Human Trafficking in Japan
The U.S. Congress released a Trafficking In Persons Report (2020) concluding Japan’s federal response to human trafficking as insufficient. Though the report recognizes Japan’s reformed policies, tightened visa checks and installation of victim shelters, its government has a history of not taking measures to fully criminalize and eradicate human trafficking in Japan.

History of Human Trafficking in Japan

In the early 1980s, human trafficking in Japan was common. Without Japan’s government regulation or extensive protocol, traffickers targeted many social groups including women, international students, foreign laborers and entertainers.

The majority of human trafficking came from the entertainment industry, due to Japan’s lenient authorization of all foreigners applying for the “Entertainer” visa. Women from Thailand and the Philippines migrated to Japan in the 1990s through this specific label, though only 20% were actual singers and dancers.

With a large demand for sexual services, targeted women in the entertainment industry were mostly from red-light districts. Though these cases for human trafficking were prominent, Japan did not take federal action and instead, dismissed them as “foreign cases.”

In other cases, external human trafficking groups traded women into Japan from foreign countries. Given fraudulent passports and tied to the organizations by debt bondage, victims paid off their contracts through sexual labor in Japan.

Activism to Reduce Human Trafficking in Japan

Despite the ongoing rise of human trafficking in Japan, many Japanese activist groups began to form and take action, specifically large organizations such as the Japanese Network Against Trafficking in Persons (JNATIP), established in 2003, or Kyofukai, the Japan Christian Women’s Organization, established in 1886. These advocacy groups provided victims shelter and protection, responding and reacting to women and children who were victims of human trafficking. As non-government organizations took on what the state neglected, tension began to spread throughout the state and human trafficking in Japan began to catch national attention.

The Japanese government’s lack of regulation and foreigner neglect continued these trends from the 1980s to 2000s. In contrast to Japan’s circumstances, other countries began to adopt the UN’s Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) in response to the globally rising cases. Starting in 2000, the U.S. Congress strongly encouraged and monitored this collective stance, releasing annual reports on the results and efficiency of anti-trafficking measures in each country.

In 2002, Japan agreed to implement the Protocol Against Human Trafficking, which revised immigration protocols and adopted measures to combat human trafficking in Japan. It also signed the Action Plan in 2004, which strengthened immigration processing, provided victims government protection and declared trafficking a federal crime against human rights. Despite its efforts, the U.S. marked Japan as Tier 2, a subcategory that states this country does not fully adhere to the TVPA’s standards.

A Setback in Reducing Human Trafficking

Today, Japan still remains at Tier 2 in 2020, though the U.S. briefly advanced Japan to Tier 1 in 2018-19. Although human trafficking measures and policies are still in place, several factors contribute to Japan’s setback.

For starters, Japan has introduced a steady flow of migrant workers that have led to labor exploitation and debt bondage. The country has steadily dismissed these as “foreign cases,” coincidentally turning to direct its human trafficking policies on domestic cases. This shift in the government’s focus has allowed the state to avert attention from the exploitation of foreign labor.

Japan has also allowed an alarming amount of international students through foreign study-abroad agencies under the “Kaigo” visa. Students under contract are able to work off tuition through legal work, though in some cases, must work against their will. The 2020 Trafficking Report that the U.S. released states that Japan’s foreign student population is more and more at risk for human trafficking due to dishonest work-study contracts in unskilled unmonitored labor sections. The cases of both international students and migrant workers have steadily increased, especially with Japan’s lenient immigration policy change in 2018.

Moving Forward

All things considered, Japan has disregarded the global effort to eradicate human trafficking cases. Despite the state’s continued indifference, non-governmental organizations continue to respond to victims, advocate for further policy changes and attempt to discontinue trends of exploitation in Japan. Though the cases of trafficking have gone down over the last two decades, the insufficient federal response to human trafficking still affects many social groups.

Today, non-governmental organizations continue to protect victims and advocate for better policies to combat human trafficking in Japan. The U.S. 2020 Trafficking In Persons report and labor exploitation stigma have uncovered Japan’s underwhelming policies and scrutinized the country for its lack of completion and insufficient response. The JNATIP remains a major resource group for human trafficking victims, promoting the enactment of laws for trafficking victims. The political fight against human trafficking in Japan continues.

– Linda Chong
Photo: Flickr