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Yoichi Shimada

【#301(Special)】 Prostitution Isn’t Synonymous with Human Trafficking

Yoichi Shimada / 2015.05.22 (Fri)

May 19, 2015

     As for so-called comfort women who served Japanese troops during World War II, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said in an interview with The Washington Post, published on March 26, “when my thought goes to these people, who have been victimized by human trafficking and gone through immeasurable pain and suffering beyond description, my heart aches.” The prime minister used “jinshin baibai” in Japanese, which was translated as “human trafficking” in English.
     We have to be cautious enough to keep those who are antagonistic toward Japan from taking advantage of Prime Minister Abe’s use of the term “human trafficking” in their anti-Japan campaigns. To that end, I would like everyone to refer to the definition of this term in a United Nations convention.

Definition by International Convention
     Appendix II (Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children) of the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, adopted Nov. 15, 2000, stipulates: “’Trafficking in persons’ shall mean the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud…for the purpose of exploitation.” The Japanese Foreign Ministry has translated “trafficking in persons” as “jinshin torihiki” in Japanese. It goes without saying that trafficking in persons is a crime that must not be forgiven and ought to be condemned and cracked down on internationally.
     The particular point to keep in mind in this connection is that acts of prostitution by females aged 18 years or older do not fall into the category of “trafficking in persons” no matter how unfortunate their circumstances are.
     In some European countries, prostitution is legal. Should the aforementioned United Nations convention have stipulated that prostitution constitutes a case of organized crime, those European countries would have not agreed to the 2000 resolution. China and North Korea, for their part, have not signed the United Nations convention.

Not Every Comfort Woman Victimized
     There is no question that all comfort women were in unfortunate circumstances regardless of whether or not they should be regarded as victims of “trafficking in persons.” Make no mistake. Who will engage in prostitution by choice?
     Moreover, comfort women must have included those who ought to have definitely fallen into the category of being victimized in human trafficking. As part of evidence that the situations surrounding those women were intolerable, the Japanese military ordered the elimination of unscrupulous brothel operators during the war. Having said that, however, I have to state that a move to categorize—without much thought—all comfort women as victims of human trafficking could bring unjust disgrace to the honor of Japan.
     In early May, a group of 187 “Japanologists” based mostly in the United States shared an open letter on the issue of comfort women, saying: “Among the many instances of wartime sexual violence and military prostitution in the twentieth century, the ‘comfort women’ system was distinguished by its large scale and systematic management under the military, and by its exploitation of young, poor, and vulnerable women in areas colonized or occupied by Japan.” They are wrong in that they regard what they describe as the “comfort women” system as something equal to the Japanese military’s “large scale and systematic” involvement in “wartime sexual violence.”
     In his interview with The Washington Post, Prime Minister Abe was not specific about whom he had in mind when touching on human trafficking. Such a presentation appears to have some effects as far as reactions from China and South Korea are concerned. Nonetheless, his use of the term “human trafficking” is fraught with the risk of causing a new misunderstanding abroad. The “comfort women” system itself did not constitute human trafficking as defined under international law. The Japanese government therefore has to make strategic efforts to convince the international community of this particular point.

Yoichi Shimada is Planning Committee Member, Japan Institute for National Fundamentals, and Professor at Fukui Prefectural University.