Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Japanese connection

Contrary to popular belief, the relationship between Japan and the Philippines did not begin only during the second World War but, in fact, dates as far back as the 16th century when Japanese immigrants established several Nihonjin-machi (literally Japanese people's towns or Japantowns) in Manila and elsewhere. Soon after, an isolationist policy that lasted for more than 200 hundred years closed off Japan from the rest of the world which also led to the disappearance of these Japantowns. During the turn of the 20th century, huge numbers of Japanese once again began migrating to various parts of the Asia-Pacific in search of greener pastures.

One offshoot of this wave of economic migration was the establishment of a Japanese enclave in Southern Philippines, in Davao, in Mindanao. Also known as Davaokuo, the enclave was a bustling economic hub that attracted many Japanese who wanted to make a killing on the abaca (Manila hemp) trade. Davakuo , according to historians, had its own Japanese restaurants, hotels and a movie theatre. Before the war, an estimated 20,000 Japanese people were living in Davao and put up their own schools, newspapers and Shinto Shrine. Many of these Japanese settlers intermarried with locals as well. Today, very little remains of Davaokuo but the Japanese connection remains strong with the establishment of a school there, Philipinne Nikkei Jin Kai (PNJK) International School, 20% of whose student population is of Japanese descent.

The Davaokuo was only one of the many interesting tidbits regarding Philippine-Japan relations that was mentioned in a lecture I attended last Wednesday at the University of the Philippines Asian Center. Given by Dr. Nobue Suzuki from Chiba University, the lecture traced the complex ties between Japan and the Philippines from before the war up to the present. In the course of her presentation, Nobue Sensei surprisingly made mention of a group of people that I feel have often been neglected when talking about the Japan-Philippines connection: Filipino trans women.

Pageant for Filipino transwomen in Japan

It is common knowledge both in the Philippines and Japan that from the 80s onwards, the Land of the Rising Sun has been home to thousands of transgender Filipinas. The picture above shows transgender Filipino women competing in a beauty pageant in Yokohama. Recruited as singers and dancers, these Filipino transwomen go to Japan on entertainer visa and work in the so-called "water trades" (mizu shobai), in bars, restaurants, and sex joints along with other Filipina japayuki (Literally Japan-bound; a slang term for Filipina entertainers in Japan).

Many of them were displaced when in 2005 under the pressure of the United States, the Japanese government launched a campaign against human trafficking. The policy was used as an excuse to get rid of foreign nationals working in nightclubs. Categorized as "trafficked humans", many of them were laid off and had no other choice but to go back home. Others chose to stay in Japan illegally and risk being deported or worse imprisoned or fined for overstaying.

Because Japan has no comprehensive immigration policy to speak of as pointed out by Nobue Sensei, many migrant workers including transwomen end up powerless in the face of clean-up jobs like the 2005 policy against human trafficking. Many of the transwomen working in the water trades also end up, more often than not, being recruited by clubs and bars that are in fact fronts for organized crime groups in Japan like the Yakuza.

In the last 20 years, I know for a fact that nothing has been done by the Philippine government to protect the rights of Pinay transwomen working in Japan as entertainers. Meanwhile, I have insider information that once again Japanese recruiters are back in the Philippines looking for transgender showgirls. I hope that my Pinay transsisters this time around will start looking out for themselves and not agree to working conditions that will dehumanize them. I also hope that they will start standing up for themselves and demand legitimate recognition as Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW) who contribute to our foreign-remittance-dependent economy including all the rights and privileges that come with such recognition. I also hope that collectively they will work together to shatter the "bad girl" reputation of the japayuki and raise the status and improve the image of all Filipina women in Japan.

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