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Women pay for Asia’s successes

by Jeff Kingston

WOMEN IN THE NEW ASIA, by Yayori Matsui. London: Zed Books, 1999, 194 pp., $19.95 (paper).
THE SEX SECTOR: The Economic and Social Bases of Prostitution in Southeast Asia, edited by Linda Lean Lim. Geneva: International Labor Office, 1998, 232 pp., SFR35.

Yayori Matsui, author of “Women in the New Asia,” worked as a journalist for the Asahi Shimbun for 30 years and now directs the Asia-Japan Women’s Resource Center in Tokyo. She is a passionate advocate for women’s rights and is very critical about Japan’s negligent, arrogant and destructive behavior toward other Asians. At times the strident voice of righteousness backfires and complex issues are reduced to a simplistic black-and-white interpretation, but this is a powerful book with a message about important issues involving the matrix of development, globalization and women that deserves a wide readership.

Economic development has been a mixed blessing for the developing countries of Asia, and the benefits have not been equally distributed nor universally enjoyed. According to Matsui, women have suffered most from the negative consequences of development and have done most in trying to rectify the injustices and hardships that have ensued.

Her main area of concern is gender-related violence, ranging from the sexual slavery endured by the comfort women of World War II to the sordid explosion of child prostitution in the wake of the AIDS epidemic currently sweeping across Asia.

“Women in the New Asia” is a grim read, a catalog of depressing and numbing inhumanity. The personal stories and interviews lend an authority and gut-wrenching reality to this compelling narrative. Even in some of the remotest villages in Asia, the author finds signs of how globalization has pervasively penetrated the region, wreaking havoc in the worlds of those who still cling to the verities and mores of old.

Japan’s embarrassing record of exploitation throughout Asia is the central theme of this book, ranging from the exportation of polluting industries to the felling of tropical forests to make disposable molds for pouring concrete. An often-expressed solidarity with Asia stands in contrast to the more familiar pattern of unprincipled and unrestrained assertion of Japanese commercial interests in the region.

Certainly many Asians have benefited from Japan’s presence, but here the author speaks for the downtrodden and the forgotten. Her narrative resonates with the anguish of those that have been caught up in the whirlwind of change and left behind as the detritus of development.

Matsui charges that “Japan is known as the largest market for enslaved women in the world.”

The notorious sex tours of the 1970s have given way to an institutionalized system of procurement. The poverty and desire of young women to help their families is taken advantage of by gangsters, sometimes with the connivance of government officials, in supplying young women for Japan’s massive sex industry. Once they arrive, these women are controlled and exploited by a system of intimidation and debt bondage that renders them the sex slaves of contemporary Japan. She argues that the feminization of poverty and migration caused by globalization facilitate this sorry state of affairs.

Why do so many women end up as sex commodities in Japan? According to Matsui, this is a result of both the legacy of the licensed prostitution system of feudal Japan and “. . . the existence of a huge number of company warriors who are exhausted by severe competition and in search of comfort.”

In the Philippines, there are tens of thousands of children who have been fathered and abandoned by Japanese men. Many of the women become pregnant while working in Japan, but return home to give birth. Most receive little assistance from the fathers.

The author laments that “Japanese men treat Filipino women as they please, taking advantage of the vast gap in economic power between Japan and the Philippines. They epitomize sexism, viewing Filipino women as mere sex objects, and racism, looking down on Filipino people as backward and poor. However, only blaming the fathers does not achieve anything. It is also important to recognize that some of the fathers are men who are dropouts from Japan’s competitive society and are members of the lower-income group who tend to be ignored by Japanese women. As such, some of these men are also victims of today’s inhumane Japanese society.”

The author points out that the people in recipient countries often do not benefit from the vast development and economic-aid programs of the Japanese government and do suffer from the displacement caused by large infrastructure projects. Poorly prepared people with inadequate support mechanisms from remote areas are suddenly catapulted into the modernization process and the results can be devastating to these individuals and their communities. Pollution of the environment, expansion of prostitution, inflation and the commercialization of culture all too often are not adequately reflected in the priorities established either in official development assistance programs or in the actions of corporate Japan. It is the result of what she terms the “violence of development” and the market-driven principles of modern Japan.

Many of the women Matsui has met in her travels through the region have turned their pain into power. The author recounts many stories of women creating local community organizations aimed at alleviating the various socioeconomic problems caused by endemic poverty and at helping people cope with the often harsh consequences of globalization. These are modest efforts, but such grassroots initiatives are important to the empowerment of women and their attempts to assert the rights and values of those whose protests against the dark side of globalization are too often ignored.

“The Sex Sector,” edited by Linda Lean Lim,” surveys much of the same human misery that drives women to prostitution, but with the detachment and expertise of social scientists. There are case studies on Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and child prostitution.

The low-key, matter-of-fact approach here is in sharp contrast to Matsui’s advocacy. However, these detailed essays are well-researched and contain a wealth of information about the seamy world of commerce, greed, exploitation and opportunity that animate the sex industry and its bosses and workers.

The authors succeed in conveying local flavor while imparting data about recruitment, working conditions, relevant legislation, government policies, social programs and earnings for sex workers — ranging from those who service farm workers for a bag of rice to high-priced models and actresses commanding $750 and more a night.

The sheer variety in the sex sector makes generalization difficult. Gavin Jones, writing about Indonesia, suggests that, “On the whole, the income of prostitutes appears better, sometimes much better, than what they would be able to earn in any other occupation potentially open to them. In addition, despite the obvious disincentives against entering this occupation, some aspects of the working conditions are quite good. For example, most workers who live in brothel complexes and massage parlors are given free accommodation, and free meals are usually supplied. . . . Although hours ‘on call’ can be long, much of the time is spent with friends, talking, watching television, playing cards and seeking other ways to fight off boredom.”

Conditions are not so benign for the growing legions of child prostitutes in Southeast Asia. Unlike adult sex workers, most children are not aware of what they are getting into and most are coerced into succumbing to prostitution. They and their families are threatened, they are beaten, raped, locked up and deprived of food and water in a pattern of abuse and intimidation not nearly as common among adult sex workers.

In addition to lost childhoods and psychological trauma, child prostitutes run a greater risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS. Ironically, “there has been a notable shift toward commercial sex with younger children . . . because of the belief that they represent a lower risk of HIV/AIDS, while in fact the reverse is more likely to be true.”

The increasingly brisk and perverse trade in girls and boys in the region, often catering to the demands of foreign tourists, suggests the need for greater local efforts and international cooperation in enforcing relevant legislation aimed at protecting those who are so vulnerable to these predatory appetites. However, until there is real progress in eradicating the poverty that facilitates this commerce, prospects for clamping down on the exploitation of children remain limited.