Fake Marriages and Filipina Hostesses in Japan


Many Filipinas come to Japan and work in hostess bars known as “Philippine pubs” to earn money and support their families. Increasingly, they arrive illegally, obtaining visas through fake marriages—a route that often exposes them to easy exploitation by unscrupulous brokers.

“Entertainers” Becoming Hostesses

“I entered into a fake marriage to come to Japan,” a Filipina tells me. She explained that in 2010 she wed a Japanese man introduced to her by a Japanese broker. It was a marriage of convenience with the sole aim of getting a working visa. She did not speak the Japanese language and did not even know the man in question. Once in the country, she started working in a “Philippine pub,” or hostess bar. She is just one of an increasing number of Filipinas following this path in recent years.

From the mid-1980s, many Filipinas came to Japan on entertainer visas, ostensibly to work as dancers and singers. One woman who arrived in the early 1990s tells me, “I practiced really hard to come to Japan. I lived in a dormitory and trained from morning until night.”

It was necessary to pass singing and dancing tests before getting a visa. Having got through these tough examinations, however, the women ended up in hostess jobs. This meant wearing revealing clothes, drinking with Japanese male customers, holding their hands while laughing and chatting, and singing karaoke together.

Although working as a hostess was not permitted under the terms of the visa, tens of thousands of Filipinas arrived in Japan each year to do exactly that. In 2004, a record 82,741 Filipinas entered the country on entertainer visas. There were Philippine pubs in every corner of Japan.

However, just as these hostess establishments were becoming established, with a history of some two decades, the 2004 Trafficking in Persons Report published by the US State Department identified abuse of entertainer visas as a cause of trafficking. In 2005, the Japanese government tightened up the rules on issue of these visas. This effectively closed the route to working in Philippine pubs, many of which went out of business as they could no longer secure employees.

Securing Staff Through Fake Marriage

Many of the Philippine pubs still in business employ women who have been in Japan since before the change in visa regulations. As their staff grow older, some owners and brokers try to get younger Filipinas into the country by having them marry Japanese men. Under the spouse visa, there are no restrictions on the type of work people can do. This is the cause of the burgeoning number of fake marriages.

The women enter contracts with brokers in order to come to Japan. Details vary, but the contracts usually last for three to five years. Typically, the salary is just ¥60,000 per month, rising ¥10,000 each year, and the women get two days off each month. Even in the same establishment, there is a clear difference in conditions for those hostesses who have a contract with brokers and those who do not. The former are commonly known as tarento (talent) and the latter as furī (free).

The tarento have strict sales quotas that they have to meet by getting customers to order drinks, snacks, karaoke sessions, and so on. They also have to pay fines for infractions decided on by the brokers. For example, if her “regular” customer does not appear on a given day or she refuses to go on a date outside the pub, a tarento may pay a fine of ¥5,000. Particularly bad brokers may weigh the women each week and impose fines for any increase. As they are already on very low salaries, women pressed to pay too many fines can often find themselves borrowing money.

Their accommodation is also fixed. Often, two or three Filipinas live together in a cramped old apartment, but some women may have to live with their husbands to maintain the fiction that they have married legitimately. They are not in a position to refuse living together with a strange man. The women are not allowed to leave their homes apart from when they are ferried back and forth to the pub by car. Brokers make sudden visits to check that they have not gone out.

Payment from the pubs varies by day or month, depending how much money the women bring in. Furī hostesses earn around ¥300,000 per month, but the tarento have fixed salaries, no matter how successful they are.

With tarento, pub salaries go initially to brokers. For example, from a ¥300,000 monthly sum, a broker might pay ¥60,000–¥80,000 to the hostess and ¥50,000 to the “husband,” use ¥80,000 to pay for the woman’s rent and utilities, and pocket the remainder. Thus, a broker earns about ¥100,000 from one tarento. Usually, brokers will have multiple tarento. Given the higher earning potential for younger and more popular hostesses, this can be quite lucrative.

The women shuttle between home and the pub every day. If they are not successful, the brokers may threaten to send them back to the Philippines. There is constant pressure to meet sales quotas and avoid being penalized.

“Every day is stressful for tarento,” one of the hostesses says. “Even at home, we have to be with someone, and we have to get in touch with customers to get them to come to the pub. There’s no time to relax.”

Amid these tough conditions, brokers may unilaterally extend the length of the contract, locking the women into their jobs for even longer. In other cases they may suddenly send women home, even if they are performing successfully.

There are no exact figures for the number of Filipinas in this situation. Only a few people in the immediate vicinity can tell whether a marriage is real or fake, and the women do not publicize where they work or how they live. Even if they want to seek help, the fact that they themselves are breaking immigration law dissuades them from going to the authorities. This is why brokers are able to draw up contracts to suit themselves. Some brokers are connected to organized gangs in Japan or the Philippines.

It is not an overstatement to describe these exploited women with limited freedom as victims of human trafficking. If discovered, however, they face punishment, and in many cases will be deported. Meanwhile, even if the brokers who exploit them are punished in the courts, on regaining their freedom they return to the same business.

A Chance to Escape Poverty

Many of the Filipinas who come to Japan want to earn money to support their families. In the Philippines, they lead poor lives in broken-down houses. It may be hard to even eat one meal a day and often they do not attend school. Some may work for food as maids at the homes of well-off relatives. While they are thinking about how to better their situation, they hear about the possibility of going to Japan.

“It’s a great opportunity if you get to go to Japan,” one woman says. “If you let it slip by, there won’t be another one. So even if it’s a tough contract and there’s no freedom, you have to do it to get here. Once the contract is over, you’re free again.”

The women can potentially earn good money after their contracts finish. This could mean being able to send their brothers and sisters to school, or to live in a big house back in the Philippines and employ maids of their own. Life in Japan is not bad for hostesses all the time, either. They can enjoy, for example, buying cosmetics and clothes to dress up, experience seeing their first snow, and perhaps even sneak out for dates with a boyfriend. In some cases, it is possible to build up enough trust with brokers to win some freedom.

“I don’t want people feeling sorry for me,” says one woman I interviewed. “I chose to come to Japan. Not all of the brokers are bad people.”

The economic gap between Japan and the Philippines is one clear cause of fake marriages. In a country that seems to offer very few chances to climb the economic ladder, even a broker’s offer may be welcome to many who hear it. And sometimes the opportunity to come to Japan may even lead to a legitimate marriage with a Japanese man and a new family.

The Japanese government’s confused policy of allowing Filipinas into the country for many years on entertainer visas before suddenly cracking down in 2005 is also a contributory factor. If the government now gets tough on marriages of convenience, though, brokers will simply find another way to bring women into the country. Should finding hostesses become more difficult, women are likely to find themselves further restricted by lengthened contracts and reduced freedoms.

Rather than seeking to stop the established practice of women coming from the Philippines to earn money, lawmakers should consider why they do so. The best solution would be to create an environment in which they can work legally on an equal footing with brokers.

(Originally published in Japanese on March 30, 2018. Banner photo: A Japanese entertainment district. © Pixta.)

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