Illicit Flirtations: Labor, Migration and Sex Trafficking in Tokyo, by Rhacel Salazar Parrenas. Stanford University Press, 2011, 336 pp. $21.95 (paperback)
Rhacel Parrenas, a University of Southern California sociologist, argues that current government efforts to “rescue” Filipina hostesses from sex trafficking are misguided and do more harm than good.
Drawing on nine months of fieldwork in 2006-07 when she worked as a hostess in the outskirts of Tokyo, Parrenas shares insider insights and interviews with many of the hostesses she met while working at her club and patronizing others. While acknowledging that many hostesses endure miserable conditions, and a few are subject to severe coercion, she asserts that anti-sex trafficking campaigners exaggerate the dangers and stoke moral panic to advance their misguided policy agenda.
Current Japanese government policies focus on raising barriers to labor migration by hostesses, but she believes that it is important to, “disentangle our anti-trafficking ventures from anti-prostitution efforts.”
“Illicit Flirtations” lets us know what it is like to work in a hostess bar from all the petty rules such as posture and deportment to the pay scale, bonuses, penalties and fending off advances. Hostesses are highly stressed by sales quotas that depend on cultivating clients and getting them to spend money in their clubs. Quota pressure leads some observers to assume that hostesses are coerced into sex with clients in order to meet targets, but based on extensive interviews the author does not find this to be the case. Certainly some hostesses have sex with clients, but the author’s informants insist this is not as common as assumed and is at their discretion. Moreover, the allure of hostess clubs is based more on flirting and boosting the client’s ego rather than providing sex.
Parrenas sensibly points out that Japan “offers such an elaborate range of services for male consumers’ sexual titillation that one could easily argue that commercial flirtation in a hostess club is the meekest of services one could receive in Japan’s nightlife industry. Women in hostess clubs keep their panties on and provide no sexual services to customers.”
Well, except for when they do.
Parrenas points out that there is a range of clubs, some much seedier than others, where stripping and sex are part of the job, but this is not the case in most establishments she frequented.
In addition, she argues that it is not useful to generalize about hostesses and how they navigate the system, as there are very different categories ranging from those on six-month entertainer visas to illegals and those who have permanent residence in Japan. Based on her fieldwork, Parrenas maintains that hostesses retain a high degree of agency when it comes to sleeping with clients and make pragmatic decisions.
She reminds us that hostessing is the least bad option for most of these women because they are desperate to escape poverty and serve as breadwinners for their extended family back home.
The point of anti-trafficking advocates is that by the time that hostesses begin working they have already incurred high debts, passports are taken away on arrival and wages are withheld until departure, forcing many hostesses into prostitution whether or not they want to acknowledge it as such. Parrenas has no illusions about how grim life is for most hostesses and details their dreary jobs and the miseries of their social isolation. In her view the debt problem is one that has actually worsened since the Japanese government enacted new visa restrictions in 2005 under pressure from the U.S. government. As a result, the number of entertainer visas plummeted from a peak of 80,000 to less than 8,000.
This apparent “success” masks the reality that many Filipinas still want to work in Japan as hostesses because they want to escape abject poverty and now must resort to illegal means to do so, making them much more vulnerable to exploitation and coercion. In addition, the Japanese government requires that entertainers demonstrate they have two years experience or training (having worked in Japan doesn’t count). This new rule adds to the burden of aspiring hostesses as they accumulate more debts to middlemen who “help” them get the credentials and sometimes smuggle them illegally. Parrenas adds, “Philippines labor migration policies also diminish entertainer’s ability to act as independent labor migrants, as they require overseas performance artists to work with middlemen brokers to secure employment in Japan.” While this policy aims to protect migrants from unscrupulous employers it puts them at the mercy of avaricious middlemen.
For Parrenas, the main issue is not whether some migrant women workers are coerced to sell sex. In her view, helping women migrants means targeting legally sanctioned practices by middlemen that burden hostesses with heavy debts and large commissions that sometimes amount to 90 percent of their wages. So rather than making it harder for women to migrate and creating hurdles that are exploited by middlemen, Parrenas prioritizes, policies ensure that migrant workers are “granted greater control over their labor and migration.” She points out that numerous empirical studies show that migration empowers women and enables them to improve their living conditions.
That’s why she calls for reconsidering current policies in Japan and the Philippines that deny this option to many women eager to escape destitution.
Jeff Kingston is director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan