Three years ago Shihoko Fujiwara received this startling message from a teenager living in the Kanto region via a social networking site: "I am full of longing for death."
The 14-year-old girl who wrote the message soon met with Fujiwara, who leads the Polaris Project Japan, a nonprofit group that fights human trafficking, and told her that she had been forced into prostitution almost every day for the previous two months.
Human trafficking is not unheard of in Japan. Also called "modern-day slavery," it is an act that benefits from forced prostitution or labor by putting victims under control through cajolery, fraudulence, violence, threat and other means.
Japan has remained in Tier 2 in the U.S. State Department's Annual Trafficking in Persons Report since 2005. The designation, second from the most compliant on a four-level scale, is given to "countries whose governments do not fully comply with the Trafficking Victims Protection Act's minimum standards, but are making significant efforts to bring themselves into compliance with those standards."
Fujiwara, who used to work for the Polaris Project in the United States, established the Polaris Project Japan in 2004.
The group has since received some 3,000 reports of grievances. Initially, most were from foreigners living in Japan. But the number of Japanese seeking consultations surged around 2009, including some serious cases.
So far in 2014 the group has received 1.5 times more consultations than usual since late July, when summer vacation began at schools.
In the case of the 14-year-old girl, her group of friends wanted to earn spending money through prostitution by posting an ad on an online dating site.
The girl, the youngest in the clique, was selected because her friends thought she would be "popular with old men."
Her peers selected "clients" from men who responded to the ad that read: "A second-year junior high school student is looking for somebody to play with."
As ordered by her peers, the girl would go to a designated hotel alone and ask for money as soon as she and her client were inside the room.
She would then give the money, around 10,000 yen ($102) each time, to her peers.
The girl, who had been a virgin, was traumatized by the ordeal. Anxious that her parents and school officials would find it out, she said she was left with no strength to resist her friends' demands.
The "clients" included a college student and a man who was around the same age as her own grandfather.
Although she was able to eventually get out of her forced prostitution, she told Fujiwara that she was still tormented by what she had done.
"My body has gotten dirty," the girl said.
Another individual who sought assistance from the Polaris Project Japan was a woman in her early 30s living in the Kanto region.
"I want to get out of my current situation," she said.
With loans from various consumer finances, she began working in the night entertainment business to repay her debts when she was 19.
A man whom she got to know through her job and eventually became her "boyfriend" offered to take over her debts.
He told her that "it will be easier to pay back if those debts are bundled into one," suggesting that she would repay him instead of the credit companies.
But when she found herself saddled with exorbitant interest she could hardly repay, the man forced her to juggle several stints in the nightlife business. He also physically abused her when she said she could not pay him back.
He also made her transfer the contracts and ownership of her apartment, cellphone and other possessions to him.
When the woman finally fled from the man with the help of the Polaris Project Japan, she only had 200,000 yen in savings, despite having worked in the entertainment business for more than 10 years.
In 2005, Japan added in its Criminal Code a crime of buying or selling of people. Those accused could face three months to five years in prison if they were found guilty of buying a victim. If the accused were convicted of selling a victim, their penalty would vary from one year to 10 years in prison.
But critics are demanding that the crime of human trafficking should specifically be incorporated into the Criminal Code because perpetrators could get away with charges of buying and selling of people as long as money is not involved in wrongdoings.
Fujiwara said offenders exploit prospective victims by offering what they want or need.
"Exploiters readily give girls what they have desired, such as quasi-romance or an apartment," she said. "So the girls will be brainwashed."
While some criticize victims for being so gullible to fall into a trap, Fujiwara said many of the victims had nobody else to turn to for help.
"Those girls, victims of abuse themselves, did not have adults nearby to protect them," she said. "People who suspect girls around them might be in trouble should report it to us."
At a symposium in Tokyo, the Japan Network Against Trafficking in Persons (JNATIP), which comprises about 30 groups, including the Polaris Project Japan, adopted a statement calling on Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga to establish a government office responding to human trafficking cases.
The network also advocates the establishment of a law concerning the protection of victims and preventions.
Yoko Yoshida, co-leader of the JNATIP, said, "What is at issue is not whether prostitution was coerced, but whether there was exploitation."
She added, "The government should work with private groups to collect incidents of human trafficking and ponder countermeasures and set up a government office in charge of responding to such cases."
The Polaris Project Japan’s hotline in Japanese and English is 0120-879-871.
The group is working to raise 1.6 million yen by June 20 for its emergency response funds through contributions from the public.