Human trafficking is a terrible afflication in the modern-world, as it has been for a very long time. In this article, Andrew Wonwoo Lim coniders the case of human trafficking in Japan. In particular he looks at the role of the Japanese yakuza organization, the history of the yakuza, and what can be done to solve the human trafficking problem in Japan.

In the Muromachi period (室町時代/ 1336-1573),kyougi (侠客) appeared. They were the people who were involved in crime such as gambling, blackmailing or manslaughter. They were short fused and had a sharp tongue but they were often described as Robin Hood-like characters in Kabuki. It is not clear if it was a absolute fantasy of the Kabuki script writers or a truth up to a certain point.    Umeno Yoshibei (梅の由兵衛) is one of the famous kyogi from the Edo period (江戸時代/ 1600-1868).   Source: Juju Kurihara, "History of Yakuza," Iromegane, last modified June 12, 2015, accessed December 9, 2018,  http://www.iromegane.com/japan/culture/history-of-yakuza/ .

In the Muromachi period (室町時代/ 1336-1573),kyougi (侠客) appeared. They were the people who were involved in crime such as gambling, blackmailing or manslaughter. They were short fused and had a sharp tongue but they were often described as Robin Hood-like characters in Kabuki. It is not clear if it was a absolute fantasy of the Kabuki script writers or a truth up to a certain point.

Umeno Yoshibei (梅の由兵衛) is one of the famous kyogi from the Edo period (江戸時代/ 1600-1868).

Source: Juju Kurihara, "History of Yakuza," Iromegane, last modified June 12, 2015, accessed December 9, 2018, http://www.iromegane.com/japan/culture/history-of-yakuza/.

Human Trafficking

Human trafficking is a global problem that continues to be difficult to control. One of the biggest problems is that the economic benefits of human trafficking, especially in the form of sexual exploitation, outweigh the “moral and legal commitment to equality of the sexes and to the protection of women’s rights.”[1]The statistics on how many people are trafficked annually vary drastically, showing how even collecting the data is challenging. Sex slavery is indisputably one of the most lucrative and exploitative industries, with numbers on trafficked humans ranging from 200,000 to 2,000,000 and the profits calculated up to 10.5 billion dollars annually.[2]Although it is most often women including younger girls who get trafficked into the sex trade, there is still a “significant number of males—both adult and children—enslaved for homosexual prostitution.”[3]The sex slave industry operates globally, especially through powerful criminal organizations such as “The Italian Camorra, Chinese Triads, Russian Mafia, and Japanese Yakuza.”[4]

As human trafficking is a global issue, in order to protect people from innocently getting deceived into the trade, it is of utmost importance to understand the different cultures behind human trafficking. The situation must be brought to light, but it cannot happen without learning how human trafficking differs profusely depending on where you are. Even the simplest things, such as the definition of the term, can be interpreted differently amongst varying cultures—for example, from the U.S. to countries in Asia. 

The human trafficking network in Asia can be broadly identified through some common flows: “(1) from the Philippines to Japan, (2) from Thailand to Japan, (3) from Burma (or Myanmar) to Thailand, (4) from Vietnam to Cambodia, and (5) from Nepal to India.”[5]Japan, amongst the countries in Asia, is a popular destination for trafficking. However, this is not surprising, given the history of the yakuza organization that dominates trade involving illegal activities such as the trafficking of humans. 

 

History of the Yakuza

In order to properly analyze how to address the problem of human trafficking in Japan, the influence of the yakuza organization must be thoroughly investigated. The yakuza, or the gokudō, are “members of transnational organized crime syndicates originating in Japan.”[6]The yakuza are highly involved in all aspects of life in Japan, especially in the economy and politics. Amongst the yakuza, there are around “3,000 separate, tightly-knit gangs, with over 80,000 members”[7]and despite the Anti-gang law (改正暴力団対策法) passed in 1992, the yakuza still continue to thrive in the society.[8]Interestingly, the yakuza are also perceived as a “Robin Hood” that is heroic publicly, and the “feeling persists among the Japanese that organized crime in Japan bears a noble past;”[9]this image dates back almost four centuries. Ever since the yakuza have been around, gangster groups like the yakuza were used by the government to aid suppressing labor unrest. Eventually, figures like Mitsuru Toyama affected the culture of organized crime in Japan, as he was one among many who brought politics and organized crime together.[10]The yakuza got involved in politics by assisting in political campaigns for conservative politicians—both violently and helping finance operations, which were also usually done through criminal activities including prostitution, blackmail, and gambling. Gradually, by the time World War II broke out, members of the yakuza had positions in national office.

Many yakuza members participated in the Second World War, and during the war, the Japanese, along with the Germans, had “pleasure women” for the soldiers where women were forced into brothels.[11]Once again, this further developed the relationship between the yakuza and the Japanese government. The war did not go in Japan’s favor, resulting in both Japan and the yakuza gangs being left in ruins. However, the American Occupational Forces, mistakingly, ended up contributing to the yakuza’s rebirth as they helped the gang members in order to repress the threat from the growth of communism. Yoshio Kodama, a Class A war criminal that the Occupational Forces released, ended up being a big influencer in the yakuza, as he became the “link to the highest levels of Japanese government.”[12]Kodama accumulated a great deal of wealth in these years and founded the “Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which controlled the Japanese Government until the early 1990s.”[13]

In 1963, where the organization’s growth was at its peak, the yakuza grew to 184,109 members in 5,216 separate gangs. Of these different groups, the most notable one is the Yamaguchi-gumi, estimated to control “7,000 shops, 5,000 restaurants, 4,500 money-laundering operations, 2,300 bath houses, 2,500 bars, 600 property companies and 400 transport firms."[14]

Although some of the group’s traditional activities are dwindling, their influence continues to grow, especially as they expand internationally. By participating in “more sophisticated types of crime,” their annual income, taking into account for their “25,000 legitimate ‘front’ organizations, runs to as high as 70 billion dollars.”[15]As the group is involved in more sophisticated financial crimes such as human trafficking or the drugs trade, the power of the yakuza does not look likely to cease anytime soon, especially as the organization, unlike most crime groups, is, “to a certain degree, readily accepted by Japanese society and heavily connected to the highest levels of government—factors which will make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to eliminate them from the national and international scene.”[16]

 

Organized Crime 

The yakuza organization is not only expanding overseas—“South America (Brazil in particular), The Philippines, Thailand, Europe, Russia, China, Australia, South Africa, Taiwan, Korea, and the US”—but alliances overseas, such as the Hong Kong and Taiwan Chinese Triads, the Russian mafia, and the American mafia. Once again, the problem is not one country’s but a global issue. 

The yakuza have been clearly involved in organized crime since the 17th century; nowadays they have expanded their operations: 

“(1) controlling the construction business and the entertainment industry; (2) counterfeiting Japanese currency and stamps, United States dollars, watches, and even brand-name food products; (3) the sex slave trade; (4) smuggling immigrant workers, drugs, guns, whale meat, and other items; (5) insurance fraud; (6) corporate extortion; (7) strong-armed settlement of civil disputes between creditors and defaulting debtors and between parties involved in auto accidents; and (8) intimidation of landowners.”[17]

 

Bringing the focus back to human trafficking in Japan, the yakuza “are smuggling people from Thailand, the Philippines, Brazil, and China to work in Japan.”[18]This is done in many different ways ranging from forging passports from Indonesia or Taiwan or transporting people on boats, to traditional airport smuggles. When people are brought over from outside countries into Japan, they are often exploited for economic benefits. Either the “illegal works are placed in jobs”[19]or they become part of the sex industry. The work they may be part of could be serving in a hotel or restaurant to being a part of the construction industry. Whatever their work is, the “illegal immigrants also live and work in miserable conditions, because they are always under the threat of being reported to the authorities if they do not obey their employers.”[20]Similarly, the conditions in the sex industry is not so great, as expected. The business is not only in Japan, but widespread across Southeast Asia. That being said, the “yakuza syndicates dominate the sex industry in Japan and are heavily involved in prostitution, turkish baths, massage parlors, pornography, sex tours, and the sex slave trade.”[21]The reason why the sex trade is so big in Southeast Asia is because of the destitute prior living conditions that the the victims of trafficking are coming from. For a number of people, getting involved in the sex industry and giving themselves or their daughters up for prostitution is the “only way they can make a ‘better’ life for themselves.”[22]In the early 1970s, there were arranged sex tours for Japanese men to nearby countries such as South Korea, Thailand, and The Philippines. The women in the prostitution houses were most often impoverished migrants, usually from the countryside. Even worse than the sex tours were the illegal sex slave trade, which the yakuza has been a part of since the early 1980s, “where women knowingly volunteer, or are tricked into coming to Japan and working as prostitutes."[23]Either families would sell a member of their family into the trade or an individual would be kidnapped or tricked into the industry. 

The worst part about the sex slave trade is that it is impossible to escape from. Once an individual is duped into coming to the Japan with the promise of a workspace, the victims of trafficking are in constant debt to the yakuzas. Once they arrive in Japan, their forged passports are taken away, so they are forced to work as prostitutes. Starting from trying to pay off the initial flight cost, passport, and visa, the debt is endless as the individuals must borrow money from the organization and the ruthless cycle continues. What started out as debt around $2000, grows to somewhere between $15,000 to $20,000, not accounting for interest; this amount is not attainable by the poor workers. Hence, the yakuza ends up with leverage over the trafficked humans. 

Today, there are “approximately 140,000 Thai and Filipino women working in Japan as prostitutes due to the sex slave trade,”[24]and probably thousands more considering not all people can be accounted for. 

Unfortunately, the Japanese police do not have much control over the situation in Japan. They “can’t plea bargain, wire-tapping is so restrictive that it is almost useless and rarely applied, and now they are not supposed to have direct contact with members of the yakuza, making intelligence collection nearly impossible.”[25]Because there is no witness protection program, there is nearly no incentive to ever turn a higher member in the hierarchy of the yakuza over to the police. In fact, the benefits and costs are so outweighed. If a member keeps quiet, “he gets a cash reward when released from jail, his family is looked after, and he will probably get a promotion.”[26]However, if he cooperates with the investigation, there is no benefit, but only harm as he “doesn’t get a lighter sentence, his organization will know he talked, he loses financially, and when he gets out of jail, he may even lose his life or a finger.” Hence, it is understandable why no member of the organization will give someone up, and matters are not made easier when accounting for the close ties the yakuza has with the government. When a “criminal conspiracy act, which would allow the police to arrest senior yakuza for the crimes of their subordinates more easily” was brought up, it was “opposed by the ruling coalition for years,” as a leader of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) from 2005 to 2006, Maehara Seiji, was “bankrolled and supported by Shinohara Jun, an advisor to the Yamaguchi-gumi.”[27]In a more hopeful light, because the yakuza are also human, “they are horrified by the acts of their fellow yakuza” on occasion, hoping that they will be stopped. Ironically, some of the yakuza who “still live by their traditional code cannot stand some of the crimes the modern yakuza are involved with”[28], such as child pornography or human trafficking. 

 

The Future

Considering the history and the wide influence of the yakuza in Japan, addressing the issue of human trafficking must take the position the yakuza stands in in Japan into account. After learning about the culture of Japan and how the public perceives the yakuza, solutions to help resolve the global phenomenon can more effectively be distinguished. Although no solution is easily attainable, especially as it requires a change in culture and the mindset of the general public, a step-by-step resolution can be identified. The reason knowledge about the history of the yakuza and Japan is important is to effectively implement the solution. The solution to assisting the phenomenon of human trafficking is theoretically not too complicated. Because currently, the benefits of trafficking humans are much higher than any cost, the industry is flourishing. Yes, there are many steps that need to be taken before getting to this conclusion:

1.    There needs to be witness protection, so the morals of the yakuza can help shed some light on specific issues. 

2.    The police and government need to be given more power to be able to suppress the activities of the yakuza. 

3.    The Japanese police should also cooperate with foreign law enforcement officials and ditch the “dual criminality” standard, where the police will “disseminate information only if the alleged criminal activity is also a crime in Japan.”[29]

4.    The strong ties between the organization and the government need to be broken off.

a.    When the public is informed upon a notable figure’s relationship with the yakuza, it is frowned upon and results in a retirement, but there is no real consequence. This needs to change, in order to dissuade public figures from working with the yakuza.

5.    There needs to be a change in the public’s idealistic perception of the yakuza as some “Robin Hood” figure.

6.    Finally, to also assist in getting to the roots of the problem, help the countries that the yakuza frequently exploit for finding impoverished women and help their situation and educate them. 

 

Even taking these measures, the yakuza will be difficult to shut down. One flip-side to trying to make the costs greater than the benefits through these steps, and ultimately prevent the yakuza from exploiting innocent humans, is that by creating harsher punishments, the yakuza may become less visible and go underground. This may cause more difficulty tracking them down, but it will be a start to alleviate the situation now.

Finally, looking at the Victims Protection Act passed in 2000 in the United States, both Japan and anyone addressing the change to aid Japan can learn from what the United States did well and what it could improve on. The Victims Protection Act did “increase the penalty for sex trafficking”, which could result in providing a “disincentive to commit the crime of trafficking.”[30]In the United States, the Act serves as an effort to “criminalize the conduct of traffickers, to penalize sex trafficking as if this were a crime as serious as rape, and to provide the immigrant victims with enhanced benefits like permanent residency status in the United States.”[31]The penalties for trafficking cases in comparison to other activities such as drug dealing, for example ten grams of LSD, contrast dramatically in the United States. Hence, the gravity of human trafficking needs to still be brought to realization for the community. Notwithstanding, the Victims Protection Act proposes the economic solution to human trafficking as it adds weight to the costs of participating in the trade, which can be applied to assist Japan in combating the influence of the yakuza and its involvement in human trafficking.

 

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[1]Susan W. Tiefenbrun, "Sex Sells but Drugs Don't Talk: Trafficking of Women Sex Workers," 23 T. Jefferson L. Rev. 199, 2000-2001, 201, accessed December 8, 2018, https://www.tjsl.edu/sites/default/files/susan_tiefenbrun_sex_sells_but_drugs_dont_talk_trafficking_of_women_sex_workers_and_an_economic_solution_24_t._jefferson_l._rev._161_2002.pdf

[2]Alice Leuchtag, "Human Right, Sex Trafficking, and Prostitution," EBSCO Publishing, January/February 2003, 10, accessed December 8, 2018, http://fhssocial.weebly.com/uploads/5/0/2/3/50234367/human_rights_sex_trafficking_prostitution.pdf

[3]Leuchtag, "Human Right," 10.

[4]Leuchtag, "Human Right," 12.

[5]James O. Finckenauer and Ko-lin Chin, "Asian Transnational Organized Crime and Its Impact on the United States: Developing a Transnational Crime Research Agenda," Trends in Organized Crime10, no. 2 (December 2006): 27, accessed December 8, 2018, https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/213310.pdf

[6]"Yakuza," Wikipedia, accessed December 8, 2018, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yakuza#cite_ref-1.

[7]Lt. Bruce A. Gragert, "Yakuza: The Warlords of Japanese Organized Crime," Annual Survey f International & Comparative Law4, no. 1 (1997): 147, accessed December 8, 2018, https://digitalcommons.law.ggu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1034&context=annlsurvey

[8]Jake Adelstein, "Japan's Newest Anti-Yakuza Laws Allow Instant Arrests," The Atlantic, July 30, 2012, [Page #], accessed December 8, 2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/07/japans-newest-anti-yakuza-laws-allow-instant-arrests/325293/; accessed December 8, 2018, https://www.npa.go.jp/hakusyo/h27/honbun/html/rf121000.html

[9]Lt. Bruce A. Gragert, "Yakuza: The Warlords of Japanese Organized Crime,"Annual Survey f International & Comparative Law4, no. 1 (1997): 149, accessed December 8, 2018, https://digitalcommons.law.ggu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1034&context=annlsurvey

[10]Gragert, "Yakuza: The Warlords," 155.

[11]Susan W. Tiefenbrun, "Sex Sells but Drugs Don't Talk: Trafficking of Women Sex Workers," 23 T. Jefferson L. Rev. 199, 2000-2001, 213, accessed December 8, 2018, https://www.tjsl.edu/sites/default/files/susan_tiefenbrun_sex_sells_but_drugs_dont_talk_trafficking_of_women_sex_workers_and_an_economic_solution_24_t._jefferson_l._rev._161_2002.pdf

[12]Lt. Bruce A. Gragert, "Yakuza: The Warlords of Japanese Organized Crime,"Annual Survey f International & Comparative Law4, no. 1 (1997): 159, accessed December 8, 2018, https://digitalcommons.law.ggu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1034&context=annlsurvey

[13]Gragert, "Yakuza: The Warlords," 159.

[14]Gragert, "Yakuza: The Warlords," 175.

[15]Gragert, "Yakuza: The Warlords," 147.

[16]Gragert, "Yakuza: The Warlords," 148.

[17]Gragert, "Yakuza: The Warlords," 179.

[18]Gragert, "Yakuza: The Warlords," 188.

[19]Gragert, "Yakuza: The Warlords," 189.

[20]Gragert, "Yakuza: The Warlords," 189.

[21]Gragert, "Yakuza: The Warlords," 195.

[22]Gragert, "Yakuza: The Warlords," 195.

[23]Gragert, "Yakuza: The Warlords," 196.

[24]Gragert, "Yakuza: The Warlords," 197.

[25]Jake Adelstein, "Global Vice: The Expanding Territory of The Yakuza," Journal of International Affairs66, no. 1 (2012): 155, http://www.jstor.org/stable/24388258

[26]Adelstein, "Global Vice," 155-156.

[27]Adelstein, "Global Vice," 156.

[28]Adelstein, "Global Vice," 157.

[29]Lt. Bruce A. Gragert, "Yakuza: The Warlords of Japanese Organized Crime,"Annual Survey f International & Comparative Law4, no. 1 (1997): 202, accessed December 8, 2018, https://digitalcommons.law.ggu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1034&context=annlsurvey

[30]Susan W. Tiefenbrun, "Sex Sells but Drugs Don't Talk: Trafficking of Women Sex Workers," 23 T. Jefferson L. Rev. 199, 2000-2001, 201, accessed December 8, 2018, https://www.tjsl.edu/sites/default/files/susan_tiefenbrun_sex_sells_but_drugs_dont_talk_trafficking_of_women_sex_workers_and_an_economic_solution_24_t._jefferson_l._rev._161_2002.pdf

[31]Tiefenbrun, "Sex Sells," 215.