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She thought she found love in a Japanese host club. Then the bills ballooned – and she was coerced into sex work

Tokyo CNN —

Yu felt a rush of excitement as she walked into his bar for the first time – eager to meet the charming young host she’d been following for years online.

On that cold January night last year, they chatted over champagne – the first of many meetings that would have Yu fast falling in love.

Yu, 41, a clinician and divorced mother of two, soon began spending every spare minute with him at the bar in Tokyo’s main red-light district, dropping thousands of dollars on heavily marked-up alcohol.

In return, he showered Yu with attention and small gifts, celebrating her birthday with her and even promising to buy her a ring.

“He said, ‘You are my girlfriend,’” said Yu, who CNN is identifying by a pseudonym to protect her privacy. “I believed him.”

Yu says the host, handsome and in his 20s, encouraged her to run up a bar tab that quickly spiraled out of control.

Then, her money ran out – and everything changed.

A silhouette of Yu, who first met her host in January 2023. More than a year later, she is still in debt and resorting to sex work to pay her bills.

With no way for Yu to pay the 25 million yen (about $165,000) she owed to the bar, he said he would take care of the debt. But now she would have to repay him – with sex work the only way to raise the cash.

Yu is one of hundreds of women coerced to sell their bodies after frequenting Japan’s so-called “host clubs,” experts told CNN.

There are more than 300 of these venues in Tokyo’s neon-lit Kabukicho district, offering male companionship to lonely women.

Though not all hosts exploit their female clients, authorities say some clubs are linked to organized crime, while activists say loose regulation of the industry has allowed abuse to fester.

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