Right after Typhoon Haiyan passed over Leyte and Samar islands in the Philippines last month, destroying almost everything in its path, international news services were reporting a death toll of 10,000. NHK’s bulletins mentioned several dozen dead, and social media carped that Japan’s public broadcaster was behind the curve on the story. But what these critics interpreted as insufficient attention was just caution, and when it became clear that the number killed wasn’t nearly as high as first estimated by local police, NHK’s usual prudence, and that of the Japanese media in general, stood apart as being more responsible.
On the surface, this caution was a natural reaction to a lack of verifiable evidence. The supposed 10,000 deaths were unconfirmed, and while they were described as such in the international press, the public tends to take such numbers at face value.
Below the surface was sympathy for victims and survivors. To this day, the death toll from the Great East Japan Earthquake is qualified by the thousands who remain unaccounted for. Most of the world has moved on under the assumption that these people are dead, but until they are absolutely certain, the Japanese media will continue to treat them as existing in a kind of semantic limbo. Reporters have no right to say someone is dead when there’s no proof that they aren’t alive.
But there is another aspect of the Haiyan tragedy that colored Japanese coverage, and that is the nature of Japan’s relationship with the Philippines. Human exchange between the two countries is defined by a distinct economic dynamic, at least in the minds of Japanese people: Filipinos are poor and at the mercy of corrupt authorities. This is why the latter can treat the former as a number to be inflated when talking to foreign journalists. It’s also why Filipinos come to Japan to make money and end up overstaying, and why Filipino women wed Japanese men who are otherwise unmarriageable. There is some truth to these perceptions (or prejudices), and if they lack nuance and complexity, it’s because the media rarely say anything about Filipinos in Japan that doesn’t fit the standard narrative.
One man who has tried to provide nuance and complexity is Takehide Mizutani, a reporter for the Daily Manila Shimbun, a Japanese-language newspaper published in the Philippines for Japanese expatriates. Mizutani has been living in Manila since 2004 and writes about Japanese living in the Philippines, an area of the two countries’ relationship that’s rarely covered in Japan.
In 2011 he published “Nihon wo Suteta Otoko-tachi” (“The Men Who Abandoned Japan”), which won the Takeshi Kaiko Prize for nonfiction. In the introduction, Mizutani explains that he was driven to write the book after meeting an 80-year-old Japanese man in a Philippine detention center. This man had no teeth or money, only the rags on his back. He also had no foreseeable future and yet was defiantly determined to make one. Though Mizutani didn’t know much about Japanese expatriates in other countries, he concluded that there was something peculiar about the Japanese male experience in the Philippines that warranted closer scrutiny.
He cites a statistic: In 2010, of the 768 Japanese nationals who sought financial assistance at their country’s embassies and consulates worldwide, 332, or almost half, did so in the Philippines. Expats in the Philippines have been No. 1 in this dubious achievement for 10 years straight, and Mizutani assumes there are many more of his compatriots “in trouble” in the country, since the number of acknowledged Japanese living there, about 17,000, is believed to be lower than the true figure. But most at-risk individuals don’t seek help because they don’t want any.
Mizutani says the majority of these expats are men over 50. Some are fugitives from justice or debt in Japan, but many came to the Philippines for reasons having to do more or less with sex. A lot of retired and divorced 60-something backpackers visit the Philippines for romantic adventure. Others fit the stereotype of the proverbial loser who has never had a girlfriend but meets a Filipino hostess in a bar in Japan. She is the first woman who ever “tickles his pride as a man,” writes Mizutani. When she returns, he follows her. Maybe he was underemployed or worked in a job he hated, but he takes all his money and moves to a foreign country to be with this woman.
The story often ends the same way: They remain together until his money is gone, and then she kicks him out, not because she’s mercenary but because she’s practical. When poverty is all you’ve known and all you think you’ll ever know, your priorities adjust to your circumstances.
But he doesn’t return to Japan, and this is where the hackneyed tale takes a turn. Mizutani describes a number of Japanese men who have been in this situation and continue to live on the streets, but not out of a sense of defeat. One homeless individual tells him that despite his destitution, or perhaps because of it, Filipinos treat him with a kindness he never knew in Japan.
This sentiment was corroborated by a recent TBS news report in which a correspondent tried to track down Japanese expats in the typhoon area. It’s a cliché that the first thing a Japanese news outlet talks about in relation to a foreign disaster is how many Japanese were affected, and the reporter finds a 70-year-old man whose Filipino family left him years ago. His house was destroyed by the storm, but it’s OK because a neighbor has taken him in. When the reporter asks him why he doesn’t return to Japan, he says he doesn’t want to.
Mizutani originally sympathized with these men, but in the end he expresses bewilderment at their self-inflicted impoverishment, maybe because there isn’t as much nuance and complexity to their stories as he thought there would be. Every narrative has its own internal logic, but prejudices are hard to conquer when it comes to the poor.