CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Women brought from the Philippines to work as entertainers in the bar districts outside military bases in Japan are often victims of "human trafficking."

According to the 2008 Trafficking in Human Persons Report by the U.S. State Department, approximately 800,000 people are trafficked across national borders each year. About 90 percent of them are women and girls, with 50 percent being minors.

Most, according to the report, are females trafficked into commercial sexual exploitation.

"Human traffickers prey on the vulnerable," the report states. "Their targets are often children and young women, and their ploys are creative and ruthless, designed to trick, coerce, and win the confidence of potential victims. Very often these ruses involve promises of a better life through employment, educational opportunities, or marriage."

Japan is listed by the report as a "Tier 2" nation, meaning the country does not offer adequate protection for victims of sexual crimes. The report further states that "the Government of Japan does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking."

According to National Police figures, 43 people were identified as human trafficking victims in Japan last year, with investigations resulting in 41 arrests. But the State Department report said the number was "disproportionately low relative to the suspected magnitude of Japan’s trafficking problem.

"Although some observers speculate there are fewer victims identified because sex trafficking may have decreased in Japan, it is more likely the move of many sex businesses underground has made it more difficult for police to investigate and rescue potential victims," the report stated.

Part of the problem may be Japan’s Prostitution Prevention Law, enacted in 1957, that forbids "intercourse with an unspecified person in exchange for payment." But paid sex between acquaintances is considered another matter.

"Bar fines," for example, are similar to the fees charged to clients of Japan’s "soaplands," or bath houses and massage parlors. A customer pays a service fee to enter and whatever occurs between the customer and the masseuse is entirely between them.

The U.S. military on Okinawa will place a business "off limits" if there is sufficient evidence to show it "promulgates illicit sexual activity," said Marine Corps spokesman Lt. Judd Wilson.

In the past year two such businesses — "Shampoo," located in the Misato district of Okinawa City and "The Stage," located in Naha — have been placed off limits by the Air Force and Marines for allegedly being involved in criminal activity including prostitution and human trafficking.

The Stage, also known as Naha Music, was infamous for years on Okinawa for presenting live sex shows with audience participation. Shampoo was the scene of the rape of a sex worker last year by an Air Force dependent.

Military public affairs officials on Okinawa stress that servicemembers are routinely required to take Web-based classes on human relations which include human trafficking.

Okinawa police say they are doing what they can to combat trafficking, but most clubs have spotters outside who set off warnings whenever police are in the area.

Recruiting women from the Philippines and other countries to come to Japan as entertainers is a common ploy by the traffickers, claims Keiko Otsu, joint representative of a Tokyo-based nonprofit organization, Japan Network Against Trafficking in Persons.

"When a woman is in Japan under an entertainment visa to work as a dancer or singer, it is illegal to make her serve on customers or go out with a customer as a ‘date,’ " Otsu said.

Otsu said the reality is that despite such laws, many women are being forced into compromising situations. She said her network has addressed the issue with the Japanese government, which started a program against human trafficking in 2006, and said that since then the number of entertainment visas issued by the government has been reduced to nearly one-tenth of its previous figure.

"Yet, women continue to be sent to clubs or bars where there is no stage, although under the visa regulations they are supposed to dance or sing on stage," she said. "Although the government placed a strict control on the practice, the demands [for sex] are always there."

She said it is also common for the businesses to take the passports of the women they hire.

"The women are convinced that they cannot stay in Japan and work unless they obey whatever they are told," she said.

And when their visas expire and they must return home, the women receive their pay at the airport — and often in amounts "much smaller than they had expected," Otsu said.

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