As in the rest of the world, parts of Japan’s economy are slowing to a halt as the country grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic. Recently, the administration of Prime Minister Abe Shinzo announced a $1 trillion relief package that includes assistance for households whose incomes are affected by the slowdown. But workers in Japan’s nightlife scene say such assistance won’t do them any good – and many are now figuring out how to make ends meet as their livelihoods are taken away from them.
Resistance to Supporting Japan’s Night Workers
The euphemism “night work” in Japan can mean many things. In terms of Japan’s sex industry, night work is broken down into two general categories. The first is mizushoubai (水商売), which consists of businesses where women and men pour drinks at tables and converse with customers. Cabaret clubs (staffed by women), host clubs (staffed by men), girl’s bars and “snack” bars are common examples. Fuuzoku (風俗) is a blanket name for businesses that sell sexual services, which includes anything except actual intercourse. Some fuuzoku services, such as the euphemistically-named “Delivery Health” (デリヘル; deriheru), have workers visit customers at hotels; most, however, are based out of storefronts in Japan’s red light districts.
When the COVID-19 crisis first struck Japan and PM Abe urged the nation’s schools to close in February, his government also announced a stipend for parents who couldn’t work from home. This money wasn’t available to night workers, however. This raised questions about whether they would qualify for the relief spelled out in the new $1 trillion plan, which includes up to ￥300,000 (around USD $2,800) per household.
Last week, Japan’s Minister of Economic Recovery, Nishimura Yasutoshi, confirmed that night workers would be able to qualify for the funds. But not everyone in Japan was on board with that decision. Popular comedian Matsumoto Hitoshi used his Sunday program, Waido na Show, to say, “Sorry, but I don’t want my tax dollars going to pay the money hostesses usually receive.” Plastic surgeon Takasu Katsuya, director of the Takasu Clinic, also expressed his disapproval.
The comments by both men were widely criticized online. Activists and workers in the industry created a hash tag, ＃夜職も仕事です (#NightWorkIsWork), to argue the plain fact that night workers – the majority of whom are women – have to make ends meet just like everyone else. One hostess made her case in a tweet that garnered a lot of attention:
Why Most Night Workers Won’t Be Able to Collect
On the plus side, the backlash against giving compensation to hostesses and sex workers seems to have been minimal and hasn’t altered government policy.
But can mizushoubai and fuuzoku workers – the majority of whom are young women – really collect on the benefits the government is offering?
“Personally, it doesn’t work,” says Mina (pseudonym), who’s worked in the country’s nightlife scene on and off for the past half-decade.
The issue is that the ￥300,000 yen the government is committing to households isn’t like the payments that have been made in other countries. Rather than being handed out automatically, citizens and permanent residents have to apply for them. And they have to be able to prove that their income has gone down by at least half as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. For married couples, that calculation only applies to the person listed as the “head of household” (世帯主; setainushi) on the couple’s tax returns. This is often the husband in a heterosexual marriage, who can report as “head of household” even if he makes less than his spouse. So even if a married woman loses half of her income, her household can’t qualify if her husband’s the “head.”
As Asahi Shinbun reported recently, these restrictions are onerous for many couples. One woman from Ibaraki prefecture told Asahi she and her husband couldn’t even figure out whether they were eligible. Others, like a taxi driver in Tokyo, find themselves having to wait for a full month, watching their business fall week by week, in order to prove their income has dropped.
Irregular Pay, Shady Operators
The situation is even more dire for night workers.
“I have multiple sources of inconsistent income (as do most of us in the night industry),” Mina says. “So I can’t prove that my pay has gone down due to COVID-19.”
Another issue is that filing for relief requires a paystub ( 給料明細書 ; kyuuryou meisaisho) – and most night workers don’t receive one. “Most clubs pay in cash on the day of work, or every week.” That pay, notes Mina, is often variable, as many women are paid via a “drink-back” system – i.e., they receive a percentage of whatever customers order. That means their income can fluctuate wildly from night to night. “So unless they’re doing their own financial accounting, it seems very unlikely that any of the girls will even try to apply – especially knowing society’s attitude towards night workers.”
It also doesn’t help that a healthy percentage of mizushoubai and fuuzoku businesses are either run illegally – i.e., they’re not paying taxes – or are run by Japanese organized crime. “This has nothing to do with the girls,” argues Mina. “Half the time, we don’t even know. We’re just trying to work to live. But we’re going to be punished for the decisions of the old men who run these places.”
Mina is part of a growing chorus of voices in Japan who wish the country would emulate other nations and provide a flat amount to every citizen, without conditions. “People were saying that they shouldn’t have to pay a hostess her usual salary. But just pay everyone a universal fixed amount. If you can prove that you’re contracted at a club, and the club vouches that they’re closed, I don’t see the problem.”
Recent polls show widespread public disapproval of Abe’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis. And in a Nikkei/Kyodo News Service poll, over 60% of respondents said the government should make uniform payments to all citizens.
It remains to be seen whether the negative pressure will force the government to change course – and whether Japan’s vulnerable night worker population will be brought along.