Targeting of Japan's sex trade reverberates in Philippines

Japan plans to cut the number of 'entertainer' visas to 8,000 from 80,000 per year.

She calls herself a "cultural dancer" and says she studied all the right moves for two years in what passes for a dance school on a side street near a crowded shopping district.

Now, says the young woman, who goes by the stage name of Joy, "It looks like all my training is for nothing, and I will never be able to make much money."

The reason for Joy's distress: The Japanese government said this month that it is slashing the number of visas given to Filipino "entertainers" to fewer than 8,000, from 80,000 a year. The move is designed to stop agents in the Philippines, working with promoters in Japan, from sending women there ostensibly as entertainers - only to end up as prostitutes in bars, massage parlors, and striptease theaters.

For years, Japanese officials turned a blind eye to the practice. But this year, the US State Department placed Japan and a number of other countries on a "watch list" for trafficking in women in its annual human rights report.

Annually, an estimated 225,000 people are trafficked from Southeast Asia, driven by the growth of sex tourism in the region, according to the State Department. Japan is the largest market for sex workers in Asia, and half the women doing such work there are Filipinas.

"Human trafficking had become an issue," says one official at Japan's Justice Ministry. Visas for entertainers, he adds, are "sometimes abused."

But the sudden Japanese response to the State Department report has come as a huge shock to the Philippines. Entertainers in Japan, who typically make many times what they would earn in the Philippines, have been sending home nearly $400 million, according to the Philippines Department of Finance.

That figure, say many Filipinos returning from work overseas, makes Japan one of the more lucrative sources of income by the standards of the 7 million Fili- pinos classified as overseas Fili- pino workers.

Indeed, those workers may be the Philippines' largest single source of income. The vast majority work as domestic helpers for bosses from the Middle East to Hong Kong. All told, they send back more than $6 billion a year, supporting poor and middle-income families throughout the country.

As a result, Philippine officials have had to respond to what is widely viewed here not only as a blow to the survival of several hundred thousand Filipinos but also an affront to Philippine women, who are indignant over the publicity, even as they acknowledge the problem.

Jose Brillantes, undersecretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs, says there has been "a misunderstanding." He has appealed to Japanese officials to relax the new rules. He is anxious, he says, to correct "the wrong impression created by some of the Filipinos working in Japan."

Mr. Brillantes spoke out after the Confederated Association of Licensed Entertainment Agencies staged a protest outside the Japa- nese Embassy here. Hundreds of women insisted they were not prostitutes and accused Japanese officials of discrimination.

One woman, who gave her name as Lisa, admits that Fili-pinas are often abused by Japanese gangsters who force them into "situations we do not like." The woman says she went to Japan as a "cultural dancer," was told when she got there she would be a "go-go dancer," and then was ordered to perform in strip theaters.

"There is not much we can do about it," she says. "We make so much more there than in the Philippines."

In fact, the women say they would earn perhaps $100 a month at home, whereas they can send home perhaps $500 a month working in Japan - far more than the average Filipino can dream of earning.

Joy, contemplating her first trip to Japan, hopes she can still get a visa and put her dance lessons to work. "I need that money," she says. "We count on it."

But does she know what she may be getting into?

"Well, they gave us some lessons in sexy dancing, too," she says. "But I don't have to talk about what I will do in Japan. Nobody needs to know when I get back home."

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