An Undercover Look: The Daily Realities of Human Trafficking


Human Trafficking

I want to thank our thousands of readers for their continued support and loyalty. In the beginning, Will, Stephen and I never would have imagined the personal depths with which our contributors would pull from to share on the site. What started as a collection of posts meant to stir conversation about sexuality abroad has evolved into something much richer than we ever could have hoped.

One of the initial discussions we had when developing TravelSexLife was that we didn’t want to promote any singular agenda. As the world is vast, so, too, is the spectrum of sexuality and law. We wanted to give our contributors a platform with which to share their perspective, their stories, their triumphs and their shame, all for our readers to laugh about, empathize with, discuss, and, of course, debate.

There’s a subject, however, that always comes to a standstill. Neither side will let up. Neither side will give way.

I’m talking about sex tourism and human trafficking, of course.

In order to give our readers additional factual basis for their thoughts, and hopefully to provoke action, I reached out to a high-profile organization that deals exclusively with human trafficking. The organization, upon looking over TravelSexLife, set me up with S & J, two volunteers, to give an exclusive interview under the condition of anonymity.


M – Thanks for joining me. One of the reasons I wanted to speak to people that knew more about human trafficking is that TSL has become a beacon for people that have wildly differing views on having romance abroad, sex tourism, human trafficking, and so on.

I don’t think most sex tourists would be able to differentiate between which sexual service establishments are legal and not legal. How would you define human trafficking?

J – The way that it’s generally defined, at least by law, is there are three things. One of them is Means, which is coercion and deception. Means has to involve some sort of deception or coercion. There are a few other means as well, such as fraud. And then there’s Purpose. Purpose is usually sex-related trafficking. Free or very low-wage labor work in a factory, or in Japan, a host club. It doesn’t necessarily have to be prostitution. It can just be sex work. And then the third one is the Act, which often involves transporting someone across state or prefectural lines or harboring them somewhere against their will.  This is called the AMP model; Act, Means and Purpose.  Elements of all three need to be present to constitute human trafficking, unless the victim is a minor – in which case, Means is irrelevant.

Prostitution laws vary from state-to-state in the United States, and internationally, country-to-country. Our group doesn’t take a position on whether prostitution should be legalized, but we do take a position that governments have a responsibility to protect women, men, and especially children from falling victim to trafficking, as well as sex work by any means, whether it’s forced, or through subtle means, like deception.

M – Do you mean that the governments are responsible for protecting within the confines of their own law? In Japan, it’s technically not prostitution if it’s not coitus – vaginal penetration. Does your organization work mostly within the confines of Japan, or Asia, or…?

S – Well, the victims are from everywhere, but recently we are getting calls from Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, and so on. From within Japan, we’re trying to take care of victims from all around the world.

M – How does a typical human trafficking scenario start?

J – Most of the cases that I’ve seen, as far as foreigners coming in, they’re usually recommended by a recruiter in their home country, or by a friend who’s already within Japan, to come in, and they either get some sort of “loan” –

M – Loan?

S – Debt Bondage.

J – Like an “introduction fee.” Or sometimes they call it a “room fee.” And you’re told that you’ll likely pay it off within your first three months. But then maybe they don’t get enough customers, or they’re “not doing something right,” so they get more fines. And the next thing they know, they’re looking at several hundred thousand yen in fees hanging over their head.

The Daily Realities of Human Trafficking:

Working in the sex trade doesn’t guarantee financial success. Often, they’re looking at several hundred thousand yen in fees hanging over their head due to various “fees.”

S – There are many stupid rules. For example, “you have to go to this hair salon” – which is usually a very pricey place.

M – And it’s added to the tab.

S – Right. Or if you’re five minutes late, it’s another 10,000 yen fee. There was this Korean victim, and the owner of the establishment she worked at – the Mama San – kept a detailed record of the monthly fees, listing things that the victim had to pay back. “You have to pay this back, this back, and this back.” So even though your salary is, for example, 200,000 yen at first, but after deducting money for hair salon, fancy clothes you had to buy, instruction fee, fine, housing, alcohol, flight ticket to come to Japan, and all kinds of other ridiculous fees, the victim would only get 20,000 yen.

M – What keeps somebody within the industry? Do they ever pay their debt off?

J – There are cases where they do pay it off. But the cases where we’re mostly concerned are when the loan keeps getting higher, and the traffickers tell the victim, “Oh, you owe us this much money,” and then they take their passport away.

The Daily Realities of Human Trafficking:

The traffickers will often tell the victim, “Oh, you owe us this much money,” and then they will take their passport away.

M – They take the passport?

J – That’s a common case.

S – It’s really common to take the passport.

M – What keeps these women, children, and I assume sometimes men, even?

S – Sometimes, yes.

M – What keeps these people from going to the authorities?

J – They’re afraid of deportation.

S – Especially foreigners. They usually don’t even know the national language of the country they’re in. They don’t even know where they are. Even if they know the country, they don’t even know the city they’re in. They don’t know where to start, or where to go. They don’t trust anyone.

M – So they are, by all means, in a sort of cage? They’re being isolated and watched?

J – There are many cases where there’s constant surveillance.

The Daily Realities of Human Trafficking:

There are many cases where there’s constant surveillance. Sometimes the victim is literally locked into their room.

S – One of the victims was severely infected by an STD and was bleeding all the time. She wasn’t allowed to go anywhere. She wasn’t allowed to go to the hospital. She was literally locked into her apartment. At first she called the Korean NGO, and they contacted us asking for help. Our boss actually went to the apartment and rescued her. They had to go to the hospital first because she couldn’t even walk, and then contacted the Korean embassy asking for their help.

M – What happens to the perpetrators of these crimes? Are they caught?

J – Some, but not many.

S – Some, but the broker in this case was sued, and he got one year in jail.

M – That’s it?

S – Yeah, and a fine, which wasn’t that expensive.

M – What happens in a situation when you rescue somebody? You take them to the hospital, and then they’re deported afterwards?

J – That’s what we’re trying to change. One of the big branches of what we do is do to do public outreach to immigration officials to teach them that victims of trafficking are not typical immigration offenders. They’re not simple illegal immigrants. So you can’t just ship them back to their country. Often times the human trafficking group has relations to the people who sent them from their home country. You would have to make sure they can get back safe, and if they have enough money to establish a new life when they get back, and that they’re not just falling prey to whoever sent them there in the first place.

The Daily Realities of Human Trafficking:

Governments shouldn’t just ship the victims back to where they came from. Often times the human trafficking group has relations to the people who sent them from their home country.

M – I assume the people who want to come here, come here because they want a way out, and they’re promised this too-good-to-be-true way out in Japan or Asia. Are there people who are taken against their will randomly? Or does it take a step forward on the victim’s behalf?

J – There are, but I don’t hear about those situations as much. They usually come because they were promised some great job or –

S – Right. I recently joined a lot of internet communities for people who want to come to Japan for the sex industry. There are so many recruiting advertisements which usually say that there’s no sex involved. “All you have to do is drink with the customers. The Japanese guys are really gentle – they’re different from the men in your country. I can pay for your flight ticket, and you can get me back later.” The interest rate for paying them back, of course, is ridiculously high.

M – But even if you pay off your debt, there’s no path to citizenship, is there?

S – No.

The Daily Realities of Human Trafficking:

Even if you pay off your debt, there’s no path to citizenship. Even if you get your passport back, you’re then in the country illegally.

M – You’re not sponsored. Even if you get your passport back, you’re then in the country illegally.

S – Yeah. But often, they have to get married to some random Japanese guy to continue working – legally.

M – Who are the Japanese men who are wedding them?

S – I’m not sure.

J – Or anyone the establishment trusts. These guys are paid lots of money to marry the girl. Especially since 2004 – since Japan got put on the Tier 2 Watch List by the US State Department Trafficking in Persons report –

M – Tier 2?

J – Yeah, there are three tiers, but really four rankings since there’s a Watch List on the second tier. The third tier is the worst. So when Japan was placed on the Tier 2 Watch List, effectively the third of four rankings, it scared the government into taking a bit of action. The government started cracking down on all these “Entertainment Visas” that they were giving out to any Filipino women who wanted it, basically. They cut those way down. But ever since then, the sham marriages have been getting more popular.

M – So sham marriages are now a legal front for their organizations? “Well, she’s married, so what’s the problem?”

S – Right.

M – Is there a way you can force a divorce in that situation? Can you save these people?

J – I think you can rule the marriage illegal.

S – There was one case where a Korean victim actually escaped to Korea, and was able to sue the Mama San, the owner. Actually, the owner of the brothel or sex establishment –

J – Or not necessarily the owner, maybe just the person who “deals” with all the girls –

S – Right.

J – These people, usually women, used to be a part of the sex industry at some point.

The Daily Realities of Human Trafficking:

The owner of the brothel, or the person who “deals” with the girls, usually used to be a part of the sex industry at some point

M – They used to be trafficked victims? Are they Japanese?

S – I think most of them are.

J – Maybe not trafficked, but most of them used to work there when they were younger. They were the favorites, or they did the best in terms of profit. I’m not sure how the system of becoming the Mama San would work.

M – Going back to what you were saying about Tier 2 – who’s watching Japan now? Who’s trying to keep tabs on what’s happening here?

J – As I mentioned, the U.S. puts out a trafficking report that gives most countries a tier ranking every year. Obviously, that comes under criticism, depending on what your view of the U.S. is. There are other organizations too, like the ILO. They did a report specifically focusing on Japan that I recommend. It’s a couple years old now, but it’s still pretty relevant. It focuses on three foreigner communities. I think it’s Filipino, Colombian, and Korean. The report focuses on these different groups and how they get in. If you’re looking for details, that report is very good. Other than that, who’s releasing reports specifically on Japan?

S – The UN does it too, right? They have their own.

M – So Tier 2 of 4 is pretty horrendous, right?

S – Yeah, it’s terrible. It’s the same as Cambodia.

M – So Japan is, in terms of developed countries –

S – Japan and Russia are the only G8 countries in Tier 2.

M – Really?

J – As far as developed countries go –

M – It’s one of the worst?

J – Yeah.

M – So, sometimes, I’m walking down Shibuya, or Shinjuku, and I come across the red light district. Many of the establishments are strict. “No foreigners,” they’ll say. But sometimes, they’ll shout to me, “Foreigners are welcome.”

J – The sketchy ones.

M – Yeah, the sketchy ones. I’m wondering, as a foreigner, is there some way a customer can differentiate between a legal place and an illegal one? Because even the ones where the workers are clearly Japanese, clearly not from another country, is there a chance they were trafficked domestically?

J – Yeah, domestic trafficking happens, too. You don’t need to be trafficked across international borders to be a victim of human trafficking.

The Daily Realities of Human Trafficking:

A person doesn’t need to be trafficked across international borders to be a victim of human trafficking.

M – What’s a case of domestic trafficking look like?

S – Well, in Japan, or anywhere, there are many Japanese minors get involved into prostitution or porn, which is also trafficking.

J – And there has to be some sort of transportation. There is a difference between trafficking and forced prostitution. There’ve been some cases where people prostitute their own daughters out of their houses, which is more forced prostitution than trafficking. There was a case from a few months ago. 

The Daily Realities of Human Trafficking:

There’ve been some cases where people have prostituted their own daughters from their homes.

M – In Japan?

J – Yeah.

M – Prostituting their own daughter?

J – Yeah. She was a minor.

M – Why does a family do that? Do they get good money out of this?

J – Probably pretty good money.

S – Around 23,000 yen for a session.

J – For a minor, you can get even more.

M – Does the family go through an organization, or do it themselves?

J – The case from a couple of weeks ago, they did it through an online forum in a rural area. I think it was in Nagano, right?

M – I used to live there for three years.

J  – I have to check. I’ll send you the details. I don’t have enough confidence to speak about it accurately.

M – I appreciate that. I appreciate that you’re not full of shit.

J – *Laughs*

M – You have no idea how many people I speak to who are full of shit when they talk. It’s so frustrating. Okay. Well, I’ll email you about that later. Thank you. Okay. If a foreigner walks into an establishment, or a soap land, how might they be able to differentiate between a legal one and an illegal one?

S – Is there any way?

J – There’s no way to know for sure, but there are some definite signs.

M – What signs can we look for? In Japan, or elsewhere? I assume there are common denominators between trafficking cases.

S – If the girls look really young, or if she’s obviously a minor. If she looks sick, or if she’s bleeding. Any strange signs. We actually get calls from customers. “I just met a girl, and I think she was a minor.” We actually get these calls, and we can report it to the police.

M – These customers, wouldn’t they be scared to call? In some countries, they must know they’re engaging in an illegal activity. Can they be assured that if they report something, despite having done something illegally, that they can report this anonymously?

J – They can call our, or any, hotline completely anonymously.

The Daily Realities of Human Trafficking:

If you’re a customer of a brothel, don’t be scared to contact authorities / human trafficking hotline if you see something wrong. You can be assured that you can report something, even if you’ve done something illegally, anonymously.

M – Because I would assume that many people wouldn’t go through with calling if they thought they’d get in trouble for it.

J – That’s one of the reasons why we thought it might be good to do an interview with you, because, like you said, some of the very same people that we don’t normally reach through our normal channels, who are frequenting these businesses, they might have an inside-look that we can’t get as an organization. So if they see something like that, they can call our hotline, report it, have a consultation.

M – I’m not going to say we get hundreds, but we do get some people on TSL that want to tell us about their time with a sex worker. They always want to contribute anonymously. From the beginning, Will, Stephen and I wanted to provide a platform for voices from both sides – prostitutes and the people that think it’s okay to pay for them. As well as normal romance on the road, of course. One thing is – we’ve drawn a crowd of people – men, especially – who are predominantly optimistic about prostitution and sex work. Some of them assume that the workers are there by choice.

S – That assumption would be wrong.

M – Aside from your organization, are there other organizations that they – the customers, so to speak – can contact?

S – Do you mean Japan?

M – Anywhere.

J – The phone number that the State Department puts on every form for everyone who comes through immigration is for the NHTRC – the National Human Trafficking Resource Center.

S – The US number.

M – So what’s the process of reporting a situation? Like, I’m in a soap land. I see a girl that’s clearly underage. It looks like she’s been abused, so I contact the NHTRC or your hotline. What happens next?

J – It depends on the case.

S – Yeah. First, we connect with the girl, and see if it’s a situation where we need to call the police.  If she wants to escape, we can connect her to shelter.

J – Or her embassy, if she’s a foreigner.

S – Get her together with a lawyer.

J – Usually the police are involved in some way. In almost all serious cases they are.

M – Do the police take it seriously?

S – Sometimes, sometimes not.

J – When they do, it’s especially if they’re working with us. They know we’re watching. It’s not that they’re bad actors, some police just don’t have the understanding that these people are victims and not just illegal immigrants.

M – That’s one thing I want to convey to readers of my site, then. That these women, regardless of their looking happy, may not have a choice. We had an article about Paying for Sex in the Philippines – and this anonymous guy wrote about why it was a positive thing. This post has started this never-ending debate with our users. What would you tell somebody that says, “Prostitution is good for the economy, or that the sex industry is a good thing?”

The Daily Realities of Human Trafficking:

These women, regardless of their looking happy, may not have a choice.

S – I just saw some research about this. The reason a lot of prostitutes get involved is because of domestic violence, or their parents are getting divorced, or sexual abuse from the father or stepfather. They leave their home and, often, they don’t have any place to sleep or any food to eat. That’s why they get into prostitution.

The Daily Realities of Human Trafficking:

The reason a lot of prostitutes get involved is because of domestic violence, or their parents are getting divorced, or sexual abuse from the father or stepfather. They leave their home and, often, they don’t have any place to sleep or any food to eat. That’s why they get into prostitution.

M – This research includes domestic?

S – Yeah. A pretty broad scale, actually. And then, usually, that’s how most women get in. It’s often socially-vulnerable people who are getting into prostitution. It’s not a black-and-white volunteer thing, even though they stepped forward.

J – Sometimes they’re just coerced by economic circumstances. Especially – that’s one of the biggest problems with the U.S. They’re the demand side of sex tourism. Travelers go to these countries with very poor economies and they may justify it by saying, “I’m helping the economy,” but what they’re really doing is exploiting the economic situation of poor people who have to go into prostitution.

S – It’s just like labor trafficking.

M – These people may be “volunteering,” but it’s not like –

J – It’s not like they have a menu of options to choose from.

M – Right. What about women, men or children who think they have no options? Who are considering this line of work? What do we do about those people? Is there anything preventative? Let’s say I know a friend, and because of the drought she feels she’s in, this line of work is the way to go. A temporary in and out.

J – Prostitution or the sex industry in general?

M – Both. For example, she thinks that she can get in and out within three months and put it behind her. What do we do about those people?

J – We just have to give them a word of caution, I guess.

S – It’s highly possible you will be trafficked. It’s highly possible you will be abused – both physically and mentally.

M – Can you get in and out?

J – It really depends. Most of the worst cases we’ve seen are people who are – well, there’s this situation we’ve heard about a lot, back at the center. There was this Korean woman, a social worker. She came to Japan to study, and all of her friends in the Japanese class were working at a hostess bar. It was fine for a little while, and then that place went out of business. She was sent to another place that charged her an “introduction fee,” and the next thing you know, she was knee-deep in it, and she had to go to the hospital.

M – She was a social worker?

S – Yeah, a domestic violence social worker, I think. In the beginning, she worked as a helper. Just cleaning, washing dishes, but not prostitution. Somehow, when the Mama San was introducing her to other brothels, she was forced to get into prostitution to pay off her debt with them.

M – So if it could happen to someone like that – a social worker who specialized in domestic violence – it really can happen to anyone.

The Daily Realities of Human Trafficking:

If a social worker – who specialized in domestic violence – can become a victim of human trafficking, it really can happen to anyone.

S – I really think so.

M – That’s really shocking, actually.

J – You know, you’ve lived abroad, so you know the feeling of not having a social network there. That feeling of isolation. Especially if there’s an authority who’s good at manipulating people. It can get become very easy to getting intimidated into doing something. It might seem okay, or only a little dangerous, but the next thing you know, there’s really no way out.

M – Ugh.

S – Yeah, it’s really disturbing.

M – So, I wonder – is there one case you could tell me about in particular that maybe is a solid example of how something began, and how it ended?

S – Well, there was a recent case where a fifteen or sixteen year old girl whose friend worked at a host club – he was a man. He said he was really desperate for customers, so he asked her to come and play with all the hosts at his host club. “You don’t have to pay anything. Just come, pretend you’re a customer, I’ll pay for everything.” So she went there maybe two or three times for him. She didn’t really want to – she was a minor – but she went there for him. She hung out with all the hosts. One day, she got a call from the host club. “When are you going to pay for the alcohol? When are you going to pay for the money you spent?” She said, “No, I’m not going to pay for it. He said he was going to pay for it.” Suddenly, she couldn’t even reach him, because he was gone. He vanished. She didn’t know what to do. Her parents always worked until night, and when the host club called, they were very threatening. They would come to her house, even, and threaten her to either pay it off, or come work with their brothel. They told her she had to be their prostitute. Well, she wrote all of this on the internet, and this got back to the NHTRC. Our boss was able to help her, and they went to the police together, who told her she didn’t have to pay for anything. Eventually, she didn’t get into the prostitution line, but this is how prostitution might start. Not necessarily voluntarily.

M – Just the circumstances, and then the coercion.

S – Right.

J – And actually, sometimes they’ll tell the girl, “Just do it one or two times.” Then, once they do it –

M – “Well, you’ve already done it, the worst is over.”

J – Yeah, “The worst is over, so just keep doing it.” And then you can use that as blackmail, because it’s really embarrassing. At that point, one of the things we focus on, as well as some of the organizations we work with, is – people who come into the sex industry, after they’re in it for a few years, they don’t really know what to do next. They wonder, “Do I have to go work at a convenience store now, and make like a tiny percentage of the profit that I made there?” They feel like they have no marketable skills.

M – I assume that some of the thought that happens at that point is that, there must be more value in money. They went through hell for that money, so why should they get less at that point?

J – Exactly.

M – Okay. So somebody who wants to travel abroad and be a sex tourist – even with legal services – is there anything you would tell them? Is there a word of caution for them?

J – Yeah. If you’re going to a legal brothel which, of course, there are many, be aware of what the relationship between the woman and her employees seems like. Whether she seems completely off. You can never tell for sure, but if you’re going to do it, at least pay a lot of attention to that kind of thing.

The Daily Realities of Human Trafficking:

If you’re going to pay for a prostitute, at least pay a lot of attention to things. Be aware of what the relationship between the woman her employee seems like. Check if she’s underage. Abused. Off.

S – Also, make sure to know that there are resources that don’t necessarily involve the police and you won’t get arrested for them, and you can do it anonymously. That’s the advice I would give.

M – I really hope what you’ve told me can provoke some thought or change in some of my readers. What’s good about having TSL’s sudden popularity is it gives us a platform for voices such as yours now. We’re getting both sides. We’re getting people that have been victimized and people who do the victimizing. As well as people who are just interested in romance, dating, and having fun abroad. I don’t want TravelSexLife to turn into a sex tourism site. I want it to be the site on the internet for romance abroad and having perspective-building information about organizations such as yours.

S – We’re happy to help.

M – Awesome. Thank you. Just as a final note before we call it a day, can I ask, how is your organization funded?

S – The Japanese government doesn’t support our hotline, or what we do.

M – Really?

S – Financially, no.

J – We get no money from the government. They pay some organizations, I think, but not ours. Even though we have the only hotline for trafficked victims.

S – Japan doesn’t have any shelter for trafficked victims, so, it’s frustrating.

M – Let’s say somebody wants to volunteer for an organization like yours. Is it selective?

J – It’s really selective, because there’s a lot of people who go, “I want to volunteer,” and then you don’t hear from them again. So we make sure, as do other organizations, that there’s a six-month commitment. Otherwise, it’s much more effort to try and coordinate everything than to actually be out volunteering. But there are other things people can do. One of our supporters, she just, out of the blue, asked if she could do a fundraiser for us. I think it’s happening next month. So that’s one way to do it – taking the initiative yourself.

On behalf of TravelSexLife, and our community, I would like to thank this organization for the opportunity to reach our amazing audience, whose opinions encompass a wide spectrum across a global scale. The information provided is both invaluable and perspective-forming. On a personal note, I would like to thank S & J, who I found very informative, deliberate, and empathetic. I’ve been in an overwhelmingly emotional daze since I spoke to them.

If you would like more information about human trafficking, or put you in contact with this organization, please contact us.


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