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Filipinas at home in rural Japan
Leotes Marie T. Lugo
Business World, Manila

Filipino hospitality is one of the major come-ons of the Philippines, the warmth of the people making one instantly feel at home.

But being a Filipino myself, I had no clear idea what the phrase meant until after my recent visit to Yamagata and Akita prefectures to meet with Filipinas living there.

A Japanese colleague and myself were welcomed and treated like long-time friends by these Filipinas when we arrived.

Pilipinas tried ikebana lessons in Akita
Filipinas married to Japanese men share a laugh during ikebana (flower arranging) lessons at the Koryu Center in Yuzawa, Akita Prefecture

Louella Shoji, a 37-year old Filipina, invited us to her house and took us along when she delivered cosmetics around Akita.

Shoji is among the thousands of Filipinas who have tied the knot with Japanese men, the second biggest group of foreigners married to Japanese men after Chinese.

Shoji used to be an entertainer in one of the nightclubs in Akita but quit after she met her husband in 1991. She now has two kids, teaches English part time in her house and sells cosmetics and jewelry to augment the family income.

After 10 years in Masuda, Shoji says she now considers the place her home and has no regrets about staying in Japan. The frigid winters notwithstanding, she said she loves Akita because it feels like she is in her home province of Bacolod, suburban capital in the western Philippines.

Shoji said the atmosphere in Akita, surrounded by pine treecovered mountains and rice fields, make her less homesick.

"This may be rural Japan but it's actually suburban. Life here is not so fast paced and sometimes I feel like I'm just in Bacolod," she said.

She added she feels lucky that she can occasionally go out at night for drinks with friends while her mother-in-law watches over her 5-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son.

Japanese language class
Woman, mostly Filipinas with Japanese husbands, study Japanese at the center

Shoji's children, unlike most Japanese kids their age, can speak English, a benefit of joining the language classes she teaches. They also understand a few words in Ilongo, the dialect in Bacolod.

But Shoji was more candid and open about her life in Japan than the other Filipinas we met. They were also friendly and warm but seemed little cautious about discussing their situations.

These women perhaps regarded me as an outsider, despite my being a fellow Filipino, because I don't share their experience, I was new to Japan and I couldn't speak the language. Many of them have spent five years or more in the country and feel comfortable expressing their feelings in Japanese.

Take, for example, Matilde Nagase who came 15 years ago to Okura village, a small farming town in Yamagata Prefecture, to marry a Japanese farmer she hardly knew.

She agreed to meet us along with two of her Filipina friends who are also married to Japanese men, but she declined to have her family interviewed.

Nagase met her husband through omiai, a meeting of single Japanese men looking for prospective wives arranged by the local municipalities. She recalled that she had a difficult time adjusting to a new way of life when she arrived in Okura in 1986.

Children play at the center's gymnasium
Japanese-Filipino children play at the center's gymnasium while their mothers take Japanese language classes

She said the most difficult part, other than learning the language, was adjusting to life in a farming town and living with the family of her husband. Nagase, who was an only child, had no experience in farming, having worked in a ceramics factory in the central Philippines before coming to Japan.

She admitted that during her first few weeks in Okura, she told her parents she would soon get a divorce. But she found out she was pregnant and could not leave. Now she has three children and still lives in Okura with her husband and her in-laws although she said she would not advise other Filipinas to follow her example.

She seemed resigned to her fate, a hint of sadness visible in her eyes. But like her Filipina friends in Yamagata, Matilde tries to maintain a cheerful outlook. She said when she and her Filipina friends have problems they just go to a karaoke bar and sing their hearts out.

Karaoke, Nagase and her friends say, is a form of release for them, helping them keep up with the pressures of life in Japan. They are aware they are expected to be cheerful, always in good spirits and passionate about life-- preconceived notion about Filipinos in general.

It is this cheerfulness, the sense of freedom and independence that 49-year-old Sotaro Saito says he loves about his wife, a Filipina he also met through an omiai arranged by the Okura town office in 1986.

But not all Japanese husbands in Okura are like Saito, who appreciates and understands the culture of his Filipina wife.

"Japanese family members expect Filipina brides to learn and adopt the customs of Japan but they don't try to understand the customs of the Filipinos," Saito noted.

"Filipinas think they have a right to be who they are but some husbands feel she should just fit into the family," he said.

Four of the 10 arranged marriages in Okura have ended in divorce due largely to personal and cultural differences.

Saito also acknowledged foreign wives and their husbands, especially those who met through omiai or who married former entertainers, suffer some discrimination in the conservative rural community.

Yet most of the Filipinas I met seemed genuinely happy about their current status or are trying to make the most of their situation. They all agree they share a common Filipino trait of resiliency and have the knack to be enthusiastic about life despite whatever cards they are dealt.

I left Yamagata and Akita, a changed person. Expecting to see misery, I met enthusiasm. And as I move on, also a foreigner in Japan, I draw inspiration from the experiences of these women.

The author is a guest researcher at The Asahi Shimbun Asia Network. She is a reporter for BusinessWorld newspaper in Manila.

2001/09/24
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