BANGKOK - A Thai woman who spent several months in Japan as a sex slave in the early 2000s told Kyodo News in a recent interview she fears visa-free entry for short-term Thai tourists to Japan could be a double-edged sword.
"Na," not her real name, recounted her own ordeal at the hands of human traffickers, adding that making it easier for legitimate tourists to visit Japan might also make it easier for traffickers supplying Thai women to Japan's sex trade.
According to the U.S. Trafficking in Persons report for 2013, Thailand is a regular source, destination and transit country for all genders subject to forced labor and trafficked into the sex trade.
In Na's case, which began in 2000 when an acquaintance suggested she could find her a high-paying job at a Thai restaurant in Japan, the naive young woman from northeastern Thailand travelled on a doctored passport, but one that had all the visa requirements filed in.
Now, without needing the paperwork, travel could be even easier.
Separated from her husband and with two small children to raise, Na saw the offer of 40,000 baht ($1,300) a month for restaurant work as her passport out of subsistence and into a reasonable later life for herself and her children back in Thailand.
But the "impossible dream" of riding in an airplane to "riches" turned into a real-life nightmare.
She said her acquaintance, married to a Japanese man, had "offered a job as a waitress in Japan to me, saying that her husband would open the new branch of a Thai restaurant. It was huge money for me."
And even once she realized the passport she was given for her trip to Japan did not have her name nor her picture in it, Na decided to grab "this chance" and fly.
"I was so frightened because it was not my name, not my photo...I thought I could not pass the immigration," Na said.
But she sailed through immigration with a richly dressed Thai woman who had been hired to be her escort.
"When I arrived at Narita airport, my friend did not show up, but a Thai lady and an Indonesian man picked me up and took me to a place called Mie," Na said.
On the way to Mie Prefecture, central Japan, Na said she continued to dream about the new job and supporting her family.
The dream ended when the car stopped at an apartment in a city and she was taken into a small room where she discovered a friend from a nearby village in Thailand.
"I was so glad to meet her since we hadn't met for a long time, but she asked me, with a serious face, why I was here," Na said.
The answer was a 1.3 million baht debt.
Na's acquaintance who had not met her at the airport had sold her to the couple, as her friend had been, and Na was told she must work in the sex trade to pay off the debt.
Saying she would rather die than become a prostitute, Na initially refused to work, but after it became clear she would be locked in the room without food and her children would have nothing to live on at home, she acquiesced.
"Even though I used to have a husband and gave birth to two children, it was disgusting to sleep with strangers...it was exactly like rape," Na said.
She and her friend were forced to "serve" six to eight customers a day normally and more than 10 at the ends of months.
They spent their lives, she says, "as robots," sleeping in the small room and only taking short accompanied trips to hotels -- their workplaces.
"My friend and I promised to find a way to escape and go back to Thailand, even though it was hopeless", she said.
Only, when by chance she was allowed to go to the toilet in a Thai restaurant unaccompanied, did the long nightmare begin to ease.
She met a Thai man in the restaurant who, on hearing her plight and that she would probably be sold to another agent when her debt was paid, promised to help her escape.
He and another man arranged to "buy" Na and her friend for a night and then help the women flee.
The plan began well, but the "owners" became suspicious and came back to check on the two women.
Na and her "customer" had made it onto a train for Chiba near Tokyo and escaped but her friend and her "customer" were caught and ended up killing the woman who had been enslaving the two younger women before they could get a train for Chiba.
Both were eventually caught and sentenced to prison in Japan.
Na was charged with overstaying her visa and was "happily" sent back to Thailand.
"When I returned to Thailand, I filed a case against the people who were involved in sending me to Japan, including the friend who offered the job to me," Na said.
And even though the legal process continues to this day, Na said she chose to speak out now as a warning to others who might be tempted by other human traffickers, especially now that visa-free trips for Thai citizens on short-term visits to Japan are planned to begin this summer.
"It is good news (about visa-free visits) not only for Thai tourists, but also for those who organize human trafficking. I just want to alert others to be especially careful," she said.