Recent Reports 
 Support HRW 
About HRW
Site Map


I. Summary
II. Key Recommendations
III. Context
IV. Profiles
V. International Legal Standards On Trafficking In Women
VI. Recruited In Thailand--Sold On Japan
VII. Servitude In The "Snack Bars"
VIII. Deportation As "Illegal Aliens"
IX. Response Of The Japanese Government
X. Response Of The Thai Government
XI. International Response
XII. Recommendations
  • To the Japanese Government
  • To the Thai Government
  • To the Japanese and Thai Governments
  • To All Governments
  • To Intergovernmental Organizations
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)
International Organization For Migration (IOM)
International Labor Organization (ILO)
World Health Organization (WHO)
Human Rights Watch OWED JUSTICE
Thai Women Trafficked into Debt Bondage in Japan

Human Rights Watch
New York Washington London Brussels
Copyright September 2000 by Human Rights Watch.
All rights reserved.
Printed in the Unted States of America.
ISBN 1-56432-252-1
Library of Congress Card Number: 00-107963

I. SUMMARY Use This Version to Print

In April 1999, the residents at a private women's shelter in Tokyo included two Thai women who had recently escaped from debt bondage in the Japanese sex industry:

Miew(1) had spent more than two months working as a "hostess" in a "dating" snack bar, serving drinks at the bar and accompanying clients to nearby hotels to provide sexual services. She had been recruited from Thailand with the promise of a generous monthly salary, but when she arrived, she was told that she would have to work without any compensation until she paid off a debt of 5 million yen (approximately US$43,000). Her manager confiscated her passport and warned her that if she tried to escape, she would be followed and caught by Japanese gang members or police. She was housed under constant surveillance in an apartment next door to the bar, where a motion sensitive light outside the door ensured that she could not go outside unnoticed. After working for two months, Miew's debt had risen to 6 million yen (approximately US$51,000), as the cost of room, board, and "protection" fees--as well as a hefty fine for giving the snack bar's telephone number to her parents--well exceeded the amount she had been able to repay.

Thip came to Japan in March 1999, having been promised a job as a waitress in a restaurant where she could save money. But when she arrived she was told that she owed 4.5 million yen (approximately US$38,500) for the cost of her travel and job placement, and she was put to work in a brothel, where she was kept in a small room and forced to provide sexual services to customers. Thip escaped after working fifteen to sixteen-hour days, every day, for two weeks. The customers paid 12,000 yen (approximately US$100) for eight-minute sessions, but Thip's share was only 2,000 yen. From this amount, Thip was expected to pay 34,000 yen a day for rent and protection money. This meant that she had to serve eighteen clients each day before any earnings were applied toward her debt.

Miew and Thip are among the thousands of women in Thailand who accept offers to work in Japan each year in the hope of providing a better livelihood for themselves and their families. Some are promised jobs as waitresses or factory workers; others are assured high wages as entertainers or sex workers. But nearly all find themselves saddled with exorbitant debts and forced to work under brutal conditions without compensation until they are released.

Trafficking in persons, the illegal but highly profitable transport and sale of human beings for the purpose of exploiting their labor, is a global human rights phenomenon involving hundreds of thousands of victims each year, including thousands of women trafficked from Thailand into debt bondage in Japan. The intermediaries who arrange these women's travel and job placement use deception, fraud, and coercion to place them into highly abusive conditions of employment, where they must repay outrageously high "debts" before they can earn wages or gain their freedom. While in debt, women are kept under constant surveillance and forced to satisfy all customers and all customer demands. Disobedience can lead to fines, physical violence, and even "resale" into higher levels of debt. Escape from these conditions is difficult and dangerous, and may lead to violent retaliation.

Governments have an obligation to combat such abuses. To fail to take all possible action is to be complicit. They must clearly identify and punish rights abuses perpetrated by traffickers, aggressively investigating and prosecuting these crimes. They must also address the precarious legal and social position of trafficked persons, with concrete measures to protect victims' rights and provide them with the incentive and resources to cooperate with law enforcement officials. Such measures include exempting trafficked persons from prosecution for offenses directly resulting from their being trafficked; giving them real opportunities to seek justice and compensation for abuses they have suffered; ensuring their access to shelter, medical care, and other services as needed; guaranteeing their personal safety; and facilitating their safe and humane repatriation.

Human Rights Watch, in cooperation with local organizations and researchers, has conducted extensive research regarding the trafficking of women from Thailand to Japan. This report is based on interviews conducted in Thailand and Japan over the six year period from 1994 to 1999, during which we documented serious abuses in the course of women's recruitment, travel, job placement, and subsequent employment. Our interviews in 1999 reveal a clear continuation of the abuses we first documented in 1994, indicating that, despite the increased awareness demonstrated by Japanese and Thai officials regarding the abuses trafficked women suffer, these governments have failed as yet to take adequate steps to respond effectively to the problem.



The trafficking of women from Thailand to Japan occurs within the context of large-scale regional migration in Asia, which has grown dramatically over the last two decades. Since the late 1980s, this has included large flows of both male and female workers from Thailand to Japan.(2) The vast majority of this migration is illegal, as Japan accepts only a very limited number of legal migrants each year. In practice, the high demand for foreign workers in Japan has fostered the growth of large transnational networks able to bypass legal barriers and facilitate illegal migration into Japan. There is strong evidence that these networks are controlled by powerful organized crime groups, including the Yakuza in Japan and other mafia-like organizations elsewhere. It is these networks that women from Thailand often rely on when they migrate to Japan.

Human Rights Watch interviewed numerous women who had migrated from Thailand to Japan over the past decade, most of whom had worked in "dating" snack bars upon their arrival in the country. They narrated their experiences at length; in some cases, over the course of several meetings. We also interviewed a number of advocates in Japan who are working on behalf of women from Thailand, including lawyers, shelter staff, hotline volunteers, medical professionals, migrants' rights activists, and others. In addition, we interviewed Japanese government officials as well as officials from the Thai Embassy and Thai Labor Office in Japan. Finally, we met with governmental and nongovernmental representatives in Thailand who are involved in efforts to prevent trafficking in persons and provide assistance to victims.

We found that while Thai women's initial decisions to migrate for work were almost always voluntary, women typically were deceived from the time they made their decisions until their arrival in Japan, and most of the women experienced slavery-like abuses, prohibited under international law, during the course of their travel and job placement. Agents in Thailand assisted women in obtaining passports and other travel documentation, took care of all travel arrangements, hired escorts to accompany the women during their travel, and contacted brokers to receive the women in Japan. These agents routinely deceived women about the terms and conditions of the work they were going to do; none of the women we interviewed understood the amount and calculation of their debt and the conditions under which they would have to repay it when they arrived in Japan. Many of the women were also deceived about the nature of the work: promised jobs as waitresses or factory workers, they were later coerced into engaging in sex work. Upon arrival in Japan, women were delivered to brokers, who contacted employers and arranged the women's job placement. Most of the women were employed as snack bar "hostesses" with duties included entertaining customers at the bar and accompanying customers to nearby hotels to provide sexual services. Women were given no choice over their occupation, employers, or working conditions, and they received no compensation until they repaid extraordinarily large debts assessed against them, far exceeding the cost of their travel to Japan.

Debt Bondage and Forced Labor

Human Rights Watch found that working arrangements for most of the women from Thailand in Japanese snack bars constituted debt bondage or forced labor, practices prohibited under international law. During their recruitment, women were regularly deceived regarding the amount of debt they would incur, the amount of time it would take to repay this debt, the type of work they would have to perform while in debt, and/or the conditions under which they would be compelled to work. This deception was compounded by the wide discretion employers exercised over debt repayment calculations. Employers used arbitrary and non-transparent methods of account-keeping and routinely increased women's debts with a variety of fines and other expenses. Employers also reserved the power to "resell" indebted women into renewed levels of debt, and the threat of "resale" was often used to exact compliance.

While in "debt," women trafficked from Thailand worked under highly abusive labor conditions. They did not receive any compensation for their labor and had to accept all customers and all customers' requests. They also faced significant risks to their health with only limited access to health care. Severe punishments for refusing or failing to fully satisfy customers meant that women who were in debt had no power to enforce condom use, heightening their risk of exposure to HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. Women were often compelled to submit to even physically abusive clients, and some were subjected to violence by their employers for alleged infringements or acts of disobedience. Women were also forced to work excessively long hours, in some cases even when ill, and their access to medical care was controlled by their boss or manager. Though medical care might be available if a woman succeeded in maintaining a good relationship with her manager, such care also lengthened the period of debt repayment as the cost of any treatment was added to her debt.

Several of the women we interviewed escaped from this situation, but most repaid their debts--over a period of anywhere from several months to two years--and then continued to work in Japan in order to earn money for themselves and their families back in Thailand. There are a number of reasons why escape is unusual. The nature of debt bondage provides women with strong incentives to acquiesce to their managers' demands, as the debt period is typically temporary, but all repayment calculations are at their employers' discretion. Furthermore, escape is difficult and dangerous. Women are kept under near constant surveillance, their passports and other documentation are confiscated, they have little cash, and they are isolated by barriers of language and culture. They are threatened with violent retaliation or "resale" into greater debt if they are caught, and sometimes with retaliation against their family members if they are not. In addition, while Japanese authorities, if contacted, may be willing to facilitate escape attempts, they will also begin deportation procedures, without offering women any opportunity to seek compensation for back wages or damages. Similarly, Thai Embassy officials assist women in returning home to Thailand, but they do not provide women with any assistance in obtaining legal recourse for the abuses they have suffered. Some women find their working conditions so unbearable that they would like to return home, even empty-handed, but most put up with the abuse in hopes of obtaining the money they need to support themselves and their families back home.

Government Responses

The Thai and Japanese governments are well-aware of the abuses described above. Officials from both governments have publicly acknowledged that transnational crime syndicates are involved in trafficking women from Thailand into Japan, that there are currently tens of thousands of undocumented Thai women working in Japan, and that many of these women face extremely exploitative conditions.(3) In fact, the Thai Embassy organized a conference in Tokyo in September 1999 to discuss the abuses faced by Thai women in the Japanese sex industry, and less than four months later, Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs sponsored a symposium to discuss the trafficking in persons into Japan, with a focus on trafficking in women and girls from Thailand and other Asian countries into the sex industry. Unfortunately, however, this awareness has not been translated as yet into effective measures to provide women with the means to protect themselves from abuse or to seek redress for violations.


Japan's restrictive visa policies have created extraordinary opportunities for profit for those who facilitate the illegal migration of women from Thailand and other countries into Japan. Though there is a strong demand for foreign women workers in Japan and a large number of Thai women willing to migrate, opportunities for legal migration are relatively minimal. Crime syndicates in Japan and abroad have seized upon this opportunity, forming transnational trafficking networks that facilitate women's migration and then compel them to work under highly exploitative conditions.

Japanese officials have publicly acknowledged the slavery-like treatment many of these women endure. However, in policy and practice, their response continues to focus on increased efforts to combat illegal migration, targeting both the migrants themselves and those who facilitate such migration, but entirely failing to address the coercion and deception that is often involved. This response has exacerbated trafficked women's vulnerability. As "illegal aliens" and "prostitutes," undocumented Thai women working in the Japanese sex industry are viewed as criminals by the Japanese authorities. They get little sympathy from police, immigration officials, and labor officials, and their access to health care is impeded by Japanese policies that exclude undocumented migrants from health care benefits available to other residents of Japan. When police or immigration officials raid establishments that employ undocumented migrant women, the women are arrested as illegal aliens, detained in immigration facilities, and deported with a five-year ban on reentering the country. This punitive treatment is applied regardless of the conditions under which the women migrated to, and worked in, Japan. Even when there is clear evidence of trafficking, debt bondage, or forced labor, no effort is made to provide undocumented migrants with an opportunity to seek compensation or justice. If employers or traffickers are prosecuted at all, they are charged with immigration offenses, such as employing or facilitating the employment of illegal aliens; with procuring prostitutes in violation of the Prostitution Prevention Law; or with operating an un-licensed entertainment business. They are almost never prosecuted for the severe human rights abuses they have committed, such as forced labor, illegal confinement, physical violence, and intimidation.


Over the last several years, the Thai government has made eradication of the sexual exploitation of women and children a national priority, adopting a variety of measures aimed at preventing and suppressing the trafficking of women into and out of Thailand for sexual purposes. The Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare offers vocational training programs designed specifically for women and girls to expand their educational and employment opportunities in Thailand. Government officials have launched awareness-raising campaigns that warn women of the dangers of sex work and of migration. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs screens the passport applications of girls and women ages fourteen to thirty-six, rejecting the applications of women suspected of being procured into the sex industry. And the National Assembly enacted legislation designed to facilitate the investigation and prosecution of trafficking agents, including the revised Measures in Prevention and Suppression of Trafficking in Women and Children Act, adopted in 1997. In addition to these efforts, the Thai government provides services to women victims of trafficking. In Japan, Thai Embassy officials assist women in obtaining the necessary documentation and funding to return to Thailand, and victims of trafficking are also eligible for rehabilitative services, such as vocational training and shelter care, after they are repatriated.

These government efforts have helped to raise awareness of the abuses migrant women commonly face in Japan and elsewhere, but their effectiveness in reducing women's vulnerability to such abuses has been limited. Laws to crack down on traffickers have proven difficult to enforce in practice, and other preventative efforts have been undermined by preconceptions about proper roles and occupations for women. Vocational training for women emphasizes traditionally female skills, such as sewing and hair dressing, which do not typically lead to well-paying jobs and thus are not seen as likely to lead to a meaningful alternative career. Information campaigns warn women of the dangers of migration, but fail to provide them with any useful information about their rights or the services available to them when abroad, so that women who decide to migrate despite the risks are unable to protect themselves from exploitation. And the services provided to women victims of trafficking and debt bondage do not include any effort to assist women in seeking back wages or other compensation for the abuses they have suffered.

Finally, the Thai government has abdicated its responsibility for women and girls whose homes are in Thailand, but who lack official Thai citizenship. This problem of denial of citizenship is one affecting hundreds of thousands of people in Thailand. Without Thai citizenship, the vulnerability of such women to trafficking agents is enhanced, both because they are denied access to the same education and employment opportunities as Thai nationals and because they cannot obtain the documents necessary for international travel through legal channels. Even more devastating, once these women leave Thailand it is almost impossible for them to return as the Thai government does not recognize their right of reentry. Consequently, such women who have been trafficked into debt bondage in Japan are obliged to remain in that country in a state of legal and social limbo, separated indefinitely, and perhaps forever, from their homes and families.

Obligations under International Law

Trafficking, debt bondage, and forced labor are practices that are strictly prohibited under international human rights law and treaties binding upon governments. The threat and use of physical force, illegal confinement, and abusive working conditions that women routinely endure also constitute serious abuses of their rights to liberty, security of person, freedom of movement, free choice of employment, fair wages, and safe working conditions. The Japanese and Thai governments are obliged under international law to take concrete steps effectively to prevent and address these human rights abuses and to provide victims with access to justice and compensation. Human Rights Watch found that in the case of women who are trafficked from Thailand to Japan, the Japanese and Thai governments have consistently failed to live up to these obligations.


1. To protect the identities of the women victims of trafficking and compulsory labor, each has been assigned a randomly selected name which is used consistently throughout the report. While Human Rights Watch generally refers to interviewees by their first and last names, in this case we have chosen to follow the Thai custom of using nicknames.

2. Migration from Thailand to Japan peaked in 1993. Since then it has slowed somewhat due to Japan's economic difficulties and its related crackdown on illegal migration, but estimates indicate that there are still many tens of thousands of Thai migrants working in Japan each year.

3. See, for example, Sanitsuda Ekachai, "Conference seeks help for Thai victims: These women are not criminals-envoy," Bangkok Post, September 28, 1999; "Govt, NGO officials meet on Thai women's problems," The Daily Yomiuri, September 28, 1999.