US State Dept. Speaks Out on Sex Trafficking in Japan

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Lisa Mullins: You may remember an interview we aired earlier this week about sex trafficking. We spoke with the author and researcher, Rhacel Salazar Parrenas. In 2005 she spent three months working in a hostess club in Tokyo and she interviewed Filipino women who worked in such clubs in Japan. According to Parrenas, women working in these bars were not the victims of sex trafficking, even if at the time that's what the US government said they were.

Rhacel Salazar Parrenas: In the case of the women that I studied, the solution to their job is no rescue as abdicated by the US government, meaning we shouldn't pluck them out of their situation. Instead, we have to ensure that they have greater control of their labor and migration. So we do that by freeing them of middleman brokers, allowing them to negotiate directly with their employers, allowing them to choose their jobs and not limiting their visa to one club, it's redefining how we look at the problem for the purpose of coming up with nuanced solutions to their problems.

Mullins: That's Rhacel Salazar Parrenas speaking earlier this week about the Filipino women working in Tokyo's hostess bars. Our interview prompted a response from the US Dept. of State. Alison Kiehl Friedman is Deputy Director of the department's Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.

Alison Kiehl Friedman: We agree with Dr. Parrenas that there is exploitation inherent in what is going on, and we agree that not all the people there are trafficking victims. And we agree that there needs to be more done to get unscrupulous labor recruiters out of the system and better protect migration flows. Where we disagree is that somebody can go in, have a personal experience for a couple of months, and categorically say these people weren't sex trafficking victims, and somehow calling some of them sex trafficking victims is worse than ignoring their exploitation and trying to address it.

Mullins; I mean we should say that when Dr. Parrenas went there she believed when she was in Japan and took a job in one of these hostess bars, that these women were victims of sex trafficking. She said after she saw what they did she realized that they're not and that they're yoked by the label of sex trafficking victims.

Friedman: She continues to focus on the movement associate with trafficking, rather than the actual crime of trafficking and persons. I think once you start to understand how debt and threats of deportation can lead someone to feel like they can't walk away, and that that really is in keeping with the international definition of trafficking, then you get a much clearer understanding of why these people may actually be trafficking victims. I think focusing on how they got there and whether there was any initial consent to travel is really beside the point. And as my boss frequently says, it's almost like criminalizing driving to the bank robbery, but not the bank robbery itself.

Mullins: What's the story now on sex trafficking? How is the US involved and why?

Friedman: The United States has a unique history with slavery and compelled service, and it is a part of who we are as a nation. And we know that our history has been imperfect and at present is imperfect, and that we are continuing to try to foster freedom here and around the world. It is a hidden crime. You can find it on the street. You can find it in truck stops. You can find it in brothels and you can find it in massage parlors. And each of those instances kind of differently manifests a common truth, which is compelled service that is frequently misidentified as consent. And we believe that there needs to be prosecutions of people who would hold victims in commercial sex and then protection of those survivors that have been identified.

Mullins: Alison Kiehl Friedman who is the Deputy Director of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons for the US State Department, thank you.

Friedman: Thank you.