3.11: The Latest Chapter of Filipina Migrants’ Experience in Japan

SEELS was formed as a direct response to the dire economic situation in Tohoku. The project, however, has obstacles of its own to overcome. For instance, radiation is having a negative impact on the educational industry in Fukushima.”

3.11: The Latest Chapter of Filipina Migrants’ Experience in Japan

Photography by Cesar V. Santoyo
Preview, from KJ 78 digital issue


When the Great Tohoku Earthquake struck, Kathryn Doria Goto was at home studying for a Japanese proficiency test scheduled the next day. As the trembling began, she shouted to her daughter and then called her husband. Fortunately, both her family and home in Fukushima City survived the day unscathed. Goto was lucky to be able to contact her family in the Philippines rather quickly via Skype. With no electricity other Filipinas in Tohoku were forced to wait a week or longer.

Goto migrated to Japan over twenty years ago. In Japan she has held a variety of jobs including telemarketing and factory work. Her linguistic skills have landed her work in translation and interpreting as well. Currently she works part-time for the Fukushima International Association as a translator, interpreter and counselor.

In the weeks following 3.11 she began receiving phone calls from the Philippine Embassy. They needed help in notifying the nearly 2,200 Filipinas living in Fukushima of evacuation buses headed for Tokyo. With a contact list consisting only of friends and people she knew through work, the assistance Goto could offer was limited. Still, she resolved to create a network to unite the Filipina community in Fukushima Prefecture.

Cesar Santoyo acceptance speech at 2012 Gawad Geny Lopez Global Bayaning Pilipino Award for his work with migrants in Japan

On April 17, 2011 Goto created Hawak Kamay Fukushima, “Together Holding Hands in Fukushima.” From April to September of 2011, Hawak Kamay members volunteered at evacuation centers and temporary shelters, cooking food and performing Filipino traditional dances for evacuees. The volunteers continue to support victims who have since relocated to temporary housing. “The group feels so happy serving and giving entertainment to the evacuees. They can share time together and talk with each other about their experiences, says Goto.

For Filipina migrants unable to read Japanese, disaster-related information is hard to come by. In the wake of 3.11 little information was made available in English, let alone Tagalog. Goto quickly got to work translating vital information into English. She notified migrants of where to receive free radiation checks for rice and fruit and provided instructions explaining how to apply for compensation from TEPCO.

After responding to immediate issues, Goto sought ways to provide sustainable assistance particularly to address job loss in Tohoku. Fearing radiation contamination, many consumers have been reluctant to buy produce and fish. Many Filipina women are married to farmers whose livelihoods have been endangered or lost completely.

Shamcey Supsup and Kathryn Doria Goto

Television host Shamcey Supsup and 2011 Miss Universe 3rd runner up, athryn Doria Goto

She teamed up with Cesar Santoyo, an experienced social activist who came to Japan as a missionary for the United Church of Christ and has served as the director of the Center for Japanese Filipino Families (CJFF). To provide Filipinas and other struggling migrants a means to supplement their household incomes, Goto and Santoyo launched Social Enterprise English Schools (SEELS). SEELS is a micro-franchising initiative that trains migrants to be English instructors. Since its establishment, over one hundred teachers have completed SEELS workshops in Tohoku.

This April SEELS opened a total of five schools in Iwaki, Miyagi and Fukushima Prefectures. Each location operates as an international pre-school and an English conversation school.

SEELS was formed as a direct response to the dire economic situation in Tohoku. The project, however, has obstacles of its own to overcome. For instance, radiation is having a negative impact on the educational industry in Fukushima. Children are more susceptible to radiation sickness than adults. Not surprisingly, the area is experiencing an exodus of its youth and thus, there are fewer students enrolling at schools. As a result, the SEELS international pre-school in Fukushima City was forced to close its doors in May. Santoyo hopes to open another school in a location with lower radiation readings.

The roots of SEELS predate the 3.11 disasters. Founder Cesar Santoyo began leading English instructor training workshops in 2006 when he launched a similar project called “Community and Home-Based English Teachers” (CHOBET).

As the name suggests CJFF concentrates on assisting Japanese Filipino families and single parents. The divorce rate of Japanese-Filipino marriages stands at around forty-percent. CHOBET can be viewed as one initiative to aid single mothers, often times unsupported by ex-partners, by giving them the professional skills to become English teachers.

CHOBET’s other chief goal has been to offer alternative employment to Filipina women working in the nightlife. The transition to becoming English teachers affords these women a chance for upward social mobility and escape from the stigma of working in hostess bars.

In 2009, CHOBET merged with Filipino English Teachers Japan (FETJ), a similar organization that offers training to migrants wishing to become assistant language teachers (ALTs) in public schools.

Filipina Entertainers

Many Filipina women began migrating to Japan to work in nightclubs in the mid 1970s. The trend is rooted in the Marcos administration’s policy of exporting labor from the Philippines to pump foreign currency into the economy through remittances. The migration pattern escalated in the 1980s and peaked in the early 90s as the Japanese yen rose and the country faced labor shortages.

Many Filipina hostesses [1] were recruited by placement firms in the Philippines. Although many have come voluntarily on short-term entertainer visas, studies of human trafficking report violence, coercion, debt bondage, deception, and suspected involvement of individuals with links to organized crime. According to the 2004 and 2005 U.S. Department of State’s TIP reports (Trafficking in Persons) Filipina hostesses in Japan made up the largest group of sex-trafficked persons in the world.

The Japanese government responded by imposing stricter requirements for the entertainer visas in 2005. At that time an estimated 60,000 to 80,000 Filipina women were coming to Japan each year on entertainer visas.

The government measure is controversial. The treatment of women typically depends on the type of establishment by which they are employed. Usually a hostess is paid only to flirt with men. Thus, critics claim that if the working environment is safe, women should be allowed the opportunity to work as hostesses. However, some clubs may require women to strip or allow customers to grope them. Furthermore, the women’s visas and salaries are often withheld until they leave Japan.

There is often also pressure to go on compensated dates, dohan. Although these dates are usually harmless it can be risky business due to the power relations between the worker and the customer. Anthropologist Lieba Faier relays how hostesses told her stories of friends who were raped while on dates.

Viewed from another angle, hostess work can be empowering. Despite the working conditions, women choose the career over poverty in the Philippines. Sending remittances home to support family members, they are breadwinners. With fewer visas being issued the opportunity is disappearing.

For many the only available option now is to enter or remain in Japan illegally. As undocumented workers, however, the women become more vulnerable to abuse by club owners. From this perspective, scholar Rhacel Salazar Parrenas argues against the legal eradication of the occupation in her book Illicit Flirtations. Instead she advocates reforming the industry by, for instance, abolishing the requirement of dohans and instituting policies that give women more control over their labor and migration.

Much debate surrounds the TIP report’s findings and proposed policies which aim to stop human trafficking. It is generally agreed though that poverty in the Philippines is the root cause of abuse by employers and the existence of trafficking. In 2011, The Guardian reported that “tens of thousands” of Filipinos are trafficked around the world each year.

As for Japan, many NGOs have labeled the country a transit or final destination country for sex slaves. According to the Polaris Project Japan, “there are an estimated 200,000 women and girls in Japan who are subject to forced labor or forced prostitution.”

Despite these assessments, Osaka mayor Toru Hashimoto recently commented that women “who are forced to work in the sex industry out of poverty today are almost nil” when encouraging U.S. servicemen to use legalized sex industry establishments. When it comes to eradicating human trafficking Japan clearly has a long way to go.

Social Stigma, and Discrimination

“In Fukushima City and Iwaki many Filipina women are still working in the night,” says Santoyo. In addition to responding to the job loss in Tohoku, SEELS is continuing CHOBET’s mission of helping entertainers make the transition to become English instructors. Santoyo estimates that around 80% of the trained teachers in Tohoku have worked as entertainers. Factory workers and caretakers also find the prospect of teaching English attractive as it is less physically demanding.

Many Filipina migrants come from poor families and thus have had little means to attain a higher education. However, there are also migrants who hold college degrees. Unable to find employment in the Philippines some women choose to work in Japan. According to one report, 94% of the teachers who completed the CHOBET training were female and 78% had either finished or at least entered college.

Despite having a college degree and training to teach English, migrants still struggle to find employment. FETJ provides a list of “Filipino Friendly ALT companies”, which suggests companies not on the list may have a reputation for discriminating.

Undoubtedly, the social stigma attached to working as a hostess is not easily discarded. Ledda B. Docot relayed how one CHOBET teacher was fired from an eikaiwa when the administration discovered she was also working as a hostess. The problem is exacerbated by the common stereotype that all Filipinas in Japan are prostitutes, which does not acknowledge the existence of caretakers, factory workers, students, etc. or recognize the distinction between prostitutes and other night life workers.

Nonetheless, Santoyo remains undeterred and continues to challenge the negative perception of Filipinas. He believes now the stereotypes have less impact on teachers in the Kanto area. On the other hand, according to Santoyo, people in Tohoku are still reluctant to hire Filipina teachers.

The Kokusaika Challenge

The SEELS schools in Tohoku cannot provide jobs to all of the over one hundred teachers who have completed their training. Profits will be reinvested to open more schools, but it will take time for the micro-franchise to expand. In the meantime, Santoyo is working to find other job opportunities for the teachers.

He approached the Fukushima Board of Education to discuss the possibility of Filipina teachers working in the public schools as ALTs. He was told, however, that the prefectural BOE currently only hires participants of the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) program.

The JET program recruits assistant language teachers, coordinators for international relations (CIR), and sports exchange advisors (SEA) from forty countries. In the 2012-2013 academic year, only one Filipino participated in the program as a CIR. There were no Filipino ALTs or SEAs. In comparison 2,334 JETs were recruited from the U.S. In fact, a majority of participants are from affluent Western countries.

Launched in 1987, it was hoped the JET program could help improve U.S.- Japan relations and alleviate the ongoing trade frictions. This partly explains the program’s tendency to recruit from the U.S. However, the JET program must also be understood as a kokusaika “internationalization” educational program.

According to Ryuko Kubota, “Kokusaika essentially blends Westernization with nationalism, failing to promote cosmopolitan pluralism.” Thus, “internationalization” refers almost exclusively to inter-cultural exchange with affluent Western countries. The goal has been for Japan to be able to demonstrate its’ ability to communicate with other rich countries.

Seen in this light, English acquisition has been promoted as a way to converse and do business in an essentialized “international” sphere. People are led to believe it is desirable to have an English teacher who comes from the U.S., Canada, Britain, Australia, or New Zealand. In this way, Japanese students feel assured they are learning the same English that is spoken “internationally.”

Santoyo maintains that the biggest challenge Filipina English teachers face in the job market is accent and skin color. SEELS offers online pronunciation lessons in order to neutralize teachers’ accents. As for racial discrimination, it may not disappear until Japan truly recognizes other races and nationalities to be part of the “international” world.

Santoyo is now organizing a campaign to pressure the Fukushima BOE to place Filipinas in the public school system.

One thing is certain. Figures like Cesar Santoyo and Kathryn Goto will be needed to pave the way and overcome the challenges. Without a doubt, SEELS is empowering women.
“Before when I am walking in the street I feel so small because I know people are looking on me as entertainer. But after I started teaching, and when my student shouted “sensei!” while I am walking on the street, I felt the total change on my life. I feel so dignified as an English teacher that changed my life after taking CHOBET training,” said a first-time teacher.

1. Hostesses are paid to talk or flirt with their customers. Lieba Faier notes: “while hostesses are performing sexualized labor, they do not necessarily offer sexual services. Rather, they are paid to make men feel special, at ease, and indulged, or to, as one customer explained to Allison, “feel like a man.”