Sunday, August 19, 2012

Filipinos in Japan

If Koreans in Japan originated from Japan’s imperialist past, I would venture to say that a key feature of Filipinos in Japan – while taking place in a completely different era and context – was also born out of no less an impactful extension of influence, possibly even through explicit national policy.   No other foreigner group in Japan has completely appropriated for itself – or been allowed to totally dominate – a single visa or residence status category, that is, the entertainer category.   The numbers bear this out, without contest.

For over two decades (1980s to 2004) majority (57%) of Filipinos who came to Japan were entertainers and majority (55%) of entertainers in Japan were Filipinos (see Table 16, cells T16a-c).  The magnitude of the lopsidedness of this virtual mono-nationality situation, as it were, in the entertainer visa category is shown by the fact that the nearest competitors of the Filipina entertainers are 25-times less in size, in terms of proportion within nationality group (T16b), and 6-times less in share, in terms of total entertainers in Japan (T16c).  Beyond being the overwhelming entertainers of choice for so long a period, this flagship group of Filipino migrant workers also stayed longer in Japan (80% of all registered entertainers, T16i).

Table 16: Selected Residence Statuses (in average percentages) of Filipino Migrants Versus Other Selected Nationalities, 1987-2011
The tightening of visa rules on entry of entertainers in March 2005, while it in fact lessened significantly the total flows of entertainers (T16d), did not end the preference for Filipina entertainers (T16f).  In the 2005-2011 period, nearly seven of every ten (68%) resident entertainers were still Filipinas (T16l).

While there are no explicit figures that can trace where the excess population of Filipina entertainers went after the visa tightening, it is common knowledge (and is consistent with my respondent and key informant interviews) that those who could switched to spousal visas (SCJ) and eventually to permanent resident visas (PR).  The substantial increases in the numbers of all ethnic-based visa categories of Filipinos in both flows and stocks between the 2005-2011 (T16d,f,j,l) and 1987-2004 (T16a,c,g,i) period may support this belief.

Various narratives attempt to explain the fact that entertainers spearheaded the phenomenal growth in the numbers of resident Filipinos between 1980 and 2000 (nearly 25 times larger: from roughly 6,000 in 1980 to 145,000 in 2000) (Japan Ministry of Justice ca.2013).  Yu-Jose first highlights the difference between, on the one hand, earlier Filipino musicians in Japan in the late 19th and first half of the 20th century who played various musical instruments -- thus constituting 'real' entertainment, and, on the other hand, the more contemporary entertainers who were mostly perceived by the Japanese as prostitutes (Yu-Jose 2007, p.63).  Strict Japanese visa regulations, Yu-Jose argues, which most Filipino workers at current skill and financial resource levels could not qualify for, combined with Japanese cultural preferences excluding foreigners from certain service jobs, resulted in Filipinas embracing the entertainer work option.  Sellek similarly emphasizes the primacy of economic motivations of Filipinas taking entertainer work (Sellek 2001).  Suzuki cautions against simplistic, uni-dimensional narratives, emphasizing the historical, contextual and multi-faceted decision-making processes of the entertainer (Suzuki 2011).  Abe suggests that the peak of Japanese economic prosperity in the 1970s and 1980s spawned what he calls 'sex tourism' by Japanese male tourists throughout Asia became the foundation of the later mass entry of Filipina entertainers to Japan in the succeeding two decades (Abe 2009).

I will purposely limit my dialogue with the narratives I cited above to cover only how the phenomenon of the Filipina entertainer contributed to the sustenance of migrant illegality in Japan.  The main point I would like to make is that specific historical conditions created the ubiquitous Filipina entertainer and this, in turn, became a stepping stone into ethnic-based statuses – as spouses of Japanese, and subsequently as permanent residents, or through their offspring, as children of Japanese, or through their descendants now entering Japan as long term residents.

The entertainer visa represented for the Filipinos what the SPR visa was for the Koreans and Chinese and what the LTR visa was for the returning Brazilian descendants of Japanese (T16h,i,k,l): that is, a catapult to the top of a pecking order of closely-calibrated, outsider access to insider information through their entry into ethnic-based residence statuses.  With much closer, more intimate and wider access to Japanese society as spouses, children and permanent residents than other residence statuses, an enculturated, fine-tuned Filipino survival sense inevitably became the default operating mode, ready to be accessed by all compatriots who needed it.

That Filipinos have consistently been among the top three groups of overstayers in Japan over the past two decades (1990s to 2012, Table 3) may indicate that these ethnic-based Filipinos in Japan, through the SMIF, provide critical sustenance to migrant illegality in Japan.

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