Marietta was with some Filipino friends in their local station when they were approached by a group of men they didn’t know. One took her arm, and asked to see her alien registration card and passport. His badge showed he was from the Immigration Office. “Now they are checking everybody,” she says.

The government recently pledged to half the number of illegal aliens in Japan within 5 years. And foreigners are already feeling the heat — particularly Japan’s more than 200,000 Filipino residents.

Those in Tokyo tell of plain clothes immigration officials waiting in the capital’s stations for anyone speaking Tagalog.

According to the Philippines Embassy, the number of travel documents issued to deportees was twice the normal rate last December — around the same time a stricter revised Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Law took effect.

The Filipino community has also been affected by recent measures against human trafficking. On March 15, a long-standing “entertainer” visa agreement that had allowed tens of thousands of Filipino women to work in Japan was abruptly ended. Most of the entertainers had been working in hostess bars.

In June 2004, the U.S. State Department’s annual “Trafficking in Persons Report” had heavily criticized Japan, saying that entertainer visas were often used to bring victims into the country.

An ILO report, “Sexual Exploitation in Japan,” had found evidence that many Filipino hostesses were economically exploited and some forced into prostitution.

Nevertheless, the sudden end of the visa system was unexpected, and the accompanying crackdown on illegal immigrants has left Filipino bars and clubs reeling.

Despite voluble protests from entertainers in Manila — and club owners in Japan — the government has refused appeals for a transition period.

The change in one area with many Filipino bars, the Sakae district of Nagoya, has been dramatic. “Since the new law went into effect there have been numerous arrests and deportations of undocumented Filipinos,” says R. Zamora Linmark, a Filipino-American writer who has been in Japan for the last 6 months researching the Filipino community.

“It used to be a very happening place . . . but since the new law went into effect, it’s become kind of gloomy and slow.”

The Japanese government says that the entertainer visa system was ended to protect hostesses from exploitation.

“The situation is that young Filipino women come to Japan and become victims by being forced to become hostesses,” says Kifumi Oki, a counselor in the Ministry of Justice’s Immigration Bureau. “That cannot be allowed.”

An action plan published last December by the Japanese government pledged to strengthen immigration control, criminalize trafficking, and protect victims.

In one sign that the police are finally getting serious on human traffickers, after years of not even having a law criminalizing human trafficking, the police arrested 23 brokers in 2004.

Victims now have a grace period to stay in Japan and testify against their abusers, rather than being summarily deported as they were before.

But some NPOs and academic researchers wonder whether the dramatic step of abolishing the entertainer visa system will really tackle Japan’s human trafficking problem.

On its own, there are even fears it might exasperate the situation.

For all the exploitation of Filipino hostesses, the worst cases of human trafficking have more often involved women from Thailand, Colombia and China.

The entertainer visa system, although far from perfect, at least had one advantage, says United Nations University researcher Sally Cameron: it kept the industry partly in the open.

“Many Filipino women may have been somewhat protected from the worst extremes of the ‘entertainment’ industry as a result of their legal status,” she says.

And she doubts whether the demand for Filipino hostesses will disappear overnight: “The concern is that women will be recruited using greater deception and criminal means and that consequently their treatment will be worse.”

Another fear is that just cracking down on overstayers ignores the demand for unskilled labor that drew many of Japan’s quarter of a million illegal aliens in the first place.

They may keep coming and just be pushed underground, says Satoshi Murata, a lawyer specializing in labor issues affecting foreigners in Japan.

“There may be more illegal over-stayers going further and further into hiding,” he says. “They might become involved in prostitution or prey to criminal organizations.”

Claro S. Cristobal, consul general of the Philippines Embassy in Tokyo, stresses that the Philippines would much rather send skilled workers to Japan given the chance.

Unskilled workers tend to end up in jobs where they risk exploitation. Illegal workers are in the worst situation of all: “working on a tourist visa is an invitation for abuse,” he says.

The Philippines has been negotiating an agreement for hundreds of Filipino nurses and caregivers to work in Japan’s hospitals. Cristobal is optimistic that the agreement may be signed later this year.

Medical workers would get Japanese language classes to help them qualify to work in Japan.

In the meantime, Filipinos in Tokyo say that some hostesses have remained in Japan illegally despite the end of the visa system. Many ended up as overstayers after running away from exploitative or abusive employers.

Some hostesses have lost their jobs and don’t have the money to buy a ticket back; others have resolved to keep working and sending money home, despite the risk of arrest, fines of millions of yen and imprisonment.

“People overstay because they want to work for their families,” says one shop assistant from a Filipino food store in a part of Tokyo with many Filipino bars. “There is no work in the Philippines.”

Business has been very quiet since January. The shop used to have a number of illegal overstayers among their customers, but now “maybe half have been arrested.” She suspects that the other half are keeping a low profile. She says that they dare not go out lest they are picked up by the police.

“The only place they go is church . . . praying that they don’t get arrested.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.