Kaew entered Japan on a tourist visa in May 1992 at the age of 31, after meeting an agent in Bangkok. She was kept in a “snack bar,” or brothel, in Nagano prefecture, west of Tokyo. Of the estimated 600,000 to 800,000 individuals trafficked across international borders each year, some 80 percent are women and girls. Kaew was one of the thousands of women trafficked annually out of Thailand for sexual exploitation. The major destinations include Japan, Malaysia, Bahrain, Australia, Singapore, and the US. Internal trafficking occurs within the country as well, usually from northern Thailand (where hill tribe women and girls are denied Thai citizenship). In Japan, where she was enslaved, women are trafficked from Thailand, the Philippines, Russia, and Eastern Europe, and on a smaller scale from Colombia, Brazil, Mexico, Burma, and Indonesia.
I had three kids, my husband drank, and we had no money, so I had to do something. I went back and forth several times trying to make money, leaving my children with my mother. The agent in Bangkok decided I was beautiful enough to go to Japan, though I had to get a nose job first and they kept messing it up; they had to do it four times to get it right. The agent wanted me to get my eyes done too, but I refused. Other women got plastic surgery for their breasts, eyes, or other body parts. Women who were not beautiful enough were given a bus ticket home to their village. They used me because I was older, so it was easier for me. I got five passports for other women—each time getting married to change my surname. If I think about it now, the agents were very, very clever. They could even make birth certificates; they could do everything. They were so clever, and in Japan the brokers are even more clever.
After seven months, I threatened to go home because I wasn’t making any money, so they sent me to Japan. My escort was a Western man named Gary. He took the women to Japan one by one. He had many passports and worked with the airline. He had a visa that allowed him to go back and forth between Japan and Thailand through his banana business. He was handsome and dressed up and spoke Thai. I told the immigration officials that I was going to visit a banana factory in Japan to see how it worked and I had a letter from the company in Thailand. Gary had 150 bai [$12,000] with him. Gary and I were separated by the immigration officers at the airport and asked questions about the company, but we had prepared before. I had practiced for two or three nights before I left, and learned to write my new name in English.
At Narita airport, someone was waiting for me and took the clothes and jewelry that they had given me to wear. The person took me to the mama’s house in Tokyo. There were lots of women there and people came to choose women and buy them. I was bought on the third day, and told that my price was 380 bai [$30,000]. After three or four days of working at the snack bar, I realized how much 380 bai was. The other girls said to me: “that’s a lot of debt and you’re old; you’ll never pay it off.” Then I prayed that it would only take six or seven months to pay it off, and I went with all of the clients I could. The mama said to me: “don’t let your period come, or you’ll never finish paying your debt.” The boss would tell me to go with a man, and I couldn’t refuse. Girls were beaten if they didn’t agree, and the owner was close to the Yakuza so he knew how to fight. Women were also fined for coming back late, fighting with each other, or not agreeing to sit with a client, so I did what I was told. Other women were beaten so badly they had to take days off; I wasn’t beaten or given fines because I obeyed.
Some clients were good, and some were abusive. I had up to three clients a night because I needed to pay off my debt, and after six months the mama said I had paid off 250 bai [$20,000]. I kept track in a notebook and this sounded about right—I was paying back about 40 or 50 bai [$3000-4000] per month, and I could have paid off the rest of the debt soon. But while I was working, I met a man who was a friend of the owner. He came to the snack bar often, but he never took women out, he just talked to them. I had to talk to him, and at first I was upset because I knew he wasn’t going to pay to take me out, but then he gave me tips just to sit and talk. He told the owner that he liked me and asked to buy out my contract, and the owner agreed since it was his friend. Usually, they didn’t allow men to buy women out.
So he paid the 130 bai [$10,000] that I owed and set me up in an apartment. He gave me money, and I also continued to work at the same snack bar, but I wasn’t in debt so I earned money. Women working without debt still had to go with a customer if he picked her out, but I didn’t have to try flirting and all anymore because I wasn’t so worried about money. On Tuesdays, I spent the day with my boyfriend, and the other days I worked. I continued to work there for almost two years after my debt was paid, and then I was arrested.
All of the local police came to the snack bar, just like in Thailand, and they were very nice—there were no problems. But then police came from Tokyo. They were cleaning up in preparation for the Olympics in Nagano, and an undercover police officer from Tokyo came to the snack bar. She said she was a tour operator from Tokyo—there were a lot of tours from Tokyo—and that she wanted to see the women. When the women lined up, the officer took out her ID and arrested us all. I always kept ten bai [$980] in my pocket to pay for my ticket to Thailand in case I was arrested and deported, so I had that with me. I also had my passport—the mama had kept it while I was in debt, but after my contract was paid I carried it at all times. I gave my money and passport to the officer, and she let me get my stuff, and then I was taken to jail. Five days later I returned to Thailand. I didn’t have to stay long because I had my passport and enough money for the trip home. When I left, I just got onto the plane like other passengers. There were 24 of us arrested together at the snack bar, and we were sent back to Thailand in groups of three or four.
Whenever I think too much, I get sad. But then I remember when I could only feed my children rice and soup. My husband didn’t help, so my kids had to stay with my mother while I went to earn money. That guy was physically abusive too. He would come home drunk and beat me. I tried to work it out with him. But things never changed. The oldest son knows everything I did. He remembers before, knows the choices I’ve made. I worry that my children will be embarrassed by me, by the fact that I was a prostitute. But I tell my kids: “I had many men on my chest and I cried, but I closed my eyes and thought of my kids.” I don’t know if they really listen or if it’s in one ear and out the other.
It’s all good luck or not. It was good luck that I had a good snack bar, and bad luck that I got arrested, and good luck that I found a good boyfriend. If you talk to different women, you will get very different stories. Some women start to gamble, spend their money on hosts, and drink. It gets difficult to remember why you’re there, for the young especially. Some are less obedient than me, so they have problems. The snack bar next door to me was run by the Yakuza so it was worse. Some women are killed or followed if they escape, or even if they are arrested. Some are followed to Thailand, so many don’t go back to their families right away, but wait. Now I want to go back to Japan to visit, but only legally. When I was in Japan, I had no rights because the job was illegal. I’d like to go back to see, independently. I’m trying to go legally, with a passport, so that I’m allowed to be there.
Narrative as told to Human Rights Watch, September 13, 1997, in Chiang Rai, Thailand.