How Filipinas Saved a Town in Japan

 Amagi Town Hall (Source: Google Street View)

Amagi Town Hall (Source: Google Street View)

It was in April 1998. My father was Ambassador to Japan. My half sister, Lenny, had just died in late February that year, and my father was having a difficult time coping with her death. He asked me and another sister, Bella, to visit him in Tokyo. Despite going through an emotional turmoil, he would not relegate his duties as Ambassador to other staff members. It was a distraction that he accepted willingly.

He was invited by the mayor of Amagi to visit his town and meet the growing Filipino population there. He asked Bella and me to go with him and Consul Meynard Montealegre. (He is now the Philippine Ambassador to Brunei.)

Amagi occupies the northeastern portion of the Tokunoshima Island, which is divided into three towns – Tokunoshima, Isen, and Amagi – in the Kagoshima Prefecture. It is in the southern part of Japan, near Okinawa. The island had a population of 27,000 as of 2013; while the town of Amagi only had 6,350 for the same period. All of Tokunoshima Island was under U.S. administration from July 1, 1940 to December 25, 1953, including Amagi. On January 1, 1961, Amagi was elevated to town status. Its economy is based on sugar cane, beef, and a little tourism. (Source: Wikipedia)

 Amagi on Tokunoshima Island (Source: Google Maps)

Amagi on Tokunoshima Island (Source: Google Maps)

I was very curious why the town of Amagi wanted the Philippine Ambassador’s presence, and I was in for a surprise. From the airport, Amagi officials took us to a park (I can’t remember the name now) where a pavilion with a stage was built. Amagi had formed a sister-city relationship with Silay City in Negros as early as 1989, the province where all of the Filipinos in the island originated. After my father gave his opening remarks, the emcee introduced a dance number in which several Filipinas gyrated to the tune of “Pearly Shells.” I didn’t know whether to be proud of them or be ashamed. The dance number obviously looked like one that they did in clubs, and so why were they performing it for the Ambassador? Why couldn’t they dance the tinikling instead?

Many Filipino women found work in Japan in the ‘90s. Bar owners were in need of entertainers and they preferred Filipinos because they were hard working and seldom complained. Thus, the term, Japayuki, was coined referring to a Filipina entertainer in Japan who sang, danced, performed and talked to the guests. Abuse set in later on in some establishments as the women were forced to perform sexual services. I was hoping this was not the case for the Filipino women in Amagi.

 Filipina entertainers in Japan (Source: POLO Tokyo)

Filipina entertainers in Japan (Source: POLO Tokyo)

We were then escorted to our hotel, to rest for the evening’s activities. I was looking forward to meeting some of these women. The affair was held in the town’s City Hall, and that was where I learned the whole story.

Amagi was a dying town; young people had left for jobs in the big city, and children were nowhere to be found. There were no suitable spouses for widowers, and there was nobody to care for ailing and aging grandparents. There was one bar in town, and the owner hired a Filipina entertainer. Not only was it good for business, but the bar owner also married the entertainer and now was expecting a child, which made the grandparents very happy. This first Filipina entertainer then invited some of her friends from Silay City, Negros to join her in Amagi as entertainers. Three more came, and all three also got married to aging widowers and begot children. Soon there were 40 Filipino women entertainers, most of whom married local men. Now there was life in the town of Amagi.

In Lydia Yu Jose’s paper “Why are Most Filipino Workers in Japan Entertainers?: Perspective from History and Law” published in the Philippine Journal of Third World Studies in 2017, she explains that “socioeconomic conditions in Japan, such as demand for cheap labor, aging population, decline in birth rate, and demand for foreign women for reproductive purposes, explain the need for women workers and foreign wives.”

In his speech, the mayor of Amagi was thankful that the Filipino women chose to stay in his town, married locals (including the mayor) and raised their families there. He said it was the Filipino women who provided the younger population for the island’s aging community. I spoke to some of the women as I wanted to make sure that they were not coerced or harmed. All of them said they were very happy because the men and the whole town treated them like goddesses, like they were the town’s most prized possessions; at the same time, they were still able to remit money to their families in Negros.

And then, the women were asked to dance again, but this time, they wore traditional Filipino costumes for the tinikling and the Ifugao dance numbers. I was so proud of them, and they deserved the big applause they received not only for being such good dancers, but also for saving an entire town.

 The tinikling performed by folk dancers (Photo by Nestor Cruz/Wikimedia Commons)

The tinikling performed by folk dancers (Photo by Nestor Cruz/Wikimedia Commons)