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Japan’s sex industry

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Every country has a sex industry.  Japan’s is unique by its size, cultural acceptance and links with the Japanese mafia.  It is also unique by the scale of human trafficking for sexual exploitation which the government has never been sufficiently serious about tackling.  

Japan has an enormous “entertainment industry” that includes the largest sex market for women in Asia (as by reported by Dean).  It could even account for 2 to 3 per cent of GDP, and be double the size of Japan’s agricultural sector.  Like any industry, there are a vast array of services offered, like hostess bars, striptease, lap-dancing and prostitution.

In most advanced countries, the sex industry is a marginal, shady activity.  In Japan, the sex industry is a very mainstream part of business culture and ultimately substantially financed by business expense accounts.  The average salary-man also affords himself entertainment pleasures thanks to pocket money allocated by his wife.  The socio-cultural acceptance of the sex industry, and the view that trafficked women from South East Asia are mere commodities, makes it difficult for the authorities to take a firm stand.  Much of the public do not believe that Japan's sex industry constitutes a social problem.

Japan’s sex industry is run by the yakuza, the Japanese mafia.  Like many things in Japan, the yakuza have a very ambiguous status.  Although they engage in many illegal activities, they also run some legal business activities and are registered business organizations.  While they should be chased by the police, they often work in collaboration with the police to maintain social order.  Overall, they have an astonishing degree of community acceptance, and thus are a vested interest group which blocks action against illegal sex industry activities. 

Sex workers in many OECD countries often participate of their own free will, either because of poverty or a deliberate career choice.  What makes Japan unique is the enormous human trafficking that occurs.  Japan is one of the world’s top destinations for sex trafficking of foreign women.  They work as forced labor or under debt bondage.  The number of victims could be of the order of hundreds of thousands, with a majority coming from Thailand and the Philippines.  This is facilitated by the liberal visa regime for ‘entertainers’.  These trafficked women may enter Japan legally on the false promise of a job or marriage.  On arrival, their passport might be confiscated, and they might learn that they have a a massive financial debt.  They are then coerced or forced into the sex industry in a state of debt bondage after they discover that there are no other job opportunities.  

Japan has been pinpointed for years by the international community for its shortcomings in implementing the many international agreements of relevance to human trafficking.  The Japanese have traditionally believed that they can get away with anything within their own borders.

Some progress is being made in tackling international human trafficking, although trafficked person are usually treated as criminals rather than victims.  This progress may be facilitated by cuts in corporate expense accounts and the increased outsourcing of business to developing Asian countries which have their own large sex industries. 

At the same time, most regrettably (according to the NGO Polaris Project Japan), there has been a growth of human trafficking of Japanese teenage girls who have been lured or forced into the sex industry and can’t get out.  Sometimes they have even been asked by their own parents to work in the industry to make money for their family members. 

Contrary to the popular picture of Japanese teenage prostitutes as clueless teenagers who just want to earn money to buy a designer bag, many of the girls now in the industry are there because of financial necessity and a lack of support for abused girls and boys who run away from home.  Many of these victims are recruited over the internet and or/are sold over social networking sites by their pimps–like commodities. 

The National Police Agency reported in 2008 that Internet Profile sites and Social networking sites are the hotbeds of child sex crimes, surpassing the net dating sites (which were originally the hub of sex trafficking).  It is hard to measure the extent of the problem because no Japanese government agency has attempted a comprehensive survey, and the laws protecting children are administrated by many different government agencies and ministries that do not share information or work together.

What's the conclusion?  Although Japan has an advanced economy, its social relations between men and women have been very much backward, reflecting the traditional nature of its society.  Most men still think of women as being either mother-figures or sex-commodities, rather than human beings with equal rights. 

Who is responsible for this state of affairs?  Ironically, it is probably boys' own mothers and sisters who have had the greatest influence on their personalities, as their fathers are locked away in offices and factories.

Japanese culture is gradually changing, as one can see in the present youth generation.  But even this is strangely curious, as strong-willed girls are dominating effeminate boys.  



OECD in Figures 2009


Dean, Meryll, Sold in Japan: Human Trafficking for Sexual Exploitation.  Japanese Studies, Vol. 28, No.2, September 2008.


Human Trafficking for Sexual Exploitation in Japan


Polaris Japan