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The scene is that of a typical hostess bar, a style of establishment that dots Japan’s cityscape and countryside. There, overworked businessmen pay to be in the company of women, foreign and Japanese alike, who pour their drinks and engage them in conversation. The only difference is that this hostess club is impersonating a Filipino restaurant, complete with menu posted out front, but the smiling girls inside are not serving food. They are serving sexual satisfaction. These girls have been trafficked.
“They were obviously being exploited and they were all really unhappy,” Maria Panana, a Tagalog-English translator for a US State Department Human Trafficking project, told me during an interview. She had visited the club a number of times, under the guise of a secretary for a foreign customer, and had attempted to extract the stories from the women sitting with her and her “boss.”
Although many of the girls were wary, Pacana did manage to coax one hostess into divulging the club’s secrets. The girl, somewhere between the ages of 18 and 24 years old, had been in Japan for three months. Like the others, she wore cheap, revealing clothing and was heavily made up. In the Philippines, a “recruiting” company had hired her for a song and dance troupe that was to perform in Japan. Young, poor, and naïve, she embraced the opportunity and set out for Japan on a temporary six-month entertainer’s visa. When she arrived she found a life far different than she had imagined.
The girl had been living in a tiny, Japanese-style dorm directly above the bar along with a number of other girls. Those who did not live in that room lived one train station away. Their movement was limited to the dorms and the club, unless they had surpassed the three-month grace period, in which case they were forced to go on dohan.
“Dohan is basically when you go with a customer, off to a restaurant or something like that, then he takes you to a hotel and you sleep with him,” explained Pacana. The practice varies from establishment to establishment, with some bars encouraging their employees to dine with customers and keep them interested—but never submit to sexual pressures. Others, like the bar in Chiba, force the girls full-on into sexual relations. In all cases, going on dohan means more money for the bar and, quite often, the girl.
In the case of the bar in Chiba, however, Pacana sees it as a psychological trick. For the first three months, the girls act like typical hostesses, their sole responsibility to smile and pour drinks. Month four is when the dirty work begins. The catch to the whole situation is that the girls are not paid until the six months are up. If they leave after three months, they will leave as poor as when they came. Most girls, according to Pacana, see it in their best interest to grit their teeth, do as the customer says, and get it over with. Get it over with on a continual basis until their visas expire and they return home.
The girls, on the whole, are incredibly wary of immigration and of being deported back to the Philippines. Besides having to sleep with the customers, they also have to follow a drill set in place to hide from immigration. Whenever immigration officials enter the bar, the owner of the bar yells, “Line Dance!”—the cue for the girls to get up and leave the room. If the girls are caught, they are thrown in jail and deported in the typical law-enforcement approach to human trafficking. This punitive approach paints those trafficked as criminals, not victims, who upon arriving home face possible dangers, including violence from traffickers and pressures to pay the debt they may have incurred during the trip—not to mention the stigma of returning home empty handed.
Although this is a tale in a faraway land, it is a tale that is being repeated in various forms around the globe. The industry is not limited to the sexual exploitation of women, it also encompasses the sexual exploitation of children and the labor exploitation of men, women, and children alike. The tale is one that is unfolding in our backyards.