On the April 5 edition of the Fuji TV talk program, “Wide na Show,” comedian Hitoshi Matsumoto discussed proposed economic relief measures for people affected by the COVID-19 crisis. He mentioned workers employed in the so-called water trade (mizu shōbai), meaning bars, clubs and other after-hours “entertainment” businesses, and said that these workers get paid well and, therefore, he didn’t want his taxes used to support them if they can’t work due to the emergency. The comment sparked an argument on social media, with many people, including prominent plastic surgeon Katsuya Takasu, voicing solidarity with Matsumoto. The thrust of their position is that women in such positions, usually identified as “hostesses,” do nothing but sit next to male customers and pour them drinks.

Besides being sexist — such businesses also employ men, but the argument appeared to be centered on women — Matsumoto’s comment revealed his ignorance about the nature of a business he appears to have patronized. It also showed how prejudice can be reinforced by government policy, as pointed out in an April 15 article in Harbor Business Online by Mieko Takenobu, who looked into this systemic discrimination and explained how dangerous it may prove to be under present circumstances.

Although it’s not clear how much Matsumoto understands about the current government initiatives to help those who have suddenly found themselves unemployed, Takenobu focuses on the emergency compensation that is paid to people who have to take time off from work, usually to care for their children. After Prime Minister Shinzo Abe asked public schools to close on Feb. 27 in order to help curb the spread of the virus, many parents, especially those with children in elementary school, had to take time off from work to look after them. It’s precisely the kind of situation the compensation was created for.

However, businesses classified as sekkyaku inshokugyō (drinking establishments with hostesses or hosts) or fūzokugyō (a catch-all term that usually includes sexual services) do not qualify for such compensation, mainly because these businesses are sometimes associated with organized crime. However, the COVID-19 crisis puts the matter into a new light. By definition, hostesses, hosts and workers who provide sexual services do not practice social distancing on the job and, as Takenobu explains, epidemics of the past were accelerated by people at the bottom of the economic pyramid due to poorer hygiene and the nature of their work. If a certain class of people is excluded from initiatives to prevent the spread of a disease, that class of people will cause the disease to spread to all classes, regardless of other measures in place. And if a worker in the water trade is a single parent, providing them with the compensation would go a long way to convincing them not to work, thus making it easier to close related clubs and services, so the government has included them in the subsidy scheme this time.

Takenobu says women are disproportionately disadvantaged by the COVID-19 shutdown for several reasons. Unlike the 2008 recession, which mainly disadvantaged nonregular male laborers because factories cut back on production, the coronavirus crisis has mostly affected women who carry out physically difficult caregiving tasks, as well as women in “entertainment” trades that are closing. Like the factory workers in 2008, most entertainment workers are wage-earners, meaning if they lose work they are immediately plunged into poverty unless they receive some kind of public assistance.

What’s more, discrimination isn’t limited to hostesses and sex service workers. Single mothers in general don’t always qualify for work-related welfare due to the government’s bias in favor of “traditional families.” According to a survey by the support group Single Mothers Forum, 48.6 percent of single mothers expect their income to drop since schools closed, while 5.8 percent expect to have no income at all.

On April 8, the Asahi Shimbun reported that, with the closing of bars and “cabarets,” hostesses regularly employed by such establishments are mostly getting only three hours’ worth of income a day, which is required by law, even if there are no customers. But as one hostess told the Asahi Shimbun, some of her colleagues can’t even come to work because they have kids and schools and day care facilities are closed.

On April 15, a piece in Business Journal reported that an association called Nihon Mizushobai Kyokai recently met with Fumio Kishida, chairman of the government’s Policy Research Council, to check claims of official discrimination against their industry. One point the article made is that many hostesses and hosts are technically self-employed. They solicit customers themselves and bring them to the establishments where they have contracts, compelling these customers to buy expensive drinks. They receive commissions in return, but they themselves have to pay staff who handle phones and keep the books. If the club has no customers, their income is zero.

Nevertheless, Kaori Kohga, an executive of the association, told Business Journal that certain club owners, in order to keep hostesses and hosts, may pay them high retainer salaries. Even with the slowdown, the clubs want to guarantee their services once the economy is back on track. However, that would seem to be a small segment of the industry. Workers have been let go, which means they could be soliciting patronage on an individual basis in order to survive, a move that could endanger public health.

The association requested that the government review its policy of not giving subsidies to those in the water trade in times like these. Government directives with regard to after-hours businesses are vague to begin with, which exacerbate general misunderstanding among the public. In addition, patrons tend to take advantage of the underground nature of the industry — or at least try to, as illustrated by Lower House lawmaker Takashi Takai, who was kicked out of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan for visiting a sex-oriented cabaret during Tokyo’s state of emergency.

“We just want to be treated the same as other industries,” Kohga says.

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