On a crisp late-December afternoon, a group of Filipino women gather at a community center in Tokyo’s Shin-Koiwa district. They are here for a Montessori teacher training workshop.
Some of the women aspire to open their own international preschools. Others hope it will help them in the ESL (English as a second language) job market. As one woman explained, they need extra training and credentials to compete with the “native speaker” instructors — Americans, Canadians, Brits and Aussies — who dominate Japan’s ESL industry.
For years Cesar Santoyo, executive director of the NGO Center for Japanese-Filipino Families, has been organizing training workshops like today’s. His motivation has been to help the women find alternative work outside the factories and nightclubs. Many have university degrees or some college education. Santoyo encourages them to “re-skill” and reclaim atrophied job skills and the status their education was supposed to have earned them. Discussions on how to find work or launch private eikaiwa — English conversation schools — is another component of many workshops.
Outside is quiet. Tucked away several blocks from a shopping arcade in shaded, serene environs, the community center makes for an ideal study spot. Sajjad Ahmed Razi, a Montessori trainer from Pakistan, lectures on the sensitive phases of early childhood and the importance of classroom aesthetics — dim lights and walls devoid of distractions but decorated with artwork. The hours of sitting in the room have taken their toll and there is a tiredness hanging in the air. Razi injects some humor into his talk and the room erupts in boisterous laughter, bringing the class back to life.
Having traveled a long way to attend, some have good reason to feel fatigued. Melanie Acilar made the journey from Koriyama, Fukushima. She earned a B.S. in accounting in the Philippines and worked in a number of jobs, including as an accounting clerk, property consultant, personal assistant and a teacher at a vocational school. Finally, fed up with low wages in the Philippines and longing to be reunited with her two sisters in Japan, she migrated.
She took a job in a factory in Fukushima when she first arrived in Japan five years ago. Now she is an office worker at her fiance’s construction company, where she can again use her accounting skills. Her fiance has been encouraging her to make use of her English ability and open a school. A friend told her about Santoyo and the workshop in Tokyo.
It is no surprise that Acilar’s Tohoku network is acquainted with Santoyo. Shortly after March 11, 2011, when the region was devastated by the Great East Japan Earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster, Santoyo relocated from Tokyo to Tohoku — first Fukushima Prefecture and later Sendai. There, he set about looking for ways in which the Filipino community could contribute to the reconstruction.
In response to the loss of jobs, Santoyo started the Social Enterprise English Language Schools (SEELS) microfranchise. Like Santoyo’s previous initiatives, SEELS provides migrants with teacher training workshops. However, going a step further, SEELS helps set up and run international kindergartens and eikaiwa schools where Santoyo’s graduates can work and use their skills, with profits largely being reinvested in more schools and training programs.
In Tohoku, Santoyo connected with other Filipinos taking part in the recovery and reconstruction efforts. Kathryn Doria Goto, for example, started the volunteer group Hawak Kamay Fukushima, meaning “Together Holding Hands in Fukushima.” Since April 2011, Hawak Kamay volunteers have been visiting evacuation shelters and temporary housing, where they cook and perform Filipino dances for mostly elderly evacuees.
Wishing to document these initiatives, Goto and Santoyo teamed up to make a film. With a grant from the Toyota Foundation, they began the production of “Accept Us Maybe.” Featured in the film are Filipino English teachers, volunteers and elderly-care workers in Tohoku.
The short documentary is conceptually inspired by Carly Rae Jepsen’s pop hit “Call Me Maybe,” a song about pursuing a crush and anxious hopes for the object of that desire to reciprocate. In the music video, Jepsen tries in vain to capture the attention of the boy next door. Similarly, “Accept Us Maybe” pleas for society to recognize the positive contributions that Filipinos are making.
Santoyo believes equipping migrants with professional skills is only part of the struggle for social acceptance — addressing discrimination is equally important. When Filipino women began migrating to Japan in the late 1970s and early ’80s, most came on short-term entertainer visas to work in nightclubs. Although many were employed as singers, dancers or entertainers, negative stereotypes and discrimination soon followed, encouraged by sensationalized media reporting.
According to Santoyo, in recent years the public’s perception of Filipinos has been gradually improving. He attributes this, in part, to the government’s issuing of less entertainer visas, a move that began in 2006, shortly after the U.S. State Department included the migration of Filipino entertainers to Japan in its annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report. Without denying Japan has a human-trafficking problem, some scholars — and particularly anthropologists — have contested sweeping and indiscriminate stereotyping of Filipino women as either criminals or victims.
“Accept Us Maybe” presents an alternative portrayal of Filipino women putting down roots in Japan and volunteering or working in education and health care. Though the film focuses largely on the participation of Filipinos in the rebuilding of Tohoku, the emergence of Filipino ESL teachers and health care workers is a phenomenon occurring all over the country. Santoyo moved back to Tokyo in April 2014, where he is looking to expand SEELS. During breaks at the Montessori workshops, he shows the film to his students.
“I am happy to see that my fellow countrymen are trying their best to be good citizens and I am proud of them,” said SEELS volunteer Daff Marqueses after viewing the documentary at the workshop in Shin-Koiwa.
Ultimately, though, Santoyo intends to show the film to Japanese audiences and policymakers. He hopes to alter the public image of Filipinos and advocate for policies that promote the social inclusion of migrants.
Chiba University anthropology professor Nobue Suzuki, who appears in the film, sees the documentary as playing a valuable role.
“The film lets wider audiences know these Filipinas are contributing to Japanese society in a good way,” Suzuki said in an email. “They are trying to be financially and socially autonomous residents while the Japanese state retains its ‘non-immigration policy’ . . . and provides no systematic programs to help these immigrants be self-supporting.”
With pressure building on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to fire off the “third arrow” in his “Abenomics” growth strategy — namely, structural reform — initiatives are being considered that could have a major impact on foreign residents, particularly the Filipino community.
One of the biggest challenges Japan faces is how to raise the relatively low level of female participation in the workforce while at the same time reversing the ever-decreasing birth rate. If more and more Japanese women end up entering the workforce, as Abe’s “Womenomics” plan envisions, it will be increasingly difficult for families to handle raising children and to manage domestic work, even factoring in a shift in traditional gender roles. And it is here that policymakers are looking to foreign workers to help.
As a general rule in Japan, only certain expat residents are allowed to spon-sor visas for foreign domestic helpers. This stands in stark contrast to the situation in countries such as Hong Kong and Singapore, where the use of foreign domestic labor is widespread. In 2013 there were approximately 1,200 foreign workers employed in Japan’s domestic service industry, of which 970 were Filipinos, according to the Justice Ministry. This number could rise exponentially if restrictions on the use of foreign domestic help are loosened.
In perhaps a sign of things to come, in September the Immigration Bureau relaxed requirements for obtaining certain visas for tourists and migrants. Application processes for Filipino tourists coming to Japan have been simplified. For those that will travel between Japan and their home country many times for work, multiple-entry visa application requirements have also been relaxed, and the validity of these visas has been extended from three years to five.
However, Japan is sending mixed messages to foreigners who might be considering coming here to work. The Supreme Court recently ruled that non-Japanese permanent residents are not legally entitled to welfare benefits. According to the Ministry of Justice, there were 70,906 Filipino permanent-resident visa holders in 2013.
With the government trying to eliminate wasteful spending, a report released by the Liberal Democratic Party shortly after the July Supreme Court ruling suggested that it would be difficult to maintain the current level of welfare outlays to foreigners. The report proposed that the length of a resident’s stay here could determine their eligibility for particular benefits. The plaintiff’s lawyer in the Supreme Court case has said that if there is no safety net, foreigners will likely think twice before coming to Japan to work.
Santoyo, too, is concerned.
“Many Filipinas are single mothers and remit money home to relatives,” he explains. “And some middle-aged women are married to older Japanese men who are working class. They are already retired. Living off their pension alone is not enough.
“So, for these reasons, a number of women could use assistance. The government should permit them to apply for welfare benefits if they are needed. The release of this film is timely, because this is something we want to advocate for. This is what we mean by social acceptance.”
SEELS: www.seels.jp. Filipino Migrants Center NGO founder Virgie Ishihara will show “Accept Us Maybe” as part of a presentation on Thursday, 1-5 p.m., at the Tempaku Lifelong Learning Center in Nagoya. The film will also be shown at “Gathering,” an event to mark 20 years since the Great Hanshin Earthquake that will celebrate and discuss multiculturalism on Jan. 25, 10 a.m.-4:10 p.m., open to all at the Kobe Chinese School, Nakayamate-dori 6-9-1, Chuo-ku, Kobe (film and discussion scheduled for 1:50-2:50 p.m.). Your comments and story ideas: email@example.com