Hostess life: "What I learned by being a migrant sex worker in Japan"

Bloomberg News has published a two-part, first-person investigative piece by Rhacel Salazar Parreñas, a professor of sociology at the University of Southern California, on the lives of Filipina sex workers in Tokyo, Japan. To study the living and working conditions of these "hostess bar" migrant laborers, Parrenas became one.

The Bloomberg pieces are excerpts from her new book “Illicit Flirtations: Labor, Migration, and Sex Trafficking in Tokyo,” released this week by Stanford University Press.

Here is part 1. And here is part 2.

The Bloomberg excerpts are fascinating, as is the book, for providing an unusual glimpse inside a world most of us will never witness first-hand.

I spent nine months in Tokyo working as a hostess in a working-class club in one of the city’s many red-light districts, frequented by members of the yakuza, the Japanese crime syndicates. This type of place, in a seedy location, owned by a proprietor with a questionable background, was often assumed to be a site of forced prostitution.

In 2005 and 2006, I resorted to this work as a way of gaining access to the world of Filipina hostesses in Japan. During my first three months in Tokyo, I had struggled to meet hostesses willing to participate in my study of their conditions. My visits to clubs as a customer had not provided any solid leads.

Attending church with fellow Filipinas had not gained their trust. Even hostesses whom I befriended had always declined my request for an interview. I had assumed that they had experienced emotional distress from the stigma associated with their occupation. I had come to Japan believing claims by other academics that “hostess work” was a euphemism for “prostitution.”

After I began working as a hostess, every person I approached agreed to talk to me. By the end of my study, I had completed interviews with 56 Filipina hostesses: 45 females and 11 male-to-female transgendered individuals. After working just one week in a hostess bar, I realized I had entered an unfamiliar sexual world, where people are more open about their sexuality, where both customers and hostesses seem to be ready for extramarital affairs, and where men can sexually harass women with no punishment.

Parrenas takes the position that "unsubstantiated claims of the forced prostitution of Filipina hostesses are morally charged, and divert attention from the need for regulation and protection of sex workers." Laws to prevent abuse by middlemen brokers in the sex industry would do more to improve the lives of these migrant women than eliminating their jobs, she argues.

"Hostesses don’t need to be rescued," Parrenas writes, "They need the empowerment that comes from being independent labor migrants. Only then can they remain gainfully employed, free of migrant brokers, and have full control of their own lives."


  1. Oh, bring out the johns and sexist trolls on this one…

    What are the other ‘Rules’? Tell us, please. No, wait- don’t.

    1. No trolls seem to be in attendance here, they’re too busy being misogynist creeps over at Reddit.  

    1. Considering that she wrote 56 Filipina hostesses, Perrenas used two feminine words which included the transgender individuals: Filipina and hostess. The further elucidation between cis and trans merely adds detail and context and does not imply that she does not consider male to female transgender individuals to be female as you infer. Indeed since she named the trans. as both Filipinas and hostesses, the fair inference would be that she does consider them to be female.

      From memory the Philippines’ biggest export is labour. From the sounds of it, working as a maid in Singapore, HK and the Mid East could very well be worse than the ‘sex work’ in Japan. The stories of abuse are harrowing.

      blueleem, Perrenas gives a clear definition of ‘sex work’ and includes the flirtation activities of the traditional Geisha. I think it’s a fair definition.

      As to the standards of rich white people thingo, I think there is something to be said for such criticism. Most rich white people I’ve met struggle to believe that Filipina women have any agency or autonomy at all, especially if they engage in activities about which the rich white person has a strong moral position.

      I think that Perrenas has undertaken some brave and interesting research which has challenged her perception of trafficking and sex work. If only it challenged other people’s perceptions as much.

      1. “Most rich white people I’ve met struggle to believe that Filipina women have any agency or autonomy at all, especially if they engage in activities about which the rich white person has a strong moral position.”
        Couldn’t agree more, it’s disgustingly racist and sexist. In my (albiet limited) experience, all the Filipina women I’ve come across have been badasses. Anyone who is going to venture into the adult industry in a foreign country I think must be one tough broad(or dude as the case may be) if they are to succeed.

  2. Finally, someone who really sees this “stop human trafficking” stuff for what it is.  Yes, we need to stop REAL human trafficking, but the main focus is on people like was mentioned in this article, people who knowingly and willingly choose to do these jobs.  It’s no better than a lot of these laws to protect “children” that are then used against those same children (sex offender list for peeing on a tree at 13?  taking a pic of yourself at 15?).

    This article, while not long, is very well written and gets to the point, what the women need are not some false protection based on the moral standards of rich white people, but protection for themselves that will allow them to work this way if they so choose without being exploited because of the said false protections.

    1. While I am down with your point, what’s up with this “false protection based on the moral standards of rich white people” thing?  While the “rich white” boogie man can legitimately be a place to lay some blame, it seems to just be carelessly tossed out a lot.  Not that I think the rich white people need defending…  Just…  do we have any evidence that the moral standards of rich white people leads to combating human trafficking in a way that is different and inferior to how… rich Japanese people would do it?  Religious black people?  The law enforcement of Singapore?  The ANC?  The middle class people of Arizona?  Saudi royalty?

      1. I think the issue here is the tendency of wealthy people from the US to throw laws at these things that end up making the women who enter into these situations even more at risk by making them the criminals here. People who are desperate because they are poor get lumped in with women who do this because they find it exciting IRL. But both face a lot of danger mostly because of the illicit nature of the work and because of immigration controls. In general, anything that criminalizes an aspect of the people you want to protect is going to make things worse for them.

        1. Yeah, I totally agree with how counter-productive and awful the whole criminalization of victims thing is.  I was just taking my shot at this “rich white people” canard.  You expanded it to “wealthy people from the US”  in your formulation.  Are we placing blame on them because they have the money and power to change things if they tried, or are we claiming that they have an inferior view on how to deal with it compared to any other group of people?  Is there a well defined class of people who want to deal with this problem the right way?  I’m not convinced that the people who live in my county or town have any more of an enlightened view on this subject.  If you take Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and George Soros vs. 3 random people I work with…  you know?  Is the problem “The Man” (which is what this “Rich White People/Men” thing is usually a stand in for) or is it the culture at large?  If this was fixed, would it be non-white and/or non-rich people who do it, or a mix of peoples across racial and class lines?

          1. We or me?  Because I don’t know what “we” are doing for instance, and having  just gotten back from 8 or 10 hours in the sun I’m not sure what I’m doing either, but I’m damned sure not answering a nossism!

          2. I thought it was a group project, and we had to decide who to blame together.  I thought that was the assignment.  Somebody should do something.  Some unspecified person in particular.

  3. Nicely written, and yes I think the main problem that people run into is when their ability to travel is taken or when they become *illegal people* which leaves them vulnerable. Very few people are kidnapped, but a lot of people are preyed upon and intimidated. I’ll definitely check this book out. 

  4. Too many of her statements are polarizing. In both articles she seemed to demonize the hostess industry at the onset and then switch a paragraph or two later. Also, it sounds like she was working in Kabuki-cho. Otherwise, I can’t imagine how you can call hostessing , sex work. Maybe It’s because  live in the country, but these articles/excerpts  seem very misleading and sensational.

  5. hmmmmm…..anybody else feel slightly ick about this?  Maybe around the term, “independent migrant laborer”?  How independent is the migration when there are no real employment opportunities (resulting historically from colonialism and its attendant politically corrupted oppressive economic policies) in your country of origin and you have children/extended family members to feed?  Independence comes from a place of power and agency, when you are hungry that place becomes more a prison.

    When I was in college my father told me sobbing about how an 18 yo cousin of mine had emigrated from the Philippines to be a maid in Singapore.  When I asked why this is bad he asked if I knew what that meant.  Sadly, I do now.

  6. Hostess clubs, almost by definition, don’t have sex on the menu. The girls are there to flirt and convince guys to get really expensive drinks, buy them drinks, etc. Hostesses are paid to flirt with you until your money runs out, that’s it.

    From what I understand, hosts (the male equivalent that mostly serves a female clientelle) do so often.

    1. Dude, stress the “by definition” there – strip clubs don’t have sex on the menu either, but I’ve worked in them long enough to see that there’s always a portion of the girls who do “after hours” work if the price is right. (Hell some girls work there for the sole purpose of finding a sugar daddy) Guys are regularly propositioning you to go back to their hotel room, etc. I imagine the same thing occurs in the hostess bars. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, it’s not my thing & I personally wouldn’t do it, but as long as it’s the girl’s choice and she’s doing it safely. 

  7. Yes indeed; some respect for Hostesses is long overdue.  I have been a patron of various establishments for many years, and the amount of misconceptions and assumptions about such work are legion.

    They are ‘working girls’ for sure, but the vast majority are independent contractors who have freely made their own choice to work in the ‘sex industry’..and yet like I’ve had to tell So Many friends and family over the years; “they are not hookers!!!”

    I’ve had one LTR with a bona fide hostess, and been to clubs from Osaka to Macau…and still ocasionally patronize a few places locally.  Everyone has a story to tell, and I’m not (always) so self involved that my sole intrest is having my ego stroked (only the ego I swear!).  I want to talk with the ladies and see what makes ’em tick…so to speak.

    Yes, some of the women have troubles or difficulties in their lives…but the majority are So sharp.  Some with real goals and achievable dreams…many just muddling through life like damn near everybody else in the world.

    Puritanical foolios need to curb their dogma and get with the program.  Hostesses (and sex workers in general) do not need condemnation and scorn.  They do however deserve some protection and acceptance.

  8. Hostess != Sex Worker
    Hostess != Prostitute 
    Hostess != Human traffic Victim

    Of course, there may be illegal immigrants (trapped or otherwise) in the hostess profession. There are a number of nuances to the culture and language that distinguish which of these occupations are which. 

    I’ve worked at hostess clubs. Before I listen to Rhacel’s findings, I’d be curious to know if she speaks Japanese to any degree… and if there is a particular reason she chose only Philippine hostesses and not Chinese, Korean, and Japanese hosts? 

    Maybe I have to buy the book to find out.

    1. I can’t speak to Japan, but I know that in Korea, Philippine workers specifically (and southeast asians in general) exist on a different racial tier, and being a viz-min asian immigrant worker puts you under a variety of strong racial, political and linguistic contexts that would make your experience much different from a Chinese or Japanese person. 

      For example, the younger generation of Koreans respond to the pressure to seek jobs and education in Seoul, leaving a void of eligible bachelorettes in rural areas. This has created a giant market for mail-order brides, and generally, the further you are from Seoul, the more likely you are to find mixed-race families. Therefore, being southeast asian or having mixed blood automatically puts you in a lower social and economic class — in a nation which is one of the most ethnically homogenous on the planet (so being a visible-minority means you are extra-visible).

      In the Itaewon neighborhood in Seoul, it is a not-uncommon practice for ‘business clubs’ to recruit hopeful young singers from the Philippines, and then when they arrive, press them into service as sex workers, threatening to revoke their visas and strand them if they do not comply. Because they have such low racial cache, it is difficult to find legal support in these cases.

      I can only assume that in her research, Rhacel hoped to capture the similarly unique experiences which Philappine sex workers must also have in Japan. 

  9. they probably still are better off than they would be in the phillipines.  hostesses dont necessarily have sex with the customer, they do nothing but pour drinks and accompany some idiot that pays money for it.

    i will never understand why japanese men like it. 

    anyways it isnt much different than most of the english teaching jobs in japan.

  10. While the gist is surely correct, there’s too much subtle spin for me to trust the objectivity of  her perspective.

  11. The “rich white people” thing was a standard thrown out there that you pretty much summed up the meaning of.  It’s an expression used to personify people who aren’t in touch with the lower class.  You’ll never see a rich white church goer selling herself to pay the bills, for example, or for that matter ANY rich person that can afford not to.  This can also be said about people that love to take the moral high ground and try to say things like you shouldn’t do this or that because it’s wrong and you’ll go to hell.

    Basically, these people are trying to tell others whom they have absolutely no connection with how to live, pretending that they actually care for those people when they just want laws put on the books to make themselves look better —  to put themselves on a higher moral ground.  That’s not helping those people, it’s hypocrisy.

    Oh, and I’m also white, and around here the whole “rich white person” thing is kinda standard  in that a lot of them also go to church and preach about how good they are and whatnot…it sucks living on the Bible Belt.

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