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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Twilight of the Yakuza

Click on the image to view Twilight of the Yakuza on distrify.com

Click on the image to view Twilight of the Yakuza on distrify.com

by Robert Moorehead

Sebastien Stein’s film, Twilight of the Yakuza, explores the decline of Japan’s organized crime syndicates. Stein says the yakuza are a dying breed. Their members are aging and the government of Japan has launched a large-scale crackdown on them to eradicate them once and for all. But who are the yakuza? A threat to public safety or a necessary evil?

(For a detailed review of Stein’s film, check out foreignpolicyblogs.com, and for a great read on the yakuza post-March 11, check out Jake Adelstein’s article on japansubculture.com. The rest of this post borrows heavily from Stein’s description of his film.)

The film follows three members of the yakuza: Yoichi Nakamura, the “Tiger of Ginza” who was recently excommunicated from the Sumiyoshi-kai; Toyohiko Tanaka, head of the Matsuba-kai; and Daikaku Chōdōin, a yakuza consultant. Nakamura’s story is the most compelling, as he struggles at age 60 to leave his yakuza past behind him and succeed as a “legitimate” businessman.

Tanaka laments the low standards and lack of honor of young yakuza. As Jake Adelstein has described them, “the yakuza are Goldman Sachs with guns increasingly white collar criminals who follow no code and who serve no function in society.” Deeply rooted in Japanese society, the yakuza are seen as a necessary evil and ‘problem solvers.’ They have been around since the 1700s and were said to protect the weak from the strong, following a rigorous code of honor. Several clans even contributed aid for the victims of the recent earthquake and tsunami. As Adelstein notes:

in the midst of the dark days that followed the great earthquake, there was a time when the yakuza lived up to their claims to be humanitarian groups, and it was oddly inspiring. For a brief time, the yakuza, the people and the police all had a common enemy: natural disaster. And as the saying goes, ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ and for that short time — it seemed like we were all friends.

Unlike the mafia, the yakuza is a legal, public group making them relatively easy to check on. You can find their offices by looking on the National Police Agency website, and you can read all about them in their many fanzines. I’ve even sat near them at Japanese pro baseball games in Nagoya, while they tried to explain the sport to the Filipino women sitting with them. Strict government crackdowns have moved many yakuza underground. As the police concentrate their resources on the yakuza, many criminals simply don’t register with clans anymore and start operating underground, evading the grasp of police. A clear trend is emerging towards a new structure of organized crime in Japan, resulting in a steep decrease in the numbers of the traditional yakuza while the underground is soaring – including foreign Russian and Chinese mafias.

This documentary deals with the struggle of the yakuza for its survival and the restructuring of the organized crime scene in Japan. Furthermore, unprecedented access to the secret world of the yakuza gives you an insight on who the yakuza are: criminals, outcasts, but also family men and a part of Japanese society.