Colombian sex-trade workers in Tokyo

by Monty DiPietro

Rosa pops her chewing gum and smiles a coy little smile. The salarymen walks by.

As another approaches, Rosa curls a long lock of dark red hair with a leather-gloved finger, cocks her head and begins to work that smile again, until her pitch is interupted by the muffled ring of a cell phone in the pocket of her black down parka. After a few quick words in Spanish, Rosa gives a quick nod to the two friends working the street with her and points to her forehead, twirling her finger in a tiny circle.

The phone call was from a lookout stationed a few hundred meters away on Shokuan Dori, and in the street culture of Okuboís Latin American sex trade workers, the tiny circle Rosa described indicates a policemanís hat badge. The trio bolt under the Yamanote line tracks and west into Hyakunin-cho. A group of Thai girls down the street take the cue to turn and walk quickly up toward Okubo Dori, and the Korean girl standing beside a Coca cola machine disappears into a nearby noodle shop.

I elect to wait for the boys in blue.

"Weíve arrested most of them and theyíve been deported," boasts the round-faced veteran who appears several minutes later. The beat policeman and I recognize each other from an incident several weeks earlier in which I was able to lend a hand rescuing a hysterical woman who was trapped in her apartment. We broke down a door together. We bonded.

"Most of the girls working this street are Thais, but there are also a few South Americans," he says, "Colombians are the latest group." The rookie sidekick fidgets with his telescoping steel baton and peers down the cold, empty street. My cop pal shoots me a curious look before walking away, "What are you doing out at this hour? Be careful in this neighborhood."

Itís Thursday morning, 3AM, in Shinjukuís Okubo.

The street Iím standing on runs 500 meters west from Nishi Okubo Park - a miserable little trash-littered square - to a grey concrete wall that supports the JR Chou line just south of Okubo station. During the mid-1990s, this narrow, hotel-lined strip served as the main artery of the areaís thriving foreign street-prostitution business. I counted 50 girls working there on a late winter night scarcely a year ago. Over the last few months, aggressive sweeps by police and undercover immigration officials have reduced the numbers significantly.

"The police donít just ride through on bicycles anymore," says an elderly Japanese resident. "Now they march through in groups of eight with their batons drawn, looking for foreign prostitutes," she says, "and Iranians."

A Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department spokesman hedges during a telephone interview, "Itís true that we have recently changed from wooden to steel batons and that we have a policy that requires officers to have the batons in their hand when patrolling at night, but there is no dispute from local residents regarding this policy...and we are not giving any special attention to the Okubo area."

When asked about the pack-patrolling, he responds, "We have no comment on that at this time."

I catch up with Rosa at Canandonga, a Colombian restaurant-bar. Down a short flight of stairs off a Hyakunin-cho street, past a wooden door displaying a "No Iranians" sign, the low-lit room is filled with the smell of pollo frita. A Spanish-language cover version of "Hotel California" plays for the dozen customers, most of whom are South American. Rosa is sitting at the bar, reading a Colombian newspaper story about the Popeís Cuban visit.

I order a beer, pull my Basque beret down over my eyes, and try to act Spanish.

The place fills up steadily, more girls arrive and the music improves. At about 5AM, a South American man who looks to be in his late twenties walks in and is greeted by a Japanese dandy wearing a rust-colored suit. The pair sit down at a corner table and are soon joined by two more men. A cardboard shoebox-sized package is produced and opened, and several silver foil bricks taken out and passed around. I canít believe this is happening, right out in the open. I try to appear nonchalant, staring at the red label of my Colombian Club Pilsner while sneaking peeks at the action reflected in a wall mirror. One of the foil bricks is taken to the bar, and I catch the glint of steely knife.

The bartender looks over to where Iím sitting.

In English: "Where are you from?"

My cover is blown, I think, and as I gringo over to the counter a whole gamut of Colombian bad guy cliches plays in my head - What the hell am I doing in here?!

I glance down at the silver brick.

Coffee. A present from home. I feel like an idiot.

Javier the bartender, who doubles as the Canandonga DJ, is married to a Japanese woman he met in Colombia. He has been living here a little more than one year. Over the next few days I get to know Javier and some of the Canandonga regulars, a friendly bunch of nighthawks who are apt to buy you a beer and jump up to dance [really well] at 6AM. No drugs, no fights, no problem. So much for stereotypes.

"The Colombian men here mostly work in restaurants or factories" Javier explains, "most of the girls would like to work inside, but if they canít find jobs they work the streets, and when their three month tourist visas expire theyíre stuck."

Another man tells me that a common technique used by Colombians entering Japan is to fly to Lima, Peru where there is a black market in forged passports identifying the bearer as half-Japanese. "If youíre a Ďhalfí," he says, "You have it easy in Japan."

Javier asks Rosa if I can take her picture and she refuses, explaining that she fears retaliation from Immigration officials. Rosa, who wears a beret just like mine, tells her customers she is Spanish. The curvy 25 year-old asks 20,000 yen for intercourse, but sheíll settle for 15,000 if the john pays the love hotel room charge. Most of the customers are Japanese businessmen, but Rosa has also had a few foreigners come her way. On a good day she can turn several tricks. Petty Yakuza and the remaining Iranians hit Rosa up for protection payments, usually 1,000 yen each per hour, and lately the police have been chasing her away so often that Rosa sometimes loses money by stepping out. She has to be careful now that her visa has expired, she says with a shudder, because that is when the strip-searches start.

Joe, who describes himself as "Persian," is the guy who called Rosa to alert her about the police earlier in the evening. Joe is a hulking, scary-looking guy, square-jawed with deep-set little black eyes, fat lips, and a big, bent nose. Standing in front of Nishi Okubo Park in a grey bomber jacket and black wool toque, Joe is the reason police patrol in groups around here.

I offer Joe a cigarette.

"There arenít many Iranians left in Okubo," he says in a husky voice, eyes constantly darting this way and that. "The police caught most of them because maybe some were selling drugs or having knife fights, I donít know."

Joe sizes me up when I ask him if he sells drugs, "You smoke?"

I put out my cigarette and answer no. A Colombian woman gets out of a taxi and Joe walks over to greet her. "My girlfriend," he says as he gingerly takes her hand and the two walk away.

The sun is coming up. I head for La Caverna, a Shokuan Dori Colombian disco Javier told me about.

Itís Mariaís birthday party and the joint is jumping. The buzz in the room is that the previous Saturday night, three Yakuza gangsters started pushing a Colombian guy around at a nearby Latin disco and a newly-arrived-in-Tokyo Peruvian jumped in and laid the gangsters out singlehandedly. The story has it that the mysterious Peruvian is a singer, and a few days later at Canandonga I again hear about the "hero singer" from Pedro, a Peruvian who works in a Saitama factory. Now the story goes that there were not three, but ten gangsters, and that the Peruvian knocked half of them out cold. When I ask Pedro if he thinks the Yakuza will try to close the disco, he laughs and replies, "The gangsters own the disco!"

I bump into Rosa, who tells me that a friend recently solved her visa problem by marrying a Japanese. The two donít live together, and it seems a few million yen was involved in the deal.

"So the marriage is a lie," I say, and Rosa frowns.

"No, itís just a lie for Immigration," she explains.

"And thatís not a real lie."


Montreal-born Monty DiPietro, 38, is an artist, performer, and writer living in Kabukicho, Tokyo.
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