with his fists and then took her head and hit it against the edge of the table repeatedly. She showed me recent bruises on her head and scalp. She also had bruises on her neck, shoulders, arms, and wrists. Her past injuries include a forehead laceration, a broken middle finger, her teeth were knocked out, and she's gone to the hospital several times for her injuries. And she goes on to talk about how she believes that her role should be to take care of the children and be in the house, and that her husband's role should be to go outside and earn money."

Babior said that this woman called the police on numerous occasions, yet they would consistently dismiss the matter and encourage the pair to reconcile. The police steered clear of the violence because it was at the hands of her husband instead of a stranger. "There's a sense of violence being part and parcel of the prerogative of the husband to beat his wife if he cares to."

The government of Japan is beginning to respond to this problem. In 2001, the Law of Prevention of Spouse Violence and Protection of Victims was passed.

Law of Prevention Spouse Violence and Protection of Victims

"There was a three-year government study that lead up to the passage of this law, between 1997 and 2000. And in that government study, five percent of wives that were included in that survey said they had experienced critical violence at the hand of their husbands. And those are just ones that admit it."

This government study found that one in seven women who had sought medical attention for injuries listed spousal violence for the reason they went to the hospital. Another finding in this particular study was that domestic violence was quite uniform throughout the socioeconomic classes, Babior reported.

"You don't find any differences in terms of the types or levels of abuse that are experienced by poor women, middle class women, or wealthy women. And the same goes for education. The highly educated, the poorly educated experience similar types and levels of abuse. And that concurs with Western literature as well."

Dr. Babior also mentioned that there is a movement to amend this law in order to expand the definition of abuse to include psychological battering.

Cultural Dimension of Domestic Violence

Dr. Babior explained that cultural factors have contributed to the hidden dimension of domestic violence in Japan, adding that the perceptions of violence in Japan are very different than they are in the West.

"What appears to be normative for a Westerner is non-normative to the Japanese perception. What I mean is that up until 2001 when it was legally declared illegal to abuse one's partner, up until this point it has been as very normal behavior."
Babior added that attitudes are changing among the young. She cited a survey that was conducted to see how the youth of Japan viewed partner abuse. Fifty percent of those surveyed said it is not acceptable to abuse one's partner. Of course, that means that 50 percent found such behavior is acceptable. While evenly divided, Babior said, "If you went back to their parents' or grandparents' generation, it was actually seen as okay to use violence against one's partner."

Another dimension that has added to the lack of awareness and hidden nature of violence is the Japanese concept of female endurance, she explained.

"To endure on anybody's part is seen as an admirable quality and personality trait. So if you can endure a bad situation, this actually is something seen as being a positive, and something that is respected. This goes so far. When I talked to the government shelters they told me they always counseled women seeking shelter to try to shape up and go back to the relationship and bear it because it was far less damaging for society for them to keep their marriage together than to divorce. There was a sense that it's important to maintain families rather than have people that are divorced or separated because this can somehow shake-up the social fabric. Part of their counseling was to try to encourage the women to go back and try to make the relationship work."

Babior explained that there is also a lack of reporting and discussing violence outside of the family because of the cultural concept of shame.

"If an individual would come forward and admit that there was a problem, it doesn't limit itself to that individual but it extends to all family members and brings shame upon all family. So it's seen as being much more desirable just to kind of grit your teeth and bear your problems rather than bring shame upon yourself and your family, which is not erasable. You do not get rid of the shame. It can persist beyond your generation. It can spill to your children's generation."

Human Trafficking, and Sexual Bondage

The other subject that Dr. Babior has studied relating to the exploitation of women in Japan is the human trafficking that feeds Japan's sex industry. Many of the women in Japanese shelters are fleeing sexual servitude, fearing for their lives.
"Japan is a society where there are sexual inequalities which are accepted as a given, and where sexual exploitation of women is not necessarily seen as being all-bad."

The bulk of the women trafficked into Japan to work in the sex industry, she said, are from poorer Asian countries such as Thailand, the Philippines, Taiwan, and most recently, China. The trafficked women generally do not have to enter the country illegally. Many are brought into the country on entertainment visas, although their ultimate jobs stretch that term beyond any ordinary legal usage.

"It's estimated that there are about 100,000 foreign women trafficked to Japan every year. And there are probably close to 200,000 that are in Japan illegally at any one time. That's a big number for a small country like Japan. Ninety percent of these women come from other Asian countries. There's an increasing number coming from Latin America, Colombia in particular. It goes along with the drug trafficking I guess. Although trafficking of humans is a larger economic market than drugs. It has surpassed drug trafficking."

Organized crime plays a large part in the trafficking of women into Japan, Babior explained.

"Typically there are brokers and promoters who recruit women in their home country. Once they're recruited, the broker receives between $2,500 and $8,000 per woman that he recruits. Then the woman is 'sold' again when she gets to Japan. She is bought by a promoter, and put into a nightclub or business that specializes in sex and entertainment. Her price is then doubled for what it costs to get her in Japan. This is where she gets into debt bondage. She incurs all these expenses unknowing to herself."

Filipinas are the most organized of the groups of trafficked women, according to Babior. Filipinas have established large informal networks with each other and through the Catholic Church in order to handle some of their problems. Therefore, the numbers of Filipina women entering government shelters is lower than would be expected in relation to their large population.

Abuse of Trafficked Women

Babior described some of the cases she came across in her fieldwork. She explained that many of the women who had been trafficked as sex industry workers had been beaten for refusing sex with a customer. Some of the women had been locked up and kept under constant surveillance, and others were forced to take tranquilizers and birth control pills.
"There have been cases in Okinawa where women are serving the U.S. military, being trafficked to Okinawa for that purpose. There were women who were locked up in the second floor of their nightclub and a fire broke out and two of them died as a result of not being able to get out."

Because many of these women are in Japan illegally, many of are terrified of the prospect of being found out by the authorities. This adds to their sense of helplessness, compounded by their treatment by those running the sex trade.
"Usually these women are seized at the airport, taken in the back of trucks that have no windows. They don't know where they are. They don't speak the language. They're living under a state of terror and fear. Even if they have a chance to escape many of them will not escape because they suspect that no one would help them and they have no way of asking."
While many of these trafficked women have been treated horrendously, Babior discovered that often these abused women wished to remain in Japan.

"One thing that I found really amazing speaking to women who had been trafficked was that many of them did not want to go back to their home countries. Many of them feel a strong obligation to earn money and to send it to their families. Many of them pleaded to the [shelter] staff to find them another job in Japan. If they were in Japan on a contract it was possible to get a visa extension for them and keep them in Japan. The ones whose visas had lapsed were put into detention, kept there until their documents could be put in order, and then deported."

Babior told us that there are three main reactions among the Japanese to the large influx of foreign workers, which includes domestics and other low-paid employees as well as sex workers:

1. All foreigners should be banned. Bringing people in dilutes homogeneity, contributes to crime, and contributes to a heterogeneous society, which is a threat.

2.. Maybe there should be a limit put on the number of foreigners coming into Japan and such immigration put under strict controls.

3. Japan should recognize that it is its responsibility to improve circumstances in other Asian nations. It should make economic contributions so that there won't be such economic disparities.

Cause for Hope

Babior considered Japan's signing of the United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking of Persons an important move toward reform. This protocol focuses mainly on women and children, and supplements a convention against transnational organized crime. Japan has not yet ratified this protocol, and there is opposition from some feminist groups that believe that the law does not go far enough in protecting women who are already in Japan.

This UN protocol and the 2001 anti-domestic violence law, according to Dr. Babior, are positive signs that Japan is taking steps to curtail a long history of sexual abuse.

Published: Monday, November 17, 2003