Saturday, June 13, 2009

Tres Marias

Worrying that we would go over our agreed one hour limit, I was stealing glances at my companion who was engrossed in animated chatter with his assigned hostess. The sign outside the club said 2,000yen per hour from 7pm-9pm and 2,800yen per hour from 9pm-onwards. that's per person, so for the two of us, our bill would be an easy 5,600yen. my companion didn't seem to be worried, so i turned my attention back to my own assigned hostess, who, like me, also seemed not to be fully in the moment.

This was our first night out on official business, gathering data for our dissertation research. My companion, who is also my flat-mate, is also into migration research but while my focus is on irregular migrants, his is on how regular migrants have been able to adapt and eventually prosper within the legal bounds of Japan's immigration laws.

After spending most of my first two months here at APU scanning the available literature on irregular migration, I've come up with the following preliminary research questions for my research on irregular migrants, my dissertation topic:

1. How do irregular migrants manage to survive amidst adverse conditions namely:
1.1. Lack of access to basic social services (health, education, housing, etc).
1.2. Work discrimination and exploitation

2. How are they able to elude detection and arrest?
2.1. How do the regular migrants view the irregular migrants (same/different nationality)?
2.2. What role do social networks/transnational communities play in the irregular migrants’ survival?

3. How are irregular migrants able to cope with any negative effects on their self esteem and identity resulting from their disadvantaged status in the host country especially considering that, in poorer emigrant countries, a high prestige status is ascribed to migrants in general by their immediate family and relatives?

4. Are there any cases where an irregular migrant may become a regular one?

5. How do employers of illegal migrants source their illegal workers? Through what network of contacts? How do they keep their illegal workers from being caught?

With the help of my faculty supervisor, I worked out a plan to be able to pilot test these initial research questions, validating them further and, ultimately, targeting to pin down the concrete focus of my dissertation research. It was a big plus that a portion of my field expenses would be reimbursed thru my school-budgeted research fund, making it critical that my research activities had the blessing and formal approval of my faculty supervisor.

"Santiiiii!!!!" the first Filipina hostess screamed, her face melting into a warm, wide smile, raising her hand to give a high-five to my companion (name's of persons and places have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals). "Apple!!!!," answered back Santi, after split-second or two of silence, "Dito ka na pala nagtatrabaho [so this is where you are working now]." For a moment, I thought Santi had forgotten her name and it would surely be embarrassing. I learned that a few years back Santi and Apple had been co-workers in another establishment.

Apply quickly cordoned us off into a quiet little corner of the club, and i hadn't even warmed my seat yet when a second, elegently-dressed Filipina hostess approached our table. "O! Pilipino kayo! [Oh, you are Filipinos!]," she exclaimed upon hearing us talking. I awkwardly made space for her to sit, not knowing if she should sit to my left or to my right. You see, Santi was seated to Apple's right side, and I to her left, and with both of them intimately reminiscing about their work days together, and with I looking over Apple's shoulder towards them, i felt like a little boy listening to lovers whispering sweet nothings to each other.

The second Filipina hostess unilaterally resolved my great dilemma by gracefully squirming herself into the small space that opened up between Apple and myself. Santi and I were now at the opposite ends of that short, upholstered yet cozy bench, originally designed, i think, for 3 people only (one guest and two hostesses sandwiching him). We were so closely squeezed to each other that it wasn't just the bottom of my butt that was soft -- the seat -- but my hips weren't complaining either with the equally soft cushion it was enjoying - her hips. Indeed, I had arrived at the Japanese bar scene.

Truly, you can now see, it was no small struggle to remember and stay focused on the fact that were were doing research in that club. :).

Given the sensitivity of my study topic, the single, biggest hurdle would be in identifying, finding, establishing contact and building the trust and confidence of irregular migrants, hopefully to a level enough for them to feel safe and agree to an interview. Sheldon Zhang, in a book entitled "Chinese Human Smuggling Organizations: Families, Social Networks, and Cultural Imperatives(2008)," narrates how they had to spend countless hours drinking and socializing with their network of local contacts in order to gain their trust and confidence, ultimately leading to the 129 smugglers who they were able to interview. Rey Ventura, in his book "Underground in Japan(2006)," explored the world of Kotobuki, a Filipino enclave in Yokohama, Japan, where he himself became an irregular, overstaying migrant, observing, first-hand, the life and struggles of the Filipino illegals.

So, we were in that club, not because we expected to find any illegals there, but because the first step in doing so would be to slowly build my network of contacts among the Filipino regular/legal migrants in Beppu who would, in turn, hopefully point me to any illegals they were in touch with.

My pilot testing protocol listed 7 strategies to be able to build a respectable number of irregular migrant interviewees, who would form the base of my empirical data for my study.

1. Long-time Filipino residents of Beppu/Osaka/Tokyo
A number of Filipinos are settled down and fully integrated into the local Beppu community, and with their help thru referrals, I may be able to get to know other Filipinos who may, in turn, possibly lead me to any irregular migrants. I also have an extensive network of Filipino friends in Osaka and Tokyo who may provide me significant leads.

2. Filipina entertainers/hostesses working in Beppu
Build and cultivate a network among the "economic migrants," Filipino workers in the entertainment industry of Beppu, possibly leading me to irregular migrants who they know are working at odd jobs at the bars or at any other entertainment-related industry.

3. Church Network
Solange Lefebvre and Luiz Carlos Susin edited a book entitled "Migration in a Global World(2008)" citing that, historically, the Catholic Church has been proactively involved in global migration, particularly through their apostolate of support and assistance to migrants. Working through the local Beppu churches, I could also possibly get in contact with and slowly build the trust and confidence of irregular migrants.

4. Non-Government Organizations (NGOs)
A number of NGOs in Japan focus specifically on advocacy of migrant issues, and I have a handful of active contacts that could possibly lead me to irregular migrants. Time to encash some social capital.

5. Subject-Matter Experts
In APU, a core group of faculty members with quite impressive backgrounds have been working on migrant research topics and tapping onto their own networks may eventually point me to a number of irregular migrants. Book authors and other acadamic writers are also another source of subject-matter experts.

6. Direct Participant Observation
Rey Ventura's sequel to his first book "Underground in Japan" entitled "Into the Country of Standing Men" talks about a corner of a street where irregular migrants in Japan gather in and stand around in, very early in the morning, waiting for trucks of employers to come by and pick them up for a day's work. One strategy would be to find such a street in Beppu or Osaka and do direct participant observation, even accompanying the workers on those trucks and working with them for the day, or thru extended periods of time, as needed. By getting into their world, I hope to be able to gain my own insights into their situation and build a pool of reliable empirical data.

7. Families Back Home
In the Philippines a number of provincial towns are known to have a high percentage of the local population with migrant family members abroad. Finding a way to contact knowledgeable local residents who may be able to point me directly to families with family members who are migrants, may be the first step in eventually conctacting irregular migrants.

"Hoy, dito ka nalang! Mga Pilipino 'to. [Hey, join us here! They are Filipinos.]," Apple called out to another Filipina hostess currently unassigned to any table, inviting her to ours. We were creating quite a commotion despite our being in one of the farthest, darkest corners of the bar, since were were the only Filipino guests and our Tagalog conversation seemed to be a much-welcome break for to the Japanese-attuned ears of the Filipina hostesses. Soon there were five or six Filipinas swarming our table, and I couldn't help but thinking "what a successful night of networking!"

As more customers filled into the club, one by one our Filipina fans were re-assigned. One of the remaining Filipinas though seemed to be hiding from a particular guest, whispering to me, "Naku, ayoko sa kalbong yon kasi parating nagpapa-masahe. [Oh, I don't like that bald customer because he always asks to be given a massage.]" She ducked her head and, before I knew it, there were now 5 of us suffering in that 3-seater bench. Santi looked contented with his one-on-one trip down memory lane with Apple. I was now sandwiched between two Filipinas, and finding that it was quickly becoming uncomfortable.

"Estudyante ako dito, at ako si El Joma. [I am a student here in Beppu, and my name is El Joma.]" I said, to start a conversation.

To my right was Melody, and to my left, Kristina. Like Apple, all of them are married to Japanese men and have 1 kid each. Santi explained that that's how they are able to continue to work in Beppu despite the entertainer visa crackdown implemented by the Japan Immigration Ministry in March 2005. Melody's child I learned is 7 years old and so her marriage to a Japanese national wasn't prompted by the 2005 visa crackdown.

Our conversation warmed up further. Kristina shared with us how she would still take a bike home despite her apartment being just 2 minutes away because this was her only effective way of discouraging enamored customers from following her home. "They'd be too drunk to follow me on a bike," Kristina proudly bragged about her strategy. More importantly though, she didn't fail to stress clearly, her Japanese husband would get mad if that happened and she would surely be forced to quit her bar job.

Melody had a 7-year old child, and she was proud to have sent her child to an expensive private school, costing her 25,000yen per month in tuition. Now her kid was in elementary and hard times had forced her to put him in the public elementary school which, she explained, in Japan was at par, if not better compared to private schools in terms of the quality of teaching. What was interesting though was that when I asked her if she talked to her child in Filipino her response was "bakit pa?". I didn't quite sense the undertones of her answer because the loud bar music was deafening, but there was clearly emotion in her answer and facial expression. Maybe she didn't see the need for her child to learn the Philippine dialect since their plan was to permanently reside here. Or, maybe Melody didn't feel that her Filipino heritage was worth passing on to her child.

The chatter among us five in that short bench became one when the topic became Filipino food, especially food that they hadn't eaten in years: Tuyo (dried fish), Tinapa (smoked fish), Daing (another type of dried fish), Itlog na Maalat (salted egg), and Penoy Balut (fertilized duck egg with a nearly-developed embryo inside that is boiled and eaten in the shell). And when I shared that I would be going home this August, I was flooded with requests to bring Filipino food back to Japan, not just be 3 lady hostesses but by the other Filipinas hidden in the other cubicles. It was really hilarious because there we were in a Japanese bar but the hostesses were shouting food orders to each other in Filipino and I was carefully listing down each order with the name of the order owner.

Truly these Tres Marias - Apple, Melody and Kristina - reminded me of the special brand of Filipina warmth and friendship.

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