The Global Slavery Index 2018 estimates that on any given day in 2016 there were 37,000 people living in conditions of modern slavery in Japan, a prevalence of 0.3 victims of modern slavery for every thousand people in the country.
In 2016, the Japanese government identified 50 trafficking victims, of whom 37 were victims of sexual exploitation, nine were forced to work as hostesses, and four were victims of labour exploitation, of whom two were forced to work as manual labourers and one was forced to work in construction. The industry in which the fourth victim was exploited is not reported. The Japanese government arrested 425 individuals, including employers and brokers, in regard to crimes relating to the exploitation of foreign workers.1
Forced labour in Japan has been reported among migrants working under the government-run Technical Intern Training Program (TITP).2 The TITP has faced international criticism, with opponents arguing that, rather than providing professional development opportunities for “interns,”3 the program’s main purpose is to address labour shortages in low-skilled sectors and that it does so in ways that involve exploitation and human rights abuses. As of October 2017, the TITP employed 257,788 workers, accounting for about 20 percent of all migrant workers in the country.4 Of these, Vietnamese migrants accounted for nearly 44 percent (105,540 workers) and Chinese migrants made up nearly 23 percent (84,179 workers).5 Other significant groups of workers come from the Philippines and Indonesia.6 Workers are dispatched to 77 industries,7 including food processing, construction, machinery,8 fishing, agriculture,9 and textiles.10 Nursing was added to the program in 201711 as caregiving for the elderly is a sector predicted to suffer severe labour shortages in the next 10 years.12,13
In 2016, the Prefectural Labour Standards Inspection Offices and Labour Bureaus issued corrective action orders to 4,004 TITP workplaces that had violated labour standard laws and regulations. Of these, 40 workplaces were referred to prosecutors for serious violations of labour standards laws, such as paying below minimum wages and enforcing illegal overtime. The Labour Standards Inspection Offices also investigated 23 technical training workplaces for suspected human rights violations, including forced labour.14 Since 2010, there have been two cases of TITP workers dying from overwork – a phenomenon in Japan known as karoshi.15 Overtime hours are reportedly under-recorded in Japan,16 rendering it difficult to ascertain the extent of these violations.
A more recent phenomenon is the labour exploitation of foreign students who enter Japan on a student visa, which allows them to study and work legally part-time up to 28 hours per week. This visa scheme is suspected to be used as a new avenue to get past Japan’s strict immigration laws and enter the country legally to work, rather than study. At the end of 2016, the number of foreign students enrolled in Japanese educational institutions had nearly reached 300,000 which is about 100,000 more students than four years prior. Most foreign students were from China, Vietnam, and Nepal.17 It is reported that foreign students often take on large debts to be able to afford the steep tuition fees and to cover travel and living costs. Foreign students usually end up working as unskilled labourers in jobs that are often unpopular with local workers, such as those in factories, restaurants,18 home delivery services, or newspaper delivery. Due to the minimum pay that is often common in these jobs, foreign students are at severe risk of becoming caught in a cycle of debt and exploitation.19
There are reports that Japanese-Filipino Children (JFC) are vulnerable to forced labour exploitation in Japan.20 Since the 1980s, Filipinas have migrated abroad and to Japan in search of job opportunities. After the breakdown of relationships, or falling pregnant while working as a hostess or in the entertainment industry, Japanese-Filipino Children (JFC) were born in the Philippines,21 often without the support of their Japanese fathers.22 There are a reported 300,000 JFC in the Philippines and Japan.23 Since the revision of Nationality Law in 2009, JFC are now allowed to obtain Japanese nationality if the Japanese father recognises the child as his own. This has led to the proliferation of “helping foundations” in the Philippines that target JFCs under the guise of offering assistance.24 Taking on substantial debt, JFC reportedly come through brokers to Japan with their mothers, who often seek employment in nursing, factories, or bars25 where they are made to work under exploitative conditions. For example, in July 2014, a media report revealed that a nursing care service company in Higashi-Osaka demanded that JFC and their mothers, prior to their arrival in Japan, sign contracts that required them not to bring a charge against the company in the event of their death.26
Forced sexual exploitation of adults and children
The Japanese government identified 37 victims of sexual exploitation in 2016 and nine victims who were forced to work as hostesses. Japanese victims tended to be forced to engage in sex work via online matchmaking websites, whereas foreign victims were forced to work as hostesses or forced to engage in sex work at entertainment establishments.27 Working as a hostess may, but does not always, involve sex work.28
There is evidence that suggests Filipino women are trafficked to Japan for the purpose of sexual exploitation. They are legitimately recruited under false promises of high-paying jobs but then are forced into sex work29 or to work as hostesses.30 The lines between smuggling and trafficking can be blurred in these instances as victims who willingly depart the Philippines either without documents, or with forged ones, are trafficked once they arrive in Japan.31 In 2016, the Philippine government issued a warning advising its citizens of the risk of being trafficked to Japan for sex work or forced labour.32 Of the 50 trafficking victims identified by the Japanese government in 2016, eight were Philippine nationals.33 It has also been reported that traffickers use fraudulent marriages between foreign women and Japanese men to facilitate their entry into Japan for forced sex work.34
There are also reports that women are forced into performing in “adult videos” (AV), a term common in Japan to refer to pornographic videos. Women are reportedly tricked into the industry under false promises of modelling or acting jobs, and then forced to perform in AVs.35 If victims try to refuse, agents allegedly threaten that they will have to pay penalties, or they will reveal the videos to the victim’s family. Victims are also forced to sign contracts through which they abandon certain legal rights, such as copyrights of the films in which they are portrayed.36 A Japanese NGO working on trafficking reportedly received more than 100 calls and messages from new victims experiencing sexual exploitation in the AV industry in 2016.37
There are concerns that sexual exploitation may be present in the “JK” business (joshi kosei, meaning “high school girls” in Japanese), where businesses offer dating services as well as “hidden options” with high school girls aged between 15 and 18 years old.38 Although a 2015 news report places the number of girls in the JK business at approximately 5,000,39 it should be noted that it is extremely difficult to estimate the real number.40 Girls in the industry are generally compensated for their work but experts express concerns that the practice can lead to abuse and sexual exploitation by clients and employers.41 For example, one 17-year-old girl was allegedly forcibly held underwater in a bathtub by a client until she fell unconscious, at which point the client cut her skin and burned her with a cigarette lighter.42 In 2015, the UN Special Rapporteur on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography noted concerns that practices such as JK and “compensated dating” (enjo kosai), where girls individually provide dating services to Japanese men for a fee (sometimes involving sexual services), appear to be socially accepted and tolerated.43 In 2016, the Japanese government reported 809 cases of the criminal offence of purchasing sex or sexual services with a child.44
While forced marriage does not appear to be a widespread practice in Japan, there have been reported cases of women from the Philippines coming to Japan in search of work but being forced into marriages to Japanese men upon their arrival.45 In recent years, the number of marriages to foreign nationals has declined in Japan following revisions to immigration policy.46
Imported products at risk of modern slavery
While modern slavery clearly occurs within Japan, the realities of global trade and business make it inevitable that Japan, like many other countries globally, will also be exposed to the risk of modern slavery through the products it imports. Policymakers, businesses, and consumers must become aware of this risk and take responsibility for it. Table 1 below highlights the top five products (according to US$ value, per annum) imported by Japan that are at risk of being produced under conditions of modern slavery.47
Table 1Imports of products at risk of modern slavery to Japan
|Product at risk of modern slavery||Import value|
(in thousands of US$)
Laptops, computers, and mobile phones
Apparel and clothing accessories
Argentina, Brazil, China, India, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam
China, Ghana, Indonesia, Russia, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand
Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana
Japan sources 86 percent of its laptops, computers, and mobile phones from China and Malaysia, with a total value of US$22.4 billion per annum.48 The electronics industries in both these countries are considered to be at risk of using modern slavery in the production of these goods. Clothing and accessories are the second highest value products (in US$) imported into Japan from countries considered at risk of using modern slavery. These products are valued at US$20.6 billion, making up 80 percent of all garments imported into Japan. Fish is another large product category that may be at risk of being tainted by modern slavery, with 44 percent of Japan’s fish imports coming from at-risk countries. Other products at risk of modern slavery are cocoa from Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana (US$123.5 million) and timber from Brazil and Peru (US$96.5 million).
Migrant workers in Japan are at increased risk of modern slavery, particularly those employed via the TITP. Workers under the TITP are vulnerable because they are required to stay with the same employer or they risk losing their legal residency status in Japan and the deposit they paid to their recruiter.49 Under new laws introduced to eliminate abuse by employers under the TITP, employers who do not violate the new regulations will be allowed to extend the training program by an additional two years, from three years to five years, effective November 2017.50 It is predicted that this extension of the maximum term will result in the doubling of foreign trainees.51 In 2016, 24 percent of identified cases of exploitation of TITP workers involved the enforcement of illegally long hours.52 Reports continue of TITP workers being charged illegal fees for job placement53 as well as “punishment fees” for leaving a workplace before their contract expired.54 Other vulnerability factors for TITP workers include passport confiscation by employers and fear of retaliation, such as arrest or deportation, if they complain.55
More generally, it has been reported that migrant workers employed in the manufacturing, agriculture, and fishing sectors,56 and in domestic work,57 have limited contact with Japanese society, which may increase their vulnerability to labour exploitation. There are reports that Cambodian fishers have been exploited on vessels from Japan. These men were recruited by a legally registered recruitment agency in Cambodia and reported being forced to work long hours in harsh conditions and having their identity documents withheld.58 Domestic workers in diplomatic households are particularly vulnerable as they live with the diplomat’s family and are not protected by the regular labour laws.59
Foreign students entering Japan on student visas may be vulnerable to exploitation due to debt incurred to pay for travel, tuition fees, and living expenses in Japan. Dubious recruiters, especially in Vietnam and Nepal, lure young people with false promises of high salaries. Their debt, combined with the restrictions on working hours imposed by their visa, may trap them in situations where they have to work illegally (beyond their working hour limit of 28 hours per week) to pay back their loans. Being in breach of their visa conditions can put foreign students at further risk as they may not report to officials, even if they are exploited.60
Young Japanese women and girls may be vulnerable to sexual exploitation, particularly those suffering from poverty,61 mental health issues (such as depression and low self-esteem), an unstable home-life,62 and a perceived lack of future prospects.63 Women and girls typically voluntarily enter the JK business but they are often purposely targeted and recruited by business owners64 or professional scouts,65 both online and on the streets, for work in the JK business.66 Once employed, they risk falling victim to sexual exploitation as employers or customers may coerce them into providing sexual services.67 Local authorities are beginning to crack down on the JK business by imposing ordinances, such as bans on children going out after 10 pm at night68 and authorizing police officers to enter suspect premises, but there are concerns that these restrictions may drive the business further underground.69
Foreign women, including those from Cambodia and Thailand, are also vulnerable to forced sexual exploitation.70 A case in 2017 involved brokers who presented seven Cambodian women with fraudulent job opportunities in the hospitality industry in Japan and organised their visas and plane tickets on behalf of a Japanese restaurant owner. Once the women arrived in Japan, they were subsequently forced into sex work.71 Some foreign women who are lured by false promises of work opportunities in Japan arrive on 90-day short-stay visas. Such victims are often reluctant to seek help from local authorities due to their visa status which does not give them legal working rights in Japan, making them even more vulnerable. Additional factors contributing to their vulnerability may be language barriers, psychological intimidation, and cultural differences that prevent them from reporting to authorities, such as the fact that speaking to the police is unusual in their home country.72
Response to modern slavery
Although Japan ratified the UN Trafficking Protocol of 2000 in 2017, human trafficking is not a criminal offence in accordance with international law.73 Only the practices of buying and selling human beings and transporting kidnapped people across national borders are criminal offences.74 In 2016, Japan convicted 37 traffickers, 10 of whom received only fines as penalties;75 the remaining received jail time with probation.76 Suspected cases of trafficking in the TITP were charged with labour violations, which carry less severe penalties.77
Forced labour is prohibited under Article 5 of the Labour Standards Act, but is not listed as a distinct crime in the criminal code.78 While the Labour Standards Act can also be enforced in the sex industry, generally, the Anti-Prostitution Act, the Child Welfare Act, and the Act on Control and Improvement of Amusement Business are used to protect female workers in the sex industry and to prosecute trafficking cases.79 Article 63 of the Employment Security Act outlaws forcing others to work using “violence, intimidation [or] confinement.”80 Japan has criminalised child commercial sexual exploitation in the Act of Punishment of Activities Relating to Child Prostitution and Child Pornography, and the Protection of Children.81 The Child Welfare Act broadly criminalises harming a child, including causing a child to commit an obscene act.82 The Japanese government has not yet criminalised forced marriage.83
Under Article 6 of the Labour Standards Act, recruitment companies are prohibited from charging fees to workers, a rule that is enforced by the Labour Standards Inspection Offices.84 Recruitment agencies, however, are governed by the Employment Security Act (Article 32-3), which allows licensed recruitment agencies to collect fees from job seekers in special cases, such as when “collection of a fee from a job seeker is found to be necessary for the interest of said job seeker.”85 These provisions are also applicable to migrant workers if they use Japan-based agencies to either find them work in Japan or make arrangements for them to come to work there. Nonetheless, it remains an issue that fees are often paid by migrant workers to recruiters in their home countries, outside the reach of Japanese regulatory agencies.86
Departing from its historically strict laws toward foreign migrant workers,87 the Japanese government enacted a new policy in 2017 that increased the number of foreign housekeepers able to work in select prefectures and cities (Kanagawa, Osaka, and Tokyo)88 – with the first group of 50 from the Philippines arriving in March 2017.89 Although the Labour Standards Act does not apply to domestic workers,90 those domestic workers coming to Japan under the new government scheme are protected by the Employment Security Act.91 As part of the new policy, a set of guidelines was released to increase protection, including the requirement that domestic workers be employed indirectly via Japanese housekeeping dispatch agencies.92 These agencies arrange and provide skills and language training for workers.93 Another regulation forbids workers from residing with the employing household, in an effort to reduce the likelihood of abuse,94 but this does not apply to those working in diplomatic households.95
The TITP has been subject to reviews and reforms in recent years. In 2010, the Japanese government amended the Labour Law to grant equal rights to TITP workers.96 On 1 November 2017, new reforms came into effect under the Technical Intern Training Act,97 which imposes penalties for employers who confiscate workers’ passports and up to 10 years’ imprisonment for violations of employee rights.98 It also mandates the establishment of a watchdog99 (known as the Organisation for Technical Intern Training or OTIT100) which conducts inspections in TITP workplaces, receives complaints from workers,101 and provides consultative services to workers in multiple languages including English, Tagalog (a language native to the Philippines), Vietnamese, Indonesian, Chinese, and Thai.102 The reform ensures the training programs are properly accredited by the government.103 As of 2015, handbooks explaining workers’ legal rights in multiple languages are given to TITP workers on their arrival in Japan.104
Despite these positive developments, there is some criticism that the changes are inadequate. For example, some critics argue that Japanese language training should be provided, and better support provided for workers in remote areas, especially those with poor Internet access.105 Implementation of the reforms remains a concern. Under the Minimum Wages Law, workers are entitled to the same minimum wage level as locals106 but some migrant workers are reportedly not awarded this.107
The government-run Labour Standards Inspection Office conducts inspections across various sectors, including agriculture and construction,108 but it does not conduct systematic labour inspections in the informal sector.109 In 2016, 5,672 inspections of TITP organisations were conducted.110 Limited numbers of violations of labour standard laws are transferred to the Public Prosecutor’s Office, with only 40 cases against TITP organisations referred in 2016.111 According to a report from the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communication, labour inspections should be conducted more thoroughly.112
Recent labour inspections have focused on overtime infractions after a high-profile case involving a young worker in a well-known Japanese firm who committed suicide as a result of working excessive overtime.113 Article 36 of the Labour Standards Law states that working hours may be raised higher than the prescribed legal limit if the employer has a written agreement with a trade union.114 Sixty-two percent of large companies and 26 percent of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) utilise such agreements.115 The Work Style Reform Council of the Japanese government is currently working on an amendment to cap overtime hours to 100 hours per month regardless of these agreements.116
The Japanese government lacks specific programs for modern slavery victims but has funded some NGOs to provide support services. Foreign victims generally were not eligible for social services that are available to Japanese victims.117 The government has a national action plan, established a Council for the Promotion of Measures to Combat Trafficking in Persons in 2014, and issues annual reports in line with the goals described in the plan, with the most recent report released in 2017.118 However, the government does not have an independent rapporteur or commissioner to monitor the government’s response.
Response to modern slavery in supply chains
Japan does not have legislation for ethical sourcing in public procurement. The Order Stipulating Special Procedures for Government Procurement of Products or Specified Services does not include standards that explicitly prohibit using businesses suspected of using forced labour, or purchasing products that were made using forced labour.119 Japan has, however, shown commitment to ensuring its suppliers for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics do not use exploitative labour120 and has formulated a Sustainable Sourcing Code for all its procurement activities concerning the Olympics.121
Business supply chains
In a positive move, the Japanese government announced its intention to enact the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) in 2016,133 which may bring new changes in private procurement practices.134 In November of the same year, the Japanese government also announced its intention to draft a National Action Plan (NAP) on business and human rights.135 In 2016, the Human Rights Due Diligence Working Group of the Global Compact Network Japan published a report on business and human rights in which the implementation of the UNGPs are reviewed from a perspective of Japanese companies.136 Keidanren, one of the largest business associations in Japan, recently revived its “Charter of Corporate Behaviour” with the primary aim of proactively delivering on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including human rights.137
Large businesses in Japan have shown leadership in their commitment to using sound human rights practices and incorporating the SDGs into their business processes. In fact, 33 percent of the biggest Japanese companies have publicly declared awareness of the SDGs.138 The government encourages sustainable sourcing by sharing good practices among businesses, holding seminars to educate managers and incentivising businesses with awards and recognition.139 Japanese businesses are placing increasing importance on the labour conditions of their overseas suppliers by taking action such as installing company-specific policies to identify ethical partners.140
The government of Japan should:
- Introduce comprehensive laws criminalising forced marriage, human trafficking, and forced labour in accordance with international law.
- Ratify the ILO Domestic Workers Convention, 2011 (No. 189) to provide protections to domestic workers.
- Ensure that traffickers are punished adequately by removing the option of paying a fine in place of imprisonment.
- Ensure that the perpetrators of adult video (AV) forced performance cases are investigated and charged under relevant criminal offences.
- Increase the rate of prosecution for workplaces that violate labour standards by increasing the number of referrals of workplace violations detected by the Labour Standards Inspection Office to the Public Prosecutor’s Office.
Improve victim support
- Increase funding for support services for victims of trafficking that are specific to their needs and experiences.
- Provide access to support services for foreign victims of modern slavery.
Strengthen coordination and transparency
- Establish an independent commissioner to monitor and report on the government’s response to modern slavery.
Address risk factors
- Abolish the TITP and establish an appropriate migration scheme for unskilled labour from abroad.
- Raise further awareness among migrant workers on their rights and educate them on the government support systems by way of providing all migrant workers with relevant information upon their arrival at the Japanese border.
- Cooperate with the governments of Vietnam and Nepal to regulate recruitment brokers who target young people to work in Japan.
- Introduce more thorough controls and inspections of JK businesses.
- Extend labour law protections to all domestic workers.
Eradicate modern slavery from the economy
- Follow through with publishing the National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights and engage with civil society throughout the development of the plan.
- Introduce a law that legally requires businesses to disclose their efforts to eliminate slavery from their supply chains.