Filipino Boxers and Hosts in Japan: The Feminization of Male Labor and Transnational Class Subjection¹

By: ,

April 2, 2007

Filipino Boxers and Hosts in Japan: The Feminization of Male Labor and Transnational Class Subjection¹
Filipino Boxers and Hosts in Japan: The Feminization of Male Labor and Transnational Class Subjection¹

With high hopes for better economic mobility and social security, many Filipinos arrive in Japan through the arrangements of promoters and matchmakers. Despite potentially high rewards, some Filipinos nonetheless feel ambivalent about the choices they have made in coming to Japan. Others try to suppress their anxieties about the possibly severe physical, economic, mental, and sexual exploitation and violence from which they may suffer. They are usually aware that their services and performances are the objects of their customers’ desires to enjoy exotic and erotic ambience at the clubs where they work. Other Filipino entertainers may conversely swiftly sink their ragged bodies onto the canvas, barely hearing the count going up to ten and the bell signaling the end of their stints.

In contemporary Japan, the category of “entertainment” work performed by Filipino women (Filipina) migrant workers has been narrowly located within “the sex industry.” This has been epitomized by the term “Japayuki” (Japan-bound) entertainers whom Japanese and foreign observers alike often myopically equate with prostitutes. [2] On the other hand, the areas of sports and leisure involving old and new immigrants in Japan have not fully entered scholarly discussions. [3] Concurrent with the influx of Asian [4] women entertainers from the early 1970s, there has been an inflow of hetero- and homosexual Filipino men who also work in the “water trades” (mizu shobai) consisting of bars, restaurants, and sex joints, that is, businesses that rely on customers’ patronage. Today these men are commonly referred to as hosto (host) and bakla (in Tagalog, meaning gay, transgender, and cross-dressed) entertainers whose services their Filipino and Japanese clients – often but not exclusively women – patronize. [5] Similar to their women counterparts, the services of these hosto have recently become the subjects of investigation by Filipino researchers. Hence, the work these entertainers perform has become scrutinized and represented by Filipinos and Japanese who hold various national, material, ethnic, gendered, and classed interests.

Historically, Filipino entertainers-qua-bar workers in the water trades form rather a new group. From the early 1900s, many Filipinos have contributed to the Japanese entertainment world outside these trades, including the popularization of boxing. [6] Until the 1980s Filipino boxers often served as models for and tough competitors against Japanese pugilists in this athletic arena. Today, the legendary stories of Filipino prizefighters have been kept alive largely within the memories of old enthusiasts. Interestingly, most Filipino pugs now come to Japan to lose to Japanese boxers. Their work uniquely complicates the usual pattern of global sport labor migration where elite, tough, and hyper-masculine athletes are headhunted to play for top foreign teams (Bale and Maguire 1994). A well-established boxing matchmaker in Chicago, for example, argues that considering the economics of fights it makes no sense to go abroad to recruit “bums,” “divers,” and “tomato cans,” whose ultimate role is to sink to the canvas (Wacquant 1998:7). This unusual international arrangement in Japan seems to suggest that more than a simple capitalist logic is at work.

I contend that it is not just economic capital that Japanese promoters are after. By boosting Japanese pugilists’ fighting spirits through fixing bouts prior to their upcoming championship matches, Japanese are also accumulating symbolic national masculine capital within the virile fistic world. As the burgeoning scholarship on popular culture has demonstrated, an inquiry into boxing and hosting opens up new sites which reveal the workings of power. Moreover, the interweaving of Filipino men’s entertainment work also further complicates Japan‘s increasingly transnational social realities.

This essay offers preliminary thoughts on the meanings of Filipino entertainment in Japan. Central to my discussion is the feminization of Filipino men’s labor in Japan‘s entertainment world in the final years of the twentieth century and early in the twenty-first century. Contemporary representations of Filipinos in Japan as morally degenerate “sex workers” and “loser” boxers together work to constitute these workers as “inferior” and therefore “feminine” vis-a-vis Japanese masculine nationality. Such constructions have emerged at the time of Japan‘s rise to global superpower status and post-bubble economic and national struggles since the late 1980s. As Kelly (1998) has put it, popular culture works to endorse national and sometimes imperial sentiments among “locals” by producing compelling sites for underscoring inter-societal differences and masking intra-societal differences.

In this essay, I push Kelly’s argument further using two important theoretical thrusts that derive from the gendered and nationalized characterizations of Filipino entertainers in contemporary Japan. One is to rework the notion of the feminization of labor. Previous studies of domestic and foreign labor have discussed the feminization of work and recruitment of women into the labor market. Women’s realities however suggest that they are, in fact, masculinized and/or “bisexualized” by entering the remunerated workforce. Following the world recession in the 1970s, intensified global competition optimized profits through the mobilization of the socially dominant gender ideology. Capitalists have commonly hired more women, young single ones especially, constructing them as secondary earners who work to “supplement” family income before marriage. Branded in this way women workers are subjected to low wages with few prospects for advancement while many men take up superior positions as skilled workers, technicians, and foremen. Women are thus “secondary workers” compared to men while they continue to perform nurturing unpaid work at home. [7]

In my study, it is men who are feminized by performing “secondary” or “inferior” tasks in the masculine fistic trade. Conversely, male bar workers entertain women, and some men, with their care-giving, emotional labor, something that is ideologically relegated to women. [8] Furthermore, these hosto are hyper-eroticized and assumed to be under their female and male customers’ sexual subjection, revising the common pattern discussed in the literature on Filipina entertainers and sex workers (see below). Yet, the works of these pugilists and hosto do not involve a simple swapping of male and female roles. As shown below, it implies far more complex power struggles between different groups of women and men, including those between men. Thus, the notion of feminization used in this paper has little to do with being biologically male or female. Rather, I investigate the symbolic ways in which socially prevailing ideas about gender differences are mapped onto Filipino male entertainers’ bodies.

The other theoretical point I pursue here is that the work of Filipino men in Japan has been discussed through differences not only between “First-World” Japan and “Third-World” Philippines but between elite Filipino writers in their homeland and researchers in Western societies – who join in the Japanese discourse – and laboring-class Filipinos abroad. Hence, these Filipino entertainers have been disciplined simultaneously by Japanese gendering and nationalist power and by transnational class subjection by international researchers in this emerging deterritorialized discursive space.

To explicate the feminization and transnational class subjection of Filipino male labor, I mobilize two sets of data that have been collected throughout the 1990s. The first of these is ethnographic field research conducted among hosto and other Filipino residents in Japan and with pugilists and gym owners in Japan. Further data come from archival research. Because this essay offers an analysis of the symbolic feminization of Filipino workers, I primarily draw on the latter type of data. In the section on Filipino hosto, I juxtapose these men’s dominant images with an interview with a hosto, “Mama Cherry” (pseudonym), and other materials obtained through field research. Since my goal is not to provide a grand generalization of these men workers but to illustrate the complexity of migrant ethnic workers’ experiences amid significant discursive forces, Cherry’s case may not be representative in a quantitative sense. Nevertheless, the descriptions that follow resonate with other entertainers’ views and are therefore evocative of both personal and collective experiences. I limit my discussion on boxers and hosto to the period up to 2004, for in March 2005 the Japanese Ministry of Justice tightened the issuance of entertainer visas to Filipino workers to unprecedented levels. At the time of writing this essay, the entry of these workers has already been curtailed and we must wait and see what consequences will be generated in the aftermath of this immigration control.

Filipino Boxers

The number of Filipino boxers in Japan began to increase in the late 1980s. Figure 1 shows that Filipinos by far outnumbered other nationalities in the 1980s and 1990s, though the number of matches has fallen since its peak in 1996. In 1981 there were only seven Japanese-Filipino matches, but at the peak in 1996 Filipinos boxed in 150 fight cards. [9] More remarkable are the Filipinos’ low success rates. For example, in 1998 out of a total of 220 matches in Japan, Filipinos participated in 100. Filipinos won only seven of these bouts (Boxing Magazine 1999:56). In the worlds of boxing and other professional sports, fixing frequently occurs (Schilling 1994:80-84; Vail 1998; Wacquant 1998) and Filipino pugs’ losses to Japanese have been fairly common in recent years. But historically this was not always the case.


Filipinos first learned to box when the Americans introduced the sport at the beginning of their colonial rule at around the turn of the twentieth century as part of the process of “civilizing the natives” and instilling gendered Western characteristics such as “manliness,” “fair play,” and “courage” (Espana-Maram 2006:74). Soon after its introduction, the sport enjoyed widespread popularity and talented Filipinos began migrating to the United States and to other Asian cities, notably Shanghai. In 1922, a Filipino pug known as Pancho Villa won the American Flyweight Boxing Championship, the first such title in Filipino boxing history. He was succeeded by numerous other prizefighters such as Ceferino Garcia, famous for his “bolo punch,” a powerful right uppercut. Their domination in the ring provided a rallying point for badly paid and racially discriminated Filipino workers in California who took pride in the victories of their countrymen. Filipino-white American contests generated a very special meaning for the former because “only in the ring could a Filipino beat a white man with his fists and not be arrested” (Peter Bacho in Espana-Maram 2006:101). As seen in other sport scenes elsewhere (e.g., Roden 1980), the glory of one Filipino prizefighter became the national pride of all Filipinos in the US. In Filipinos’ narratives, Villa and Garcia were fighting for every Filipino in the audience, in the United States, and in the Philippines (Espana-Maram 2006).

In Japan, US-trained Watanabe Yujiro is known as the Father of Boxing. Watanabe organized the first professional boxing event in 1922. By this time Filipino boxers fought in the US and Europe and were boasting about their fistic prowess and skills in the ring (Yamamoto 1993). In 1924, several Filipino pugilists were invited to Japan for the first Japanese-Filipino bouts (Gunji 1976:46). The boxing traffic between the Philippines and Japan opened up from this time, but at this time, Japanese pugs were no match for Filipino boxers. The following depiction of a bout held in 1932 between Japanese Noda and Filipino Yaba demonstrates the huge gap between the two nationals:

Japanese fans at the match between Noda Tooru and Fighting Yaba rooted for Noda by crying, “Get away! Get away!” (nigero! nigero!). Yaba couldn’t but stand upright in the middle of the ring, as Noda circled around Yaba to avoid his powerful punches. When the bell ended the battle and Noda wasn’t knocked out, the aficionados shouted, “Banzai! Banzai!” (Gunji 1976:127).

Japanese pugilists at the dawn of their boxing history vaguely aspired to world titles while admirably and fearfully observing the fights of these Filipino boxers from an “advanced county” in the fistic trade (Jojima 2003:73-78).

Among Filipino pugs coming to Japan, Joe Eagle is considered the pioneer Filipino boxer and his “divine techniques” (kamiwaza), deadly punches, and perfect defense shocked his audience. In 1937, he defeated the Japanese Featherweight Asian champion Piston Horiguchi, the “Holy Fist” (kensei), who had enjoyed a whopping fifty-three wins with no losses or draws. After retirement Eagle stayed on in Japan and became a matchmaker. In December 1945, together with Korean survivors of wartime forced labor migration, he organized the first boxing event in Osaka at a time when the exhausted Japanese were barely surviving in the war ruins. In 1954 Eagle took three Japanese boxers and a manager to the Philippines and, despite the strong anti-Japanese sentiments there, arranged for them to meet President Magsaysay. This meeting created a conduit for later pugilist exchanges between the two countries.

Figure 2: Baby Gustillo (right) and his Korean gym owner, Saito Hachiro (left), courtesy of All Boxing Gym

Ten months before Japan‘s military attack on Pearl Harbor and Clark Airbase in the Philippines on December 8, 1941, Baby Gustillo (“Gosutero“) arrived in Kobe as part of a goodwill mission. Similar to Eagle, he adopted Japan as his fighting ground and second homeland and through the wartime years, as a “god” (kamisama), dominated the Japanese boxing scene. He beat almost all his Japanese competitors and captivated Japanese fans by his unique style of a dangling left arm, rhythmical upper body movements for defense, and flashing blows. More than any Filipino pugilist throughout Japanese-Filipino fistic history, Gustillo came to embody the history of the time. As soon as the war began, he became associated with the “American and British beasts” (kichiku beiei) and was at the same time a subject of the Japan- occupied Philippines. [10] Although many Japanese fans still welcomed his fights, Gustillo himself was uneasy. In 1942, he fought with Horiguchi for the second time. Under normal circumstances, this would have been Gustillo’s return match, as he was defeated by Horiguchi in June 1941. However, although he was absolutely overpowering Horiguchi up to the fifth round, Gustillo suddenly lost by TKO (technical knock out) in the sixth.

Jojima contends that Horiguchi was an Asian champ, the Holy Fist, and a national hero (Jojima 2003:73, 87-91). Although battered and bleeding, he kept returning punches two for one and three for two. Watching his “honorable defeat” (gyokusai) style of boxing against a foe among the enemy “beasts,” the Japanese audience was perhaps also projecting onto their hero the victory of their Imperial Army. On the two sides of the ring, the boxer and spectators were co-constituting the masculine identity and “manifest destiny” of the empire-building nation-state. Sensing these national(ist) emotions, Gustillo may have felt he could not return home alive if he sank Horiguchi (Jojima 2003:90). After the war, as he enjoyed renewed status as a member of the victorious allies, Gustillo held the Japanese Featherweight title from its inauguration in 1950 to 1952, marking the fifth record in consecutive championship defenses. With the passage of time and his post-boxer struggles as an (Asian) foreigner with no other skills or education, even among boxing enthusiasts few today narrate the glorious stories of the “god.”

While in the US, Villa, Garcia, and other Filipino boxers were able to enjoy the momentary glow of their ethnic and national pride by knocking out rival and socially domineering white pugs, Gustillo’s life in Japan, without the support of a large-scale Filipino community, [11] was more deeply embedded in Japanese desires to rise in the global national order. In 1948, Gustillo fought against Horiguchi for the last time and overwhelmed this Japanese hero late in his career. The next day, the Kento Fan paper described the match as “les miserables” (Jojima 2003:201-5). Critics and journalists of the time described the misery for Japanese spectators because even their national hero could not crush the foreigner. The Japanese lost the war and three years after military defeat their national fistic champ still could not win. Although Gustillo did enjoy enormous cheers from Japanese fans, those were a twisted manifestation of the fans’ hatred towards this reigning (Asian) foreigner (Kamigata 1953:4). Gustillo’s successors from the Philippines in the 1980s have also been situated amid history and nationalistic sentiments – though of a different kind.

Contemporary Filipino Pugilists

The majority of foreign boxers come to Japan in order to serve as a foil to Japanese pugilists. They are merely playing supporting actors’ roles (Funaki 2001:122).

Maguire distinguishes five categories of global migrant athletes: pioneers, settlers, mercenaries, nomadic cosmopolitans, and returnees (Maguire 1996:338-340). If Eagle served as the pioneer in contributing to the diffusion of the sport and its spirit, Gustillo was a settler who officially affiliated with a gym in Japan, enabling him to earn a Japanese title, and spent the rest of his life there. Mercenaries are contracted for a short period of time with high salaries as in the numerous suketto professional baseball players in Japan from North and Central America and Asia. Nomadic cosmopolitans such as golfers Miyazato Ai and Maruyama Shigeki move around the globe to compete. Returnees go back to their home societies and continue to practice their sports as in the case of some Japanese former Major League baseball players.

The 1970s saw a decline in enthusiasm for boxing and correspondingly in the traffic of boxers between the Philippines and Japan. As Japan‘s economy rose and the Philippines‘ sank in the 1980s, however, Filipino pugs began to enter Japan again. Some of them are mercenaries who are officially affiliated with Japanese gyms. Among these, Jun-Tan Sato, Nelson Harada, and Suzuki Cabato [12] became Japan titleholders in the 1990s. Suzuki defended his Japanese Flyweight Boxing Championship six times between 1996 and 1998 and his fame contributed to the increase in the number of Japanese trainees at his gym. A few other Filipino pugilists are nomadic cosmopolitans and returnees. [13]

The vast majority of Filipino boxers from the 1980s, however, come only for a specified number of bouts on short-term entertainer visas. [14] Despite the stunning victories of the Filipino Japan titleholders, most Filipino pugs are largely motivated by the much higher monetary awards they can earn in Japan in contrast to the Philippines. With this, they can fulfill their dreams of, for example, building a house – an object that will enhance their material as well as symbolic standings in their communities. In the Philippines, a ten-round match would generate 20-30,000 yen worth of pesos whereas in Japan they can earn four or five times more than in their home country. This is the case even if they lose. [15] Curiously, the more they lose, the more they are invited to Japan. For instance, Alpong Navaja fought on nine cards between 1994 and 1998. His record included eight losses and one draw with no wins (Boxing Magazine 1999:187). Matchmakers pair up incompatible pugs for non-title matches and because of this less-qualified Filipino boxers find more opportunities to use their “inferior” skills. Hara Isao, the editor of Boxing Magazine, witnessed that a Filipino lost four times in four outings while migrating around four cities in a few months. Another pug weighing sixty-three kilos was knocked out in one match and two months later, weighing 71.2 kilos, sank in another.

Until around the mid 1970s, there were Japanese who accepted the loser role. As the overall economic standing of the Japanese rose, the number of Japanese “divers” shrank. Many Japanese trainees quit when they feel the training is too arduous. Unlike in the US, where numerous men disadvantaged by race, class, and immigrant status continue to try to make a living in the fistic “meat market” (Wacquant 1998), Japanese filled this athletic labor shortage by turning abroad. [16] These foreign workers arrive on entertainer visas, which do not permit the holders to engage in jobs other than those specified. They are paid by the number and lengths of bouts and when there are no fights, they cannot earn an income. Financially constrained while in Japan, in the mid-1990s some mercenaries and short-term visitors disappeared from their gyms and illegally worked in factories and construction sites. This resulted in the Japanese Ministry of Justice’s ban on the issuance of entertainer visas to Filipino pugilists between 2000 and 2002. Thus if they wish to receive their share for their labor and to secure the number of bouts they will fight in, the legal stipulation leads foreign boxers to comply with the work conditions in the ring. When the expectation of the Japanese is to see foreigners fall, that is what the majority of the men have done.

Of course, not all Japanese boxing critics and fans appreciate fixed bouts. Responding to their critiques, a Japanese matchmaker Koizumi Jo (1999) argued that it was necessary to pair Japanese pugilists and less qualified foreign boxers in order to train the Japanese. There are two types of international non-title bouts: one allows the Japanese to win and in so doing raise his confidence; and the other provides the Japanese opportunities to enter world rankings by winning, even by chance, against powerful foes. Indeed, the records of Japanese “hopes,” or promising athletes, suggest that many have felled Filipino boxers in several bouts prior to entering world-title fights. Koizumi points out the paradox: on the one hand gym owners want to satisfy the audience by pairing equitable boxers. On the other hand, such bouts could ruin the hopes of Japanese fighters even before they combat in championship matches. Furthermore, eighty percent of gym owners think that Japanese titleholders should be Japanese and that affiliations with Japanese gyms alone are not satisfactory (Boxing Magazine 1997:117). For them only those who represent their ethnicity-nationality are their champs. Thus, “mismatches” are arranged.

Conversely, since the 1980s talented Filipinos have received fewer opportunities in Japan. For instance, Tiger Ari, the son of a former Asia-Pacific Junior Lightweight champion, had his debut in 1987 as a boxer affiliated with a gym in Japan. In 1989 Ari challenged the Japanese Junior Lightweight champion Akagi Takeyuki. Ari fought deftly but lost by a few points in a ring in the champ’s hometown. He is not an ostentatious performer but a technician. Because of this, matchmakers thought he would not make an attractive show in the fistic market. Ari’s good fight thus had a detrimental reverse effect on his career in Japan and the gym owner told him to return home. It is important to note that prior to the fight Ari had boxed well against Japanese opponents. Upon returning to the Philippines, he succeeded his father as the Asia-Pacific Junior Lightweight Boxing titleholder. Though for lay observers fine fistic craft may be hard to recognize, his talent, compounded by his pedigree, scared off Japanese matchmakers. Another example of a competent boxer is Jess Maca. He challenged the Asia-Pacific Bantamweight champion Nakamura Masahiko in 1998. Wounded in this battle, Nakamura’s career was ended because of retina damage. Five months after overpowering Nakamura, Maca crushed rising Nakazato Shigeru, who had enjoyed thirteen consecutive wins. Maca came to be known as a “Japanese killer” after consecutively felling five Japanese pugs between 1997 and 1999. After this, Maca faced difficulty to fight in non-title matches in Japan (Takahata 2000).

As seen in the case of Gustillo and many Filipino pugs in the US, having foes from abroad helps incite national-ethnic rivalry and sentiments. Nakamura, whose boxing career was ended by injury in his defeat by Maca, expressed such emotions this way, “I want Nishioka [who is expected to rise to world rank] to challenge for the world title after battering Maca. Maca made complete fools of the Japanese (kore dake Nihonjin ga koke ni sarete). If I could, I would beat him. But it’s not possible, so I want Nishioka to crush Maca” (World Boxing 1999:132). Here, Nakamura transposes his personal loss onto the defeat of the entire nation. In order to avoid experiencing this kind of anguish and damage to national dignity, talented Filipino pugs such as Ari, Maca, and others are today very often shunned from the fistic trade in Japan. Conversely, as long as Filipino pugilists remain “losers” or represent their Japanese gyms as champs to attract more Japanese trainees as in the case of Suzuki Cabato, they are welcomed within the confines of the ring and the gym. In so doing, Japanese men can continue to co-construct their “superior” masculine identity with their champs and also restore, if not boost, national dignity against these “inferior,” “weak,” and therefore “feminine” Filipino men.

Filipino Hosts

Non-white foreign male workers in Japan have been commonly identified as those who engage in “3K” kitanai, kiken, kitsui (or 3D, i.e., dirty, dangerous, and physically demanding) jobs at construction sites and factories. The pugilists in contemporary Japan described above in fact appear to take up one of these “3K” masculine occupations. Interestingly, there have also been Filipino men who have performed jobs that are predominantly carried out by women at nightclubs. The influx of Filipina entertainers in the water trades began to be recognized in Japan in the 1970s. Subsequently, there has been a massive circulation of stories about these women workers, whose often negative representations have entered global popular and academic discourses (Suzuki 2002a). Yet, little is known about the Filipino men who work at nightclubs as heterosexual, cross-dressed, and homosexual hosto. This section delineates the ways in which these male night-workers are described in an article written by Filipino researchers, which is then juxtaposed with the literature on Filipina entertainers produced by Japanese and Western observers. My goal here is to consider how notions of class and morality manifested in such writings have positioned these men at the margins of Japanese and Philippine societies. At the end, in order to elucidate the feminization and transnational class subjection of Filipino men in deterritorialized spaces, I will tie this discourse to that deployed in the postwar era about Filipino fistic sport labor.

Santiago and Dacanay’s article, “A Prolegomena on the ‘Hosto’ Phenomenon and Issues in Philippine Migrant Worker Law” (Santiago and Dacanay 1999) is the only academic work to date that has dealt exclusively with Filipino hosto in Japan. [17] “Prolegomena” deserves attention not because it is widely cited, but because it articulates well with the prevailing rhetorical construction of Filipina entertainers generated by numerous scholars and activists. A critical examination of the discourse on hosto vis-a-vis that on women entertainers provides an opportunity to consider Filipino men’s migration to Japan as something other than the capitalist logic of Japanese employers; the material interests of Filipino workers; the one-sided subjection of these workers by First World people; and the domination of male over female. An inquiry into the resonance of discourses of Filipino women and men migrant workers to Japan allows us to interrogate the robust geopolitical, geoeconomic, gendered, and sexual discursive boundaries between domineering and masculine Japan and the dominated and feminized Philippines.

Hosto and Their Performances

Based on the sex ratio of the Filipino population in Japan in the 1990s, of eighty-five percent female and fifteen percent male, [18] it is safe to assume that women entertainers outnumber men in the water trades in Japan. Nonetheless, the presence of hosto, and especially bakla at nightclubs, is a well-known fact among Filipino residents and “Philippine pub” visitors in Japan. Today, as in the case of their female counterparts, Filipino male entertainers hold performing artist certificates issued by the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration and are officially deployed abroad by this governmental institution. The majority are categorized as dancers (Santiago and Dacanay 1999:102-3). According to Filipino longtime residents of Japan, though in a much smaller number than their women counterparts, these male nightclub workers on entertainer visas probably began entering Japan in the late 1970s or the early 1980s, at about the same time as the women. Starting from the late 1980s to the early 1990s, others have voluntarily joined the trades through different channels such as students and tourists who had overstayed their visas and previously engaged in “3D” jobs. In spite of their artistic expertise in the case of entertainer visa holders, like their women counterparts, the main work of hosto at nightclubs is to sit at a table and offer light conversation, make drinks, take food orders, light cigarettes, keep the table clean and tidy, sing and dance with customers, and perform different kinds of dance numbers a few times a night (p.110). The men Santiago and Dacanay interviewed did not perform sexy dances or striptease (p.110). The authors argue that these men entertainers are motivated to come to Japan because they “have no other economic means of livelihood” in the Philippines and their “depravity” therefore leads them “logically” to take up any job abroad (pp.125-6).

Host clubs are not gay bars and the majority of the clients are women, many of whom are Filipina entertainers and Japanese office and bar workers (p.109). Sometimes these women customers are accompanied by Japanese men, who commonly pay all expenses. Club hours may vary and those where Santiago and Dacanay’s informants work from 7:30 pm until 7:00 am the next morning (p.110). Like women entertainers at Philippine pubs, hosto are sometimes required to take dohan and shimei. Shimei means a request for a particular hosto’s services at a table for a special fee from which the hosto receives a portion. Santiago and Dacanay define dohan as “to go out with their guests; not to have sex, however, but to accompany clients on the latter’s various activities, such as shopping, eating out in restaurants, bowling, and other recreational activities” (p.111; emphasis added). Customers who ask for dohan are required to pay a bar fine when the hosto arrives at the club after it opens, and the hosto receives credit for bringing in customers. Hosto tactically use this system to keep their clients’ “loyalty.” Quick engagements in sex with customers may cause “the loss of [their] favor” and are therefore avoided (p.111). Correspondingly, as with Filipina bar workers, one important reason for postponing, if not completely avoiding, sexual contacts with customers is that their business relations might suddenly end when their clients find the host(esse)s’ sexual and personal services unsatisfactory (Suzuki 2002b:109). As a hosto I know put it, “it’s the water trades, mizu shobai. Customers come and go.” Santiago and Dacanay’s informants’ use of the word “loyalty” echoes with the logic of this service industry to keep customers’ patronage as long as possible.

Santiago and Dacanay conclude their description of hosto by saying, in “essence, the ‘hosto’s” job is to make club guests truly happy, however fleeting. In short, the ‘hosto’ performs the role of a ‘host’ in its ordinary sense” (p.110). The authors go on to argue that since “the nature of the job involves a variety of services, including being a guest relations officer (GRO) and waiter, the job does not have a rigid description. The multifarious functions of the ‘hosto’ primarily depend on the club’s policy; although the minimum task is to entertain guests” (p.112). Indeed, these descriptions are strikingly similar to the tasks many Filipina entertainers I know perform at nightclubs as well as those observed among Japanese hostesses (e.g., Allison 1994).

What is remarkable about Santiago and Dacanay’s work are assertions that deny what their informants have told them. Instead, the authors proceed to construct hosto simply as sex objects. Immediately after the sketch of hostos’ work, the authors state that they “do not discount the high possibility of ‘sex with a client’ being encouraged as a policy as the nature of the job is to a large extent sex-related” (p.112). This is because a “‘hosto’ club attracts regular customers who enjoy being entertained by the ‘hosto,’ or who like to have sexual relations with the ‘hosto'” (p.112). The reason the authors give derives from a comment one of their informants made about the fact that his club was forced to close when it could no longer provide the services of hosto (p.112). Santiago and Dacanay neglect to clarify what their informant meant by “services.”

Clubs may be closed for a variety of reasons other than the sexual services of hosto. For instance a club in Yokohama I am familiar with dropped its early-hour operation, from 7 pm to 12 midnight, featuring entertainment by Filipina hostesses, due to declining business under the Heisei recession in the late 1990s. The club retained its late-night business, from midnight to 5 am, hosted by about thirty men – including hosto, bartenders, a DJ, a singer – and a cross-dressed bakla floor manager, “Mama Cherry.” In 2001, the club was closed following an unexpected raid by the immigration police, who had known for quite some time about the club and that some of its workers were illegally overstaying their visas. [19] Thus, under the recession and increasing immigration policing, the closure of a nightclub staffed by foreign workers can be caused by various factors other than factors related to sexual services.

Santiago and Dacanay also dismiss the variety of operations among different kinds of bars and nightclubs. Cherry insisted that making her club into a prostitution den was not good for business. What her club marketed was, as Santiago and Dacanay themselves mention, the fleeting atmosphere of a nightclub. Cherry repeatedly said that it was the “clean image” that was her club’s policy: “Dapat ka clean image. Importante!” (You’ve got to [retain a] clean image. That’s important!). To enhance such clean images, hosto commonly groom themselves well and dress in well-tailored suits with other decorative and fragrant touches. Cherry does know of other “lowest hosto bars” where prostitution is practiced. She also knew some of the hosto at her club engaged in sex with their clients. But these were “private matters” and “up to them,” she said. Among various services hosto offer Cherry emphasized light conversation as one of the most important (see Suzuki 2000:434). Moreover, many Filipino hosts and hostesses who held the Philippine government issued artist certificates, retained pride as entertainers – such as dancers and singers – and called themselves “talents” with varied degrees of skills in musical and theatrical performances.

Besides the disregard for what the workers themselves think of their work, what is confused, if not ignored, by observers like Santiago and Dacanay is the fact that hosto (and hostesses) are people of a sexually active age. Insofar as it is consensual, having sex with clients itself does not seem to be such a critical matter. Even if the men (or women) receive money from their Japanese customers, it may be that the Japanese insist on paying to show off. Cherry observes that Japanese feel sympathetic with foreign workers (from the Third World) whom Japanese tend to see as poor in the double sense of the word. If that is the case, these structurally disadvantaged workers use the stereotype of Asian migrant workers as paupers to their advantage while satisfying their Japanese clients’ senses of financial power and national superiority (Manalansan 1994; Suzuki 2002b:184-85).

Having observed Filipino male illegal workers over a span of fifteen years, Rey Ventura (1992, 2007) has perceptively discussed illegal male workers’ sexual involvements. Let me quote his observation though at length:

Dante has spent a third of this life as a laborer overseas. … When he hugged and kissed his wife last was fourteen years ago at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport. … In the evening, these workers return to a hut-like home, eat, and sleep all alone. Do they sleep while dreaming of someday meeting their families again? Exhausted, being homesick, lacking money all the time, can overseas workers be satisfied only by remitting money at the end of the month and receiving letters and phone calls from beloved family members? … Can people live without feeling the bodily warmth of other people? … [Dante would say], “What am I supposed to do with my dick? Make pickles? Will it be of any use if I grind it and feed the birds with?” … When these workers fall to temptations, can we call their sexual affairs a sin? Can we criticize their weaknesses as people? … But where is the line between an ethically permissible life and one that is not? Who draws the line? (Ventura 2007:102-104, translated from Japanese by author).

Indeed, these workers are people no matter how badly they are treated at worksites and by observers who do not even have a feel for these illegal workers’ lone and hard lives in a foreign land. After revisiting these workers’ lives that he had shared for a year in the past, Ventura (2007:104) argues that however illicit normatively, sexual affairs are nevertheless a way to remind themselves that they still maintain some attractiveness as people. Although Filipino men’s sexual experiences and adventures cannot be easily equated with those of Filipinas, what is important to consider is that Santiago and Dacanay’s argument resonates with a dominant discourse, especially that written in English, on Filipina entertainers by scholars and activists based in Japan and the West.

Discourse on Filipina Entertainers in the First World

Filipina entertainers began to enter the public discourse in Japan in the late 1970s. The media-led image production has featured these workers as “making good cinematic objects because of their beauty and other marketable stories like being highly educated mothers” (Yamatani 1985:28). The filmmaker Yamatani Tetsuo called these women “a convenient public toilet,” which is “a reality of Southeast Asian women in Japan.” The late Japanese feminist journalist Matsui Yayori was one of the most influential speakers on Filipinas in Japan. Having published her views in English, given her networks and the power of the global language, her work circulated widely in the international discourses of advocates and scholars (see for example, Chant 1997; de Dios 1992; McCormack 1996; Tadiar 2003). [20] Matsui argued that Filipinas’ reason for going to Japan was simply to support their poor families (Matsui 1995:310-1; 1997:137). She insisted that these Filipinas were victims of trafficking and rejected their work in the water trades altogether. She then firmly located these “girls” in “the noneuphemistic sex industry” (Matsui 1997:137, 141). Subsequent to these journalists’ and activists’ reports, scholars joined the investigation of these entertainers. Similar to Matsui, Mike Douglass, based in the US, asserts, “more than 100,000 women are legally allowed to enter Japan as sex workers” [21] and “the majority of women coming into Japan under entertainment visas are actually working as hostesses or prostitutes” (Douglass 2000:98). Drawing on “considerable evidence” based on the cases of foreign women night workers who sought help at women’s shelters and the like, Douglass maintains that this “international trade in women” involves work “too euphemistically called ‘entertainment'” (Douglass 2000:92). Yoko Sellek, based in the UK, argues that prostitution “is a common form of employment for women attempting to eke out a living in urban areas” in Southeast Asia and that these women are “working [solely] for the yen” in Japan for themselves and their families (Sellek 1996:168). [22]

Some of the common lines of these depictions of Filipina/o entertainers are that they are essentially sex objects even if they consider themselves “talents.” However, hostessing or hosting and prostitution in Japan are not one and the same. Nor are the water trades and the sex industry identical. While Douglass neglects to provide the source of his information, based on the 1997 immigration statistics he used (see Ministry of Justice 1998) the closest number to the figure of 100,000 “sex-worker” entrants is the sum of Filipino female entrants to Japan (n=96,041). This suggests that the undistinguished, faceless mass of Filipinas coming to Japan are all incarcerated in morally denounced sectors of the night businesses regardless of their legal statuses and individual situations. And, in the views of Douglass, Matsui, Sellek, and many others, these women come to Japan, not to entertain customers through hosting, hostessing, and music/dance shows in the ways that many workers, such as Cherry and Santiago and Dacanay’s informants, describe their jobs. [23]

Figure 3: Filipino Hostess and Host Club Workers Participating in a “Miss Fil-Gay” (Filipino Gay) Beauty Pageant, photo by author

Another shared emphasis recurrently found in the discourses on Filipino women and men entertainers is reference to poverty in the Philippines. The Philippines is generally poor, but not everyone living there is a pauper. The economic motivation is important, but workers are not always motivated to migrate solely for money. They may, for example, try to escape from social constraints such as paternal control, spousal infidelity, rape, and bad marriages (Suzuki 2002b) or to satisfy dreams as seen in the pugilists’ case above. Likewise, though Santiago and Dacanay learned about hosto who, for example, had left broken marriages (p.113), [24] they failed to consider the workers’ other motivations to take up a job in a nightclub in Japan. [25] Together with their strong suspicions of hosto engaging in prostitution, Santiago and Dacanay’s study resonates with the moralizing/sexualized discourses on Filipina entertainers produced by First World advocates and scholars. [26]

Transnational Class Subjection

What do these reverberating discourses of international scholars and activists suggest? For the last two decades, critical scholars have examined writings about other people. They have argued that the various positionalities of writers – such as nationality, race, ethnicity, class, gender, and sexual orientation – seriously impact the ways they reduce other people to particular caricatures. In writing about the problem of representation David Pollack argued, “first-world and third-world relations are now largely understood by most theorists as involving … a systematic disadvantaging of others as the inevitable complement of advantaging oneself” (Pollack 2000:167). His use of lower-case “first-” and “third-worlds” suggests fluid dominant-dominated power relations beyond the geopolitically and geoeconomically bounded “worlds.” This allows us to see a representational disadvantaging of others taking place beyond national borders. International groups of scholars and activists located in various parts of the world may thus collaborate in the subjection of other people as “pauper prostitutes” in this deterritorialized discursive field. They may also disregard the many migration studies that have shown that global migrants today do not always come from the poorest among the poor, who are indeed immobile with little or no money at hand (e.g., Portes and Rumbaut 1996). Indeed, many Filipina/o entertainers coming to Japan are not from the lowest segment of Philippine society (Go in Go and Jung 1999; Ventura 1992, 2007). [27] By confining laboring Filipino bodies exclusively within poverty in their homeland and the sex industry abroad, researchers inversely represent their own economic and moral, and therefore masculine, superiority over the people they describe. Moreover, such inequality in researcher-researched relations even allows the former to profit from the latter’s struggles, and researchers and advocates can advance their careers and projects in their respective fields. Such discursive subjections of Filipino bar workers in Japan are products of transnationally dispersed “migrant-labor research industries” (Aguilar 1999:99).

Within these research industries, Filipino scholars’ subjection of their co-nationals has further evolved in their own historical and social contexts. Class is heavily implicated in the ways in which the Philippine elites, including intellectuals – who know little of what it means to be of the poorer classes – represent and think of international migrant workers as a source of national shame because these workers disclose to the world the state elites’ incompetence in keeping ordinary citizens happy within their own society (Aguilar 1996). Ironically, the elites also feel their privileges in material, cultural, and symbolic wealth undermined by these workers’ newly acquired middle-class material and symbolic capital, allowing and acquired through travel abroad and conspicuous consumption. Furthermore, the now widely circulated images of Filipinas as prostitutes and Filipino men as illegal workers in Japan have further hurt Filipino elites’ national and class-based pride. Higher-status Filipina/os in Japan, temporary or long term, are inevitably lumped together with working-class migrants and so try to disidentify themselves from such tainted images. In this context, Santiago and Dacanay discursively locate the hosto as “depraved” sex workers of and align them with women “prostitutes” while simultaneously trying to extricate themselves from being associated with these. By situating the hosto in this way, these authors of Third World origin join in the discourse developed by men and women in the First-World, including Japanese.

In this way, regardless of what they actually do and think of their work, Filipino hosto in Japan experience this class subjection in the transnational discursive field. Their entertainment through hosting and through performing arts and enacting particular personae are “feminized” not because the men are effeminate or think their work feminine, but because of the ways in which popular and academic discourses have constructed these men as being morally denounced “sex workers” vis-a-vis men and women in privileged positionalities in local, national, and global hierarchies.


This article has explored some ways of understanding Filipino men’s labor in the entertainment world in contemporary Japan. At first glance, Filipino boxers and hosto appear to stand at opposite ends of the spectrum of occupations for men. As I have demonstrated however, their experiences converge in the contemporary discursive field when the notions of “feminization” and transnational class subjection are taken into account. Notions of gender are contrastive and masculine features are those that are not feminine and vice versa. These masculine characteristics are further distinguished by setting them against the qualities of other men. The idea of the feminization of Filipino entertainers explored in this paper is that they are rhetorically constructed as having “feminine” qualities of weakness, inferiority, and moral degradation. While Filipino entertainers are symbolically “feminized” in these terms, Japanese boxers inversely rise in the masculine hierarchy and Japanese and Filipino women customers at host clubs subvert the gender order based on their privileged national and material positionalities.

The influx of Filipino boxers in the 1980s is a unique counterexample to the global migration of sport labor in which highly competitive elite athletes are richly rewarded and lionized for joining the best teams in the world. In stark contrast to this global trend, Filipino pugilists today are invited to be beaten by Japanese hopefuls. Such a practice appears to contradict capitalist logic. Instead of accumulating economic capital by minimizing cost, contemporary Japanese have invested in these foreign pugilists in order to gain other forms of social capital. Unlike their prewar and 1950s predecessors, who trained themselves while watching the backs of Filipino pugilists standing far ahead of them, contemporary Japanese pugs are paired with Filipinos who are willing to “dive.” By “defeating” their Asian opponents, Japanese in the ring and audience together celebrate their imagined masculine prowess and enhanced national pride. Designed in this way Filipinos emerge as “weak” and therefore “feminine” men and nationals.

The world of boxing has been predominantly a site for male-male competition. On the other hand, the presence of Filipino men in Japan‘s water trades has opened up another space in which their work is hyper-eroticized and morality suspect. As their women counterparts working as entertainers and hostesses at nightclubs have been in the prevailing discourse of first world observers reduced to “prostitutes” of poor origin, so too these hosto’s work is considered to be primarily trade in sex. Given the rhetorical resonance here at the juncture of sex work and pauperism, higher-class Filipino researchers join First World observers whose discursive forces together transnationally feminize the laboring hosto in Japan‘s night businesses. Hence, while in Japan, these men entertainers’ experiences are inextricably linked to these crisscrossing classed, gendered, and sexualized forces of first-world transnational subjection.


Japan‘s labor market and human cartography in the twenty-first century will inevitably involve more extensive entanglements with people from various parts of the world. Under these conditions, the feminization of people will continue to be grist for our theoretical mill, as their personal experiences as well as discourses surrounding them will reveal the intricate workings of nationality, ethnicity, class, gender, and sexuality in their desires to accumulate various forms of capital across national boundaries.


Nobue Suzuki is Professor of Anthropology and Gender Studies at Nagasaki Wesleyan University. She is the coeditor (with James E. Roberson) of Men and Masculinities in Contemporary Japan and has published numerous articles on Filipinos in Japan and Filipina-Japanese marriages in particular. Contact: [email protected] and also see her profile at Nagasaki Wesleyan University website.


This article, written for Japan Focus, is a revised version of work first published in Work, Employment, and Society in Contemporary Japan, edited by P. Matanle and W. Lunsing (London: Palgrave, 2006). Posted at Japan Focus on April 10, 2007. 



The author is grateful to Mr Tsugawa Masaru of All Boxing Gym, Jojima Mitsuru, and Norimatsu Suguru for helping her acquire Filipino boxers’ photos. William W. Kelly provided useful literature information.



[1] The contribution of Sachi Takahata, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Hiroshima Kokusai Gakuin University, to the section on boxing in this article deserves more than a mention in acknowledgement. Following the method used for example by Arlie Hochschild with Ann Machung (1989), Takahata is listed with the word “with.” However, Nobue Suzuki alone is responsible for any errors and shortcomings.

[2] Today, the term “Japayuki” seems to have become obsolete in the Japanese vernacular. The term, however, is still commonly used among Filipinos in and outside the Philippines, including some advocates for the welfare of women overseas workers. Numerous Filipino residents in Japan thus continue to suffer from this derogatory naming and associated prostitute image.

[3] For brief sketches of these topics, see Roth (2002:Chap6); Tsuda (2003:183-189).

[4] In this paper, unless the context suggests otherwise “Asia” and its variants refer to the Asian region and people excluding Japan and the Japanese, as this distinction is often invoked by many Japanese to differentiate themselves from “others” in Asia in the global power structures.

[5] The word “hosto” is the phonetic rendition of the English word “host” in the standard Japanese language. The term has in turn entered the Tagalog vernacular. As discussed below, the significance of the use of this Japanese/Tagalog rendition rather than the English original is that it carries different signifiers for hosting workers and middle-class analysts. For the sake of consistency, I use “hosto” throughout this paper to address this translational problem.

[6] Jazz in Japan is another area to which Filipinos contributed tremendously. See Atkins (2001: passim) and Yu-Jose (2002:Chap3).

[7] See Ong (1991) for a concise summary of the gender and labor politics from the 1970s. In this sense, we can think of male workers who are pushed out of the labor market due to the need for female workers to be more “feminized” than women.

[8] To be clear, being hosto and bakla are not all effeminate.

[9] Complete statistics prior to 1980 was not available.

[10] See Yu-Jose (2002:Chap5) for some examples of the ways in which Japanese viewed Filipinos in wartime Japan.

[11] In 1943, there was a record of 51 Filipinos who resided in scattered prefectures (Yu-Jose 2002:87).

[12] Boxers’ foreign names negatively affect television viewing rates and ticket sales. Therefore, all of them received the surnames from their Japanese managers, but the order of given names and surnames may vary.

[13] See Takahata (2000) for details about these as well as other Filipino pugilists, notably Flash Elorde, who came to Japan between the post-Gustillo time of the 1960s and 1980s.

[14] They hold the same entertainers visa as numerous women working in the water trades.

[15] The money is usually central to the lives of boxers, many of whom come from deprived families and have no other skills to earn a better income. But money is not all about their lives. For boxers’ personal senses of achievement and membership in society, see Wacquant (1995).

[16] Zainichi “resident” Koreans and Okinawans are overrepresented in the boxing population in Japan, though many zainichi do not always openly reveal their ethnic identity. Okinawa produced six champs out of the total of forty-one world titleholders between 1952 and 2000 (Tsue 2001:65).

[17] Ventura (1992) described hosto in passing.

[18] There are no statistics on the numbers of entertainers by sex in either Japan or the Philippines.

[19] See Ventura (1992:132) for the police’s knowledge about overstayers.

[20] See Suzuki (2002a) for other ways in which Filipinas in Japan have been represented. To be clear, I am not at all denying tragic and brutal work conditions that have caused much suffering and deaths of Filipina and other nightworkers. My point is that the limited emphasis on such conditions has also generated adverse effects on their lives. See Sharma (2005) for some of the effects of the domination of anti-prostitution (promoted commonly in the name of anti-trafficking) campaigns on laboring women migrants and their tight link to xenophobia and the rising sentiments of anti-immigration and nationalism in Canada especially in the wake of the 9.11 terror (see also Suzuki forthcoming a). Indeed, Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State, has gone so far as to declare, “The movement to end trafficking in persons is more than a human rights objective; it is a matter of global security” (US-DOS 2006:1).

[21] The Japanese government does not legally allow the entry of foreign sex workers. It has practically permitted the entry of entertainers some of whom work as forced and other prostitutes.

[22] See Suzuki (2005, forthcoming b) for further discussions on these writers’ methodological and epistemological problems. Although keeping alive the plight of migrant workers is important, Liza Go, one of the most vocal Filipina activists in Japan throughout the 1990s, told me her criticism of Matsui and other ethnic Japanese feminists because of their overwhelming, if not exclusive, interest in the stories of victimized Filipinas while disregarding Filipinas’ more complicated experiences and their resistance to various forms of violence. The domination of the kinds of images globally circulated by these feminists and other scholars continues to haunt Filipinas in Japan to this day. For details, see an updated version of Suzuki (2000, forthcoming/2007).

[23] For women entertainers, see Suzuki (2000, 2002a). Many Filipinas do not like the hostess job, but others do not mind it while playfully and defiantly defending themselves from men’s sexual approaches such as touching and kissing. For the latter, what upsets them more is the stigma attached to their job and the denigrating label, “Japayuki.”

[24] Divorce is not legally recognized among Catholic Filipinos in the Philippines, leading some to physically leave their localities to stay away from their former partners.

[25] See Suzuki (2005) for Filipinas’ other reasons for migration to and work as entertainers in Japan.

[26] These negative conjectures and representations are partly responsible for the 2005 tightening of Filipino entertainers to work in Japan (Suzuki forthcoming b).

[27] In order not to make these Filipino migrants our complete “other,” it might be useful to place their social and economic situations in a broader perspective on the exploitative political-economic systems that surround our own lives, even though the kinds and levels of exploitation may not be the same. Under capitalist-consumerist social conditions, it is indeed not only people in the Third World who migrate in order to realize their hopes and aspirations, but due to the rising cost of living in large cities, urban middle-class Americans today increasingly feel the need to relocate to other places in order to improve their material conditions and achieve the “American dream” (Levenson 2006). And, in order to subsist and possibly establish careers and middle-class lives, some First World academics migrate to undesirable places in and outside their native countries. Especially before tenure, they often grudgingly put up with work conditions which, as in the words of some of colleagues in the US, are “slave-like” and “abusive” with or without sexual, gendered, and racial harassment. On the other hand, some of the growing number of impoverished Japanese do not even have the money to move to a place where they know they can land a (and in some cases, any) job (Kiyokawa, Tada, and Miyazaki 2007).



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