Facing Facts about Asia's Sex Trade

For all the phony official outrage, prostitution involving teens, even children, is rampant throughout the region. Time for a reality check

By Brian Bremner

I doubt this will be Topic A at the upcoming Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit on Oct. 20-21 in Bangkok, when Pacific Rim bigwigs gather for their annual gabfest. But the salacious stories bouncing around the Internet and newspapers about Japanese sex tourists having their way with Chinese prostitutes at a luxury hotel in Zhuhai casts a harsh light on a well-known phenomenon: Asia is home to a runaway sex-trade industry.

That's not the way the story is being played in the Japanese press -- or by red-faced Japanese diplomats in Tokyo and outraged Chinese officials in Beijing. The focus right now is whether the sexual escapades by some 400 or so Japanese men on holiday added up to some sort of gross insult to a) the women involved, or b) the national pride of China.

Maybe coincidentally, the romp ended on Sept. 18, according to press reports. That's the anniversary of Japan's occupation of China back in 1931. And Chinese Internet chat rooms are in a state of high dudgeon over the perceived offense. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Kang Quan called the whole thing "odious" and urged the Japanese government to "enhance the education of its people in that respect." Japanese Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi expressed disbelief "that people go all the way to a foreign country to injure women's dignity."


  I have no idea whether these Japanese guys were mixing up sex with nationalistic longings for Japan's august Imperial past. Stranger things have happened. What's hard to stomach is the feigned shock and outrage by both Chinese and Japanese officials, when, in truth, this kind of thing goes on all the time and virtually all around the region.

With all due respect to Kang and Kawaguchi, wake up. Is it really a shocker that prostitutes ply their trade in Zhuhai, or Beijing, or Hong Kong? And, gee, are they just catering to randy Japanese tourists? Might they have domestic clients as well? Perhaps the Chinese government should consider educating its own men in this respect.

And hold on, Kawaguchi-san, is it really a news flash that Japanese men hop a flight to Zhuhai or Bangkok and pay for sex with foreign women? This unsavory story may well be forgotten a year from now. But the reality is that the sex trade -- which is a contributing factor to AIDS in the region and often involves children -- will continue merrily along.


  Sadly, no government in the region is really serious about stamping out the region's vast "adult-entertainment" industry. You could argue that a crackdown might make conditions even worse for those women that earn a living from it. I'm not interested into jumping into age-old morality debates about whether prostitution is an outright evil or essentially a "victimless crime" between two consenting adults (when both partners are adults).

What's undeniable is that a lot of young girls, by dint of necessity or under coercion, are getting swept up into this maw and are often having sex without protection. The World Health Organization, in a 2001 report entitled "Sex Work in Asia," came up with some startling finds:

• The premium age for sex workers in the region is from 12 to 16, and in Thailand one-third of foreign sex workers are less than 18.

• In India, 40% of female sex workers get in before 18, and in Nepal, 35% enter sex work before 15.

• In Sri Lanka, about 30% of all sex workers have been trafficked around the region.

As the Asia grows richer, more men have the kind of disposable income to spend and travel more. The sex industry will surely expand to meet that demand. So what's to be done? While it's unlikely this trade will disappear, governments can play a more responsible role by controlling the rules of engagement.


  Every country in the region should get deadly serious about enforcing laws that treat sex with minors as a crime. And governments need to share intelligence about criminal gangs that essentially trick or kidnap girls and force them to sell their bodies. More public-health information that stresses the need for condoms would help, too.

So let's all drop the affected outrage about the incident in Zhuhai. This stuff goes on all the time. And if regional leaders are serious about eliminating the public-health risks and shattered lives that come with Asia's thriving sex trade, they should start talking about it more candidly. Indeed, it's a problem worthy of a forum like the APEC meeting later this month in Bangkok. The real scandal is that it won't even come up.

Bremner, Tokyo bureau chief for BusinessWeek, offers his views every week in Eye on Japan, only for BusinessWeek Online

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.