Sex trafficking in Japan: An interdisciplinary exploration of Japan’s anti-trafficking efforts and their shortcomings


Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title



Trafficking in persons (TIP) is one of the most pressing global humanitarian and security crises facing the world in the twenty-first century. Yet, despite increasing attention to the problem, countermeasures have been woefully inadequate. One of the greatest barriers to effective counter-trafficking measures is the erroneous assumption that a uniform, global approach can successfully address the problem. Although trafficking is a transnational problem which requires transnational-level solutions, anti-trafficking policies require narrow tailoring to the specific environment they are expected to function in. Case studies can illustrate how regional and national factors warp policy implementation, elucidating why certain strategies fall short as they encounter specific cultural, historical, economic, and socio-political realities. Japan serves as a useful case study which has received relatively little scholarly and political attention despite its important role in the international sex trade. Tracing the history of sex trafficking and anti-trafficking legislation in Japan since 1872, the research strives to identify root causes of reform failures and other factors impeding their success, with the objective of devising practical, actionable policies aimed at addressing current shortcomings. This project adopts a critically descriptive approach. Rooted in interdisciplinarity, it is heavily informed by the fields of history, political science, sociology, and gender theory, as well as globalization studies, criminology, and international law. The research covers the 1872 to 2023 period, and takes the state as its main unit of analysis; notably, this work attempts to upset the tendency to ignore how gender relations shape the state and its actions. The research offers both general and case-specific insights as to why anti-trafficking policies fail, and it suggests that both country-level reforms as well as systemic overhaul are necessary to end trafficking. The dissertation is divided into four chapters. The first examines the intent behind the Japanese government’s anti-trafficking efforts and explores the role and limits of foreign pressure. It reveals that Japanese officials have long enacted sex-related legislation with the aim of safeguarding the country’s international image and bolstering the state’s influence, demonstrating Japan’s tendency to engage in cosmetic conformity. Seeking to uncover the reasons behind the state’s lack of political will to tackle trafficking, the second chapter examines gendered, racial, and classist influences upon sex-related legislation. It illustrates how various othering mechanisms impede efforts to prosecute sex trade-related crimes. Domestic institutions’ role in fueling, supporting, and tacitly endorsing systems of sexual exploitation and trafficking are subsequently explored in Chapter 3. Elements of corruption, complicity, and collusion between the state, institutionalized systems of exploitation, and criminal elements of Japanese society are investigated, focusing on how the military, yakuza, and police and justice system relate to human trafficking in Japan. Finally, the fourth chapter examines the impactful role of non-state actors on the development of anti-trafficking policies in Japan. It considers the interplay between the state and international and nongovernmental organizations. The chapter reveals that the changes Japan has made to align with international standards may be counterproductive in stopping trafficking. Having demonstrated Japan’s instrumentalization of sex-related legislation as a soft power tool, as well as the problems inherent with anti-trafficking strategies, the dissertation concludes with policy recommendations aimed at improving anti-trafficking outcomes in Japan, while also suggesting ways in which this case-study research can offer broader insights applicable beyond Japan’s borders. Effective anti-trafficking policies will require both the development of an intrinsic national-level desire to tackle trafficking in its own right, as well as the adoption of systemic and rights-based strategies and solutions.



Japan, Trafficking in persons (TIP), Anti-trafficking policies, International relations, Patriarchal state, Sex-related legislation

Graduation Month



Doctor of Philosophy


Security Studies Interdepartmental Program

Major Professor

Andrew Orr