AIDS problem spreading to nation's remote rural areas

COVER STORY   The Nikkei Weekly  Week Ending January 25, 1992

AIDS problem spreading to nation's remote rural areas
Local authorities blame prostitution in underworld-run bars

BY MICHAEL SHARI  Special to The Nikkei Weekly

Until 10 months ago, Wanna was selling fresh vegetables
in northeastern Thailand.
Then she sold herself into what a Thai middleman told her
was a good deal.

Today, she and other "hostesses" serve peanuts and beer and
snuggle up to customers in "snack bars" in the quaint Japanese
resort town of Komoro.

"If I catch AIDS, I'll give it to as many men as I can,"
she says with a sarcastic laugh.

Wanna (not her real name) is one of 500-600 Thais and Filipinas
who work in a nest of alleys in front of Komoro's railway station.

Nestled at the foot of Mt. Asama, an active volcano, this town
of 40,000 inhabitants in Nagano Prefecture may be the last place
anyone would expect to find an AIDS problem.

But it has one, according to local health workers and the town's
police chief, Rokuro Shibuya.
And unless the town's illegal, highly profitable prostitution industry is stam
ped out, Shibuya warns,
"AIDS will certainly continue to spread."

With a derisive grin, he adds:"Unfortunately, some heads of the
chambers of commerce say the presence of 500-600 prostitutes
benefits the economy.
Isn't that a ridiculous statement?"

Known to locals as Little Patpong (after the red-light district
in Bangkok), the alleys are lined with the garish neon signs
of more than 100 small snack bars.

Good for business

Taxi companies thrive on the fares between Little Patpong and the
dozens of short-stay hotels that ring the town, Shibuya says,
while supermarkets and other businesses also profit.

The patrons - often businessmen on vacation or visiting local
associates - pay around Yen 10,000 each for beer, peanuts and
other snacks.
They spend Yen 3,000-5,000 on a taxi, Yen 5,000 for two hours
in a room, and Yen 20,000 for an hour or two of intimacy.
An overnight encounter costs an additional Yen 10,000, Yen 5,000
more for the room.

Like the rest of the illegal sex industry that thrives in some
other small towns like Komoro, the snack bars and the money
flowing through them are controlled by the yakuza, Japan's
organized crime syndicates, Shibuya says.

During the day, Komoro's alleys are as gray and jaded as
in red-light districts anywhere in the world.
The women start to appear around 5 p.m. at a few Thai
restaurants and a Thai grocery store,
some looking only half awake after a long night.

The women say they have almost no money of their own,
except tips from customers.
They receive none of their earnings until they work off
a debt of Yen 3.5 million ($28,000) each - the price
the yakuza paid the Thai middlemen who sent them to Japan,
more than 20 times Thailand's per capita income.

To make sure the women hold their end of the bargain, the yakuza
confiscate their passports and valuables, the women say.

"The girls start gathering in these places
before they start the day," says a Japanese health worker
who gives blood tests to the hostesses.

He is one of several in the local medical community
who are concerned the town is a breeding ground for AIDS.

Unknown number

But no one knows how many HIV carriers and full-blown AIDS
cases Komoro has.
The police have compiled hospital reports of only
two full-blown AIDS cases, both foreign women.

But the head of one local clinic says it had two such patients
as of last March when one, a Filipina woman, died.

Patients at his clinic and others in the town have tested positive
for HIV, he acknowledges, but he refuses to say how many.

"Journalists from all over Japan would converge on Komoro," he says.

According to Dr. Tetsuro Irohira, an internal medicine specialist
at nearby Saku Central Hospital, on full-blown AIDS patient,
a Thai snack bar hostess, was referred to him last spring
by a health clinic.
But when he tried to call her dormitory, he was told she didn't
live there anymore.

"Either she escaped, or the yakuza took her to another town
under a new name," Irohira said.
"That's what they do when they have trouble with the girls."

Police quiet

Loopholes in Japan's anti-prostitution laws prevent Shibuya's
50-man force from clamping down, he claims.
Before they can act, the police must receive a complaint.

"The women are afraid the middlemen who sent them here will
take revenge on them or their families back home," he says.

As in the rest of Japan, the Komoro police resort to
arresting hostesses for immigration violations.
When arrested, they are sent to a holding center in Tokyo.
But they are released prior to deportation,
and they often disappear.

"Many return to prostitution voluntarily to survive," Shibuya says.

As a last resort, Shibuya is urging a boycott of the snack bars,
hoping to squeeze their profits and ultimately close them down.
Komoro can survive on its existing tourist resources - Mt. Asama,
hot springs, golf courses and the ruins of a castle, he reckons.

Backing Shibuya is a new association of some 30 private health
clinics, stores and other busunesses in Komoro.
In late December, the group, Soyukai, raised concern over
the presence of HIV carriers in the town, especially with the 1998
Winter Olympics scheduled to be held in Nagano.

"The symposium will be showing at the time of the Olympics.
It will be serious social problem," a Soyukai statement said.

The statement also decried the violations of the foreign
women's human rights, and it said international attention
could be expected to focus on the issue in 1998.
"Even though Southeast Asian people are poor and want to work
in Japan, it's not an appropriate excuse for the Japanese
to use them for the sex industry in Japan."

The problems go on.
Accordings to hospital workers and Christian missionaries
in the neighboring town of Minowa, half-breed children are
abandoned every year at the local hospital's maternity ward
by Thai and Filipina hostess.

The missionaries say the children are usually put
in state orphanage.
They are put out on the street at adulthood,
often to join the yakuza.

"Japan has a timebomb on its doorstep," says Roberta Rees,
one of the missionaries.


Summontra is not worried about any future timebombs.
She has enoughon her mind now.

Summontra (not her real name) was an elementary school teacher
in northeastern Thailand until four weeks ago, when she began
working in a Komoro snack bar.
She is drunk on beer and tense from stimulants by 10 p.m.,
having just returned from a hotel.

"He took me six times in the hotel room," she says. "Torture."

The 24-year-old divorced mother says she knew she would be
expected to sleep with Japanese men.
But she had no idea her passport - which she admits is fake -
would be taken from her to keep her from escaping.

"I always thought the Japanese would be kind at heart,"
she say, sobbing.
"I never expected them to treat me this way."


Photo: Police Chief Shibuya warns that AIDS will
spread unless tough legal measures are enacted to fight
the high-profit prostitution industry.


Photo: Thai hostesses sit with a bar customer
in the vacation city of Komoro.
Doctors there fear AIDS could spread from
the town's infamous bar district.


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