Many women from poorer Asian countries migrate to Japan in search of a better life. At times, however, they become trapped in abusive relationships or exploitative work situations.
Leny Tolentino, lay missionary at the Kalakasan Migrant Women Empowerment Centre near Tokyo, talks about how the centre helps Filipino women who are suffering physical abuse or having legal problems.
From which countries are the women migrating?
The women are coming to Japan from China, the Philippines, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, and Sri Lanka. At our centre, we mainly work with Filipino migrant women. “Kalakasan” means “strength” in Tagalog, a Filipino language.
What drives them to leave their home country?
Most of the women say their relatives depend on them. A family member is sick, or they’re sending their brothers and sisters to school. They want to support their families.
Life in the Philippines is difficult. They didn’t necessarily have enough to eat, or access to health care, in their home country.
What brings them to Japan?
For decades, many women in the Philippines were recruited to work in “snack bars” in Japan. “Snack bars” are places where men go to drink alcohol. The women there are called entertainers, and they sing and talk to the men.
Agencies in, say, Davao (in the southern Philippines) recruit girls, saying “Do you want to work in Japan?” Japan is very popular in the Philippines. People say “ There’s so much money there.”
There were more than 80,000 entertainers from the Philippines in Japan in 2004. However, after Japan was placed on the 2004 “Tier 2 watch list” by the anti‐trafficking department of the U.S. government , the Japanese government adopted the Comprehensive Action Plan of Measures to Combat Trafficking in Persons. They also started to cut down on visas for entertainers. Now there are only about five thousand Filipinos who have such visas in Japan.
But there has been an increase in marriages between Filipino women and Japanese men. Common ways for Filipina women to find a Japanese husband are through marriage agencies, relatives and friends, or the internet .
Can you tell me about a woman you helped and the problems she faced?
One Filipino woman met her Japanese husband in a snack bar. She was battered a lot by her husband.
The worst battering happened when their second child was eight months old. When she went to the police, rather than protecting her, they took her to a detention centre for overstaying her visa. Her two children stayed in a public facility.
I went to meet with her public defender, and volunteered to go with him to see her in detention. If she had been deported back to the Philippines, it could have ruined her life. She had nowhere to go there, no way to support herself and the two children.
We gathered more information to support her case and she got a suspended sentence.
Can you give examples of other issues that impact children?
There was a Flipino woman with five children living with their Japanese father. The couple wasn’t married and the children weren’t legal.
The oldest child was nine. None of them ever went to school. Because they had overstayed their visa, they were afraid to leave the house. We contacted the school system and organized things so the children could go to school. The first time I went out with them, they were so surprised to be outside. Everything seemed new to them.
We mobilized religious sisters to do extra tutoring at their house so the kids could catch up. They started going to school.
What other problems do children face?
Sometimes the father says “that’s not my child” or “I’m not ready to be a father” and leaves. When there’s a pattern of the mother being beaten, the child feels a love‐hate relationship towards the mother. They love the mother but are angry about her weak position in the family and even in society.
In society, there’s a lack of support for bicultural children. We want children to appreciate the culture of their mother, so we plan activities for the children we help, and include Filipino food and traditions.
Can you talk about the cultural issues that migrant women face when they marry Japanese men?
There is pressure; the husband or his family can be controlling. The Japanese husband might criticize the wife for not knowing Japanese customs. For example, here there are different types of umbrellas—for summer, for rain, for winter. Something as small as the wife not knowing which one to use could be the start of a fight that leads to physical abuse.
Sometimes the Japanese family, the in‐laws, won’t allow a woman to speak Tagalong inside the house. Or they will be prohibited from talking to fellow Filipinos.
Filipinos in Japan are discriminated against because they are poor. Some husbands look down on their wives. Even in personal relationships, the husband would say “Our way is better. This is the way to raise children. You should adapt.”
What help does Kalakasan give these women?
We’re part of a network that answers a hotline called the “purple dial.” Migrant women call us when there’s an emergency, serious violence and abuse. Or they call us with legal questions. We advise them on visa issues if they’ve overstayed their visa, as I said.
When an undocumented mother escapes from an abusive husband, in an emergency, the woman and children sleep here at our centre. The government runs most of the shelters. I only know of three that are basically set up for migrant women.
Kalakasan provides long‐term support, it doesn’t end with the crisis. We have meetings where women share their experience of violence with other women. They realize they are not alone.
We have follow‐up care for the mothers and children. When the woman is really battered, it takes a long time for her to regain confidence in herself, often five years.
Can you talk about your advocacy work?
The community doesn’t take the welfare of migrant women seriously, so Kalakasan’s very active in coordinating on the national level. We organize meetings with police and the foreign ministry and our contacts in Congress to make them aware of the problem.
We’re worried about undocumented woman. They’re only allowed to be in shelters for battered women for two weeks. And they’re not allowed to receive livelihood assistance.
There’s a plan to implement a revised immigration law that changes the alien registration card system. If people don’t have a certain card, how can they get services, like getting their children in school? So we’re lobbying about this now.
Part of the revised law requires that all non‐Japanese people here must report life changes like divorce or moving to another house. If a woman is being abused and escapes, she’s not going to report that. It puts the woman in a very unsafe position.
What are some successes you’ve had?
The “purple dial” hotline is an accomplishment of the whole network. We’d been asking for a national hotline. We said, “This is happening all over Japan.” The government sponsored it after lobbying from migrant centres like ours, and it became a reality.
Just getting recognition of migrant women—recognition that they exist, that they are here—is big. To be seen is the first achievement.
It’s an achievement that now women can express themselves, to other survivors or in public, and share their experiences. And when we see bi‐cultural children starting to appreciate their mother’s culture.
When the first “prevention of spousal violence” law was approved, there was no mention of migrant women. Donna, a migrant woman who is a survivor of abuse and is involved in our programs, lobbied and spoke up. The revised law included the phrase “irrespective of nationality.”
The network of groups advocating for migrant women in Japan seems ecumenical. Is that the case?
All religions are represented in our network. We attend a women’s conference and there are Protestant groups. We talk with them, exchange info. One battered woman stayed in a shelter run by a female Buddhist monk.
What motivates you to keep doing this work?
I’ve been here in Japan as a lay missionary since 1988. I’ve worked for Kalakasan since we started up in 2002. I was sent here to make people’s lives happier, especially women and children. My motivation comes from my faith.
Interview by Laura Sheahen, CI Communications Officer