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Tuesday, September 20, 2011

My Friend the Slave: Forced Labor in America

This week, I have a new release at Changeling Press. Generally, I'd take this week to promote the book on my blog, but in conjunction with Jessica Freely, the author of "Broken," we're going to talk about a couple real-life subject that are very ugly and painful. As authors, its not unusual for topics such as slavery and the Yakuza to be used at plot devices. In real life, these things are not sexy or romantic, and they are too, too real.

Please come back on the 23rd for Jessica's article on human trafficking and the Polaris Project.

The story that follows is true.

I once had a friend named…well…I can’t tell you his name. There’s a reason for that, as you’ll see once you read his story. For his privacy and his safety, I’ll call him Ken Tanaka.

Ken came into my life in the late 1990s. He’d moved to the US from Japan to make a career as a dog breeder and handler. For simplicity, I’m going to leave a lot of detail from the story, just suffice it to say that he and his wife and newborn moved to a small town about an hour away from me. By Northern California standards, we were practically neighbors. Ken and I used to travel to dog shows together and he mentored me and often handled my dog for me. In return, I helped him and his wife adapt to life in a rural area; they’d been living in Japanese communities in the Bay Area.

9/11 was a momentous day for obvious reasons. For me, I also look back on that as being the day that I failed my friend in the most tragic way possible. As my family watched the horror unfolding on television, Ken called me in a panic. His marriage had fallen apart the previous year but he’d been coping. That day, he needed my help for some reason; I don’t really remember what it was. I was hugely distressed and told him to watch the TV and call me back the next day. He didn't call back for a few weeks. He had taken a job in Sacramento and wanted to know if I could come down and take care of his kennel when he was working.

His construction business in Japan had folded and he needed a job to send money to his partner back home. The business was in debt and they didn’t have recourse to bankruptcy like we do in the US. Plus, his Japanese clients had abandoned their dogs with him and weren’t paying their handling and boarding bills. This situation seemed bad, but we had no idea what was really happening in his life.

Ken used to tell me about growing up in Osaka. He told me that he was lucky to have escaped the Yakuza; he’d been orphaned as a teen and was a prime recruit. He had absolute, utter fear and contempt for the Yakuza and mentioned them a few times over the years. I assumed that as he’d grown up, that threat had left his life. I now suspect that I was very, very wrong.

Just before Christmas, I visited Ken. He lived in a small mobile home and when I got there, he had no heat. His propane had been shut off. To my dismay, he had a bucket of charcoal burning in his living room, that’s all that kept him from freezing. It was a miracle he hadn’t died of carbon monoxide poisoning. His van was gone and he was riding a bicycle 15 miles to town for dog food. He was living on broccoli and rice. I took him shopping, he wrote checks on empty accounts.

I called a friend for advice, and she secretly paid his utilities and got his heat back on. Since it was the holidays, we brought food baskets to him for Christmas. For awhile, it looked like we’d averted the worst of the possible disasters. What didn’t make sense was that Ken was a master sushi chef and working in Sacramento from early morning till 11:00 every night…six days a week. He was exhausted from his work hours, yet he was broke. His van was gone...so how was he getting back and forth? It was a 100 mile drive.

I want to pause here. Ken was in the US legally. He had a green card and a Social Security card. I assumed he knew his rights under the law. He had no idea.

So…if Ken was working 60 to 80 hours a week…why was he starving? Why were his dogs starving? And where was his van? When he was gone, I dug into his paperwork. His bills were all delinquent and there were stacks of correspondence from Japan. Most was in Japanese but there were letters in English as well. They were mostly from a business acquaintance I’ll call Mr. A. Over the course of the year, Ken had paid tens of thousands of dollars to this man. He’d settled his debt, and suddenly, Mr. A wanted more.

Abruptly, things got worse. He was moved to a restaurant in Vallejo. His “employers” drove him home once a week to tend his dogs. They dropped him off and returned for him later; I never met any of the men. In the meantime, either my sister or I went down daily, trying to keep things together for him. We found homes for the abandoned dogs and returned others to their breeders. We discovered that Ken hadn’t been paid in weeks. His home was being foreclosed on. His van had been repossessed by his lender.

Another friend reported his employers to the Dept. of Labor and Ken received his back wages. For a brief time, things looked better. He got his van back and caught up on some bills. Abruptly he was moved again. And again. Alameda, Pleasanton, Vacaville, back to Sacramento…I eventually lost track of him. Since his dogs had been re-homed, I no longer needed to take care of his kennel. I dropped in and checked his property anytime I passed through, but everything was locked up tight. There was evidence that Ken had been home now and then, as his plants had been watered and the weeds had been cut.

One day I got a call, he wasn’t going home again and I was welcome to take whatever I wanted. He just walked away from everything…his artwork, his furniture and his personal possessions.

Over the next couple years, Ken dropped in at dog shows and I was alarmed to see that this skinny, frail man had lost even more weight. He told me he’d been living in his van outside the restaurant, but wouldn’t tell me where. His employers held his green card and he was afraid of being deported. We discussed the feasibility of his returning to Japan, but that idea seemed frightening to Ken.

At one point, I called his work and the manager of the restaurant screamed at me and wouldn’t let me talk to him. Another time I saw him at a dog show, he said he was now living in a small rental house, but “someone” had stolen his most precious possession…a custom sushi knife that his mentor had commissioned for him from a famous Japanese knife maker. It was worth thousands of dollars. He’d cherished that knife and was saving it until he opened his own restaurant.

Ken promised to come out to another dog show, but I never saw him again. But every few months, I did web searches, trying to pinpoint his location. After a couple years, I nearly gave up, assuming he’d returned to Japan.

And then something unexpected happened.

Remember I said that Ken was a master sushi chef? Well, he’s a Master Sushi Chef. As in…famous within the industry. When he worked in Alameda, his cooking was reviewed by a major critic. Culinary students began pestering him for training. He vanished again, but his fans and admirers followed him to Oakland. A major movie producer hired him to cater some of his parties. He began to train apprentices. I knew him as a superb dog trainer and groomer. A lot more people knew him as something else completely. In the end, I think that’s what saved him.

When we think of human trafficking, we generally think of sex slavery and prostitution. Forced labor is another major element of this vile industry and some of the major culprits are restaurants. I had no idea this sort of thing happened so I didn’t respond as I should have. There were red flags all over the place. Ken’s “employers” controlled his movements, limited his contacts with outsiders, worked him ridiculously long hours, took his papers and blackmailed him with the threat of deportation. They didn’t pay him and moved him whenever he drew attention from the authorities, his friends or his growing circle of admirers. They even controlled his health, taking him to the doctor when he needed attention, and allowing him a single meal a day. He lost weight, became fearful and paranoid and yet always told me that there was “No Problem.”

I still haven’t caught up with Ken, but I have a pretty good idea where he is, and I’ve located a former student of his. My hope is that Ken became too high profile for his “employers” to continue to exploit. Next month, I’ll be taking a trip to see if I can track him down. I want to see him for myself.

Now when I look back, I strongly suspect that “Mr. A” was a member of the Yakuza. When Ken spoke of them, it was always with profound fear and contempt. He hated Mr. A. He could barely look at a tattoo without becoming ill. The transformation of my friend was nothing short of unbelievable. He’d been a confident, responsible man. He ran a business and had a big, supportive circle of friends and clients. Watching his downfall was painful in every respect. Sometimes I felt like I was holding onto him by my fingernails, yet he slipped away despite my efforts and the efforts of others. I felt…and I still feel that I should have tried a little harder. I should have ignored his fears of deportation and done something At that time, I literally didn’t know who could have helped. Who would have listened if I’d called the police in some small town and said, “I think my friend had been enslaved by the Yakuza...” Even now, it sounds like the plot to a bad manga.

Earlier this year, I spoke with Jessica about human trafficking and told her Ken’s story. And to my shame, it wasn’t until that conversation that I really began to put all the pieces together: The red flags, the illogical financial collapse, the fears he developed of deportation. So many years have passed. In March, the dog Ken showed for me passed away of old age. I go to shows and on occasion, people ask if I’ve heard from him lately. I ask others the same question. The answer is always no.

Now I’ll tell you the most heartbreaking coincidence of all—this past year, I’ve been within a quarter-mile of the restaurant he now reportedly works in. Twice, I was just blocks away from him, and didn’t know it.

Sometimes the guilt hits me hard, but I’m just a person…I don’t live in a world where people market other people like animals. But it happens, and we can all do something about it. Visit the Project Polaris website, learn the signs and then just watch the world around you. My hope is that Ken has climbed out of this pit he’d fallen into. The last time I saw him, I told Ken that my daughter had become a chef, and he wanted to train her in sushi. I can’t help but think if things were still terrible, he wouldn’t have extended that invitation. Hopefully, in a few weeks, I’ll know for sure.

http://www.polarisproject.org/

3 comments:

Katey said...

This is a really important post. I had absolutely no idea about the kind of slavery that still existed in America... until I hooked up with a guy in the US on an H1B visa. Now I see it everywhere I look. I'm not surprised, but very saddened, that it can still happen when they've gone through the tremendous trouble of getting a green card :/ Cheers to you for getting the word out.

Jessica Freely said...

A very moving post, Belinda. Can't really think of anything else to say that's not already in my upcoming post. Thank you for sharing this.

Belinda M. said...

Katey, it seems just unreal that it can happen, doesn't it? I mean, I saw some really borderline stuff in Hong Kong with nannies from the Philipines, but to look around in North America and see it? Amazing. Now every time I go to a restaurant, I wonder.

Jessica, I thank you for writing 'Broken' and for taking the time to talk to me about my friend. As my sister and I compare notes, the situation becomes more and more obvious. If he's where I think he is and I have even a hint that things aren't aboveboard, I'll call Polaris and see if there's anything they can do. The Department of Labor sure didn't help. :(