When 16-year-old Julia Balick of Kinnelon arrived earlier this summer in Akihabara, she wasn’t interested in the comic book and animation culture that is a signature of the gaudy Tokyo shopping district.
Instead, she was there to observe the brisk trade in human trafficking. As the center of an entertainment industry that fetishizes schoolgirls, the area is considered a breeding ground for underage human trafficking, attracting girls with low self-esteem and little family support for work as escorts and prostitutes.
In electronics shops and comic book stores, Julia saw for sale pornographic videos featuring underage girls. She also saw on the street a stream of high school-age girls, dressed in their school uniforms, handing out pamphlets listing their services — which ranged from holding hands to taking a stroll — with men hovering nearby enforcing the “no photos” signs the girls wore. Although there was nothing explicitly unlawful or salacious on their lists, Julia learned that “joshi kosei osanpro,” “high school girls walking dates,” are regarded as at least sexually suggestive and are considered a gateway to underage human trafficking.
“You don’t see that in New Jersey,” said Julia, talking to NJJN in a coffee shop in Butler. “I knew I wasn’t in New Jersey anymore.”
Julia, a member of the Jewish Congregation of Kinnelon, visited the area as an intern with the Lighthouse: Center for Human Trafficking Victims, a Japanese not-for-profit organization formerly known as Polaris Project-Japan. The organization estimates the number victims of human trafficking in Japan at 54,000 a year.
Julia, who returned home July 14 after three weeks in Tokyo, wrote several essays about her experiences, which were translated into Japanese and uploaded onto the Lighthouse’s social media platforms. She also helped create awareness of World Trafficking Day, this year being held on July 30.
“I didn’t realize how busy it would be, and how dedicated the staff was,” said Julia. “At the Lighthouse, they were getting calls on the hotline every 20 minutes. Even on my last night, when they took me out to dinner, they left the table a few times to take calls.”
Although most of the conversation was in Japanese, and she didn’t deal directly with the hotline or interact with victims, Julia said she was aware of a particular case that involved a young trafficking victim who was threatening to harm herself.
“Most people in Japan don’t know this is going on,” she said.
Julia herself became aware of the issue after a Passover seder she attended this year.
“Every year we go to a seder at [Rabbi] Helaine Ettinger’s home,” Julia said. “The theme this year centered on human trafficking. At that point, I knew what human trafficking was, but I hadn’t really thought about it. That day really opened my eyes.”
Julia, now a rising junior at Kinnelon High School, can often be found playing tennis or softball rather than thinking about human rights, but she was so moved by the knowledge she had acquired at the seder that she started doing her own research.
“The fact that this was happening to young girls and I am a teenage girl, I could relate,” she said.
After a few weeks of research, she ended up getting in touch with the Lighthouse, and was then offered an internship. Although she had never been out of the country before, she and her parents, Eve and Ken Balick, decided that the three weeks in Japan would be a great opportunity for her; she left on June 23.
Her mother thought that the internship would be an enlightening experience for someone living a privileged and sheltered life in Kinnelon. And it didn’t hurt that her father has personal and professional ties in Tokyo and was able to arrange for Julia to stay with a colleague and his family.
Julia and her parents also arranged two other part-time internships for her: one with the International Internship Program, which places Japanese teaching assistants in American and Canadian schools, the other with Hands On Tokyo, a not-for-profit volunteer clearinghouse.
This fall, Julia will participate in the Diller Teen Fellows leadership program, cosponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, and said she is hoping to bring her interest in human trafficking into the program.
According to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, 155 human trafficking cases were reported in New Jersey in 2014, and 566 calls from victims and survivors to a trafficking hotline involved incidents in New Jersey. The Community Relations Committee of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ is a member of the NJ Coalition Against Human Trafficking, along with NCJW and Hadassah chapters and several other Jewish groups and area synagogues.
Julia said she had a simple reason for traveling so far to learn about a crime that is also taking place close to home. “I felt I was in a position to help,” she said.