How Legal is a Hostess Bar?

English: Signage for hostess bars in Kabukicho...

English: Signage for hostess bars in Kabukicho, Tokyo. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

by Miranda Solly

The issue of women from the Philippines working in Japanese hostess bars, as described in research by Rhacel Parreñas, was thought-provoking for me. One point I would like to address in particular is the stereotype of these women. There is an apparently widely held expectation that the women working in a hostess bar would be illegal immigrants, as can be seen in videos of Japanese police raiding hostess bars. This is also a common belief surrounding places like lap dancing bars in the UK (my native country). As was demonstrated by those videos, very few of the Filipino women were actually in Japan illegally. Why does such a misunderstanding about this kind of work exist?

While the past 50 years or so have seen a huge change across the world in the way race, gender, and sexuality are perceived, I don’t think it’s controversial to say that we’ve not managed to reach equality yet. In a way, hostess bars in Japan are a perfect example of this. First of all, consider gender and sexuality. If a group of men go to a hostess bar, it is seen as a good night out. If a woman works at one, however, there are suppositions made about her morality, her economic position, and her vulnerability. Why is it socially acceptable to use a service, but not to provide it?

Moreover, the women who come to Japan from the Philippines to work in hostess bars are assumed to be illegal, and most probably trafficked to Japan against their will. As Parreñas’ research demonstrated, for the majority neither of these is true. Often, women find that they can earn much more as a hostess than other jobs, so the work makes economic sense. This reason is probably no different to the reason why Japanese women work in hostess bars. Why does a female immigrant’s nationality play such a large role in the way she is perceived at her job?

As a foreign student in Japan, I can apply for a work permit and am free to take up a job such as teaching English, as long as it does not interfere with my studies. But that work permit does not allow me to work in a hostess bar. On the other hand, the entertainment visa that allows you to work in a hostess bar is specifically targeted at women from the Philippines. This distinction is made because of our different goals in entering Japan. But why should a part-time job at a hostess bar, talking in Japanese with clients, distract me from my studies more than a part-time job at an English school, speaking English with clients? I would have thought that the former would actually give me more of a chance to improve my Japanese. However, hostess bars apparently sit uncomfortably close to immorality for Japanese lawmakers. They appear to be tied up with all kinds of crime; mafia, trafficking, prostitution. While it is not actually prostitution, an unsuspecting foreign student would no doubt be in serious danger if allowed into such an environment. But if the work is so dangerous, why are women on the entertainment visa allowed to work there? In fairness, the Japanese government did also attempt to protect female immigrants from the Philippines from these threats, by changing the entertainment visa laws. However, it was shown that this actually forced some of the more vulnerable women into prostitution in other countries.

I’d like to suggest that instead of treating hostess bars as more illegal than they are, we do the opposite. They may offend a conservative person’s sensibilities, but the sex industry exists in one form or another in most parts of the world, and has done so for a very long time. As can be seen with hostesses from the Philippines, if conservative attitudes discourage native women from this kind of work, immigrants often fill the jobs; this also appears to be true in the UK. Looking at history you can see that making sex work illegal does not make it go away, and while some people attribute it to our endemic gender imbalance, that is unlikely to be rectified any time soon. In any case, hostess work is as emotionally taxing as, say, a flight attendant’s job, but no-one views foreign flight attendants with the same mistrust. Hostess work is also much less open to abuse than prostitution. By allowing hostess bars to exist on the same level as mainstream society, it would be easier to police visas and abuse, and an open discourse might help to dispel some of the myths surrounding women who immigrate to work there.

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One thought on “How Legal is a Hostess Bar?

  1. Pingback: An unexpected “gaijin moment” | JAPANsociology

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