Dossier 5-6: Sri-Lankan Brides in Japan

Publication Author: 
Voice of Women (Colombo)
Date: 
December 1988 - May 1989
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There is widespread research and information available about the huge labour migration to the Oil rich countries in the Gulf. In the past few years, we received reports about housemaids being very officially exported from Sri Lanka to the Gulf countries of the Middle East. Although women from Muslim communities are usually kept under close control by the family, the Sri Lankan case was an exception insofar as large numbers of these maids were recruited from the Sri Lanka’s minority Muslim community.

Although this article does not specifically deal with women from the Muslim community, it draws attention on another market (Japan) for ‘sex-work’ of very poor women. We would like to hear from you readers whether women from the Muslim communities in your countries are equally affected, whether research has been conducted. We feel that there is strong need for women’s groups all over to make efforts for the protection of rights of women migrant workers.

Young brides from Sri Lanka have been brought to a small agricultural village in Nagano prefecture, central Japan, population about 50,000. Other potential brides are on their way. They are brought in by a private marriage arrangement company, Toshin Matrimonial Agency. They do not understand Japanese, and few speak English. The company’s employees do not speak English, and certainly not Sinhalese. They have sold their futures, and have neither the means nor the knowledge to control the consequences. They simply await the outcome of the marriages arranged between a counsellor and the men. Truly a business arrangement: the importation of brides.

Asian brides as commodities

Sri Lankan brides in Nagano prefecture

The “import of brides” from Asian countries has only recently become commercialized in Japan. Although the actual number of these brides is not available, most foreign brides are from the Philippines, except of course for Korean and Taiwanese brides, whose marriages with Japanese men have been common since Japan’s occupation of the two countries. The number of Japanese who applied for a “certificate of fulfilment of required conditions for marriage”, issued by the Japanese Embassy in Manila and necessary for a wedding in the Philippines, is reported at 743 for the six months from January to June 1987. Extrapolating from this translates into some 1,500 annual marriages to Japanese men.

While Filipino brides predominate, there are a growing number of Sri Lankan brides in Nagano prefecture and the surrounding regions. Some say that the reason for this is that men have expressed more interest in brides from other Asian countries since a Filipino in Matsumoto City, Nagano was found to have AIDS. Others say that it is simply because Japanese men’s demands are met with a supply. However, it is still unclear why Japanese men want a Sri Lankan bride.

Let’s look at the Sri Lankan situation. The number of workers migrating to oil producing countries in West Asia (the so-called Middle East) has increased sharply since the latter half of the 1970’s. Many are from the non-oil producing Asian countries, excepting Japan. A feature peculiar to Sri Lanka is that a large percentage of those migrating to other countries are women, mostly to engage in unskilled labour.

In the published statistics, the percentages of emigrating workers who are women are 79.1% in 1979 (female 10,131; male 20672; the first year women numbered over 10,000; and 76.8% in 1981 (F 24,537; M 7,399). By 1982, the number of women emigrating abroad in search of such jobs was said to be about 35,000. Some say that the peak number is more than 50,000. Since 1977, the Sri Lankan government has implemented an open door economic policy, an important factor in these large numbers. Most migrant workers are from the Sinhalese population, and they go alone, leaving their families behind. The Sinhalese population in Sri Lanka is only 11 million. In terms of the Japanese population, it would be equivalent to more than 500,000 Japanese women emigrating yearly. In Colombo, the number of agents recruiting women for unskilled jobs abroad mushroomed correspondingly.

However, as the oil price started to decrease in the latter half of 1985, the labour markets in the West Asian countries became stagnant and those agents had to find a different direction. Meanwhile, tourism began to suffer dramatically as a result of the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka, which has become yet more serious. Consequently, hotels are kept empty without tourists and employment in those hotels has declined. In Northern Europe, where the birth rate has been decreasing, there is a great adoption demand for foreign infants. To meet this demand, some of the empty hotels in Sri Lanka were converted to “baby farms” for export to other countries. In response to protests from women’s organisations, the government banned this obscene practice. Under this socio-economic backdrop, the export of brides to Europe and Japan was started.

Business as usual in Japan

According to Sri Lankan newspapers, 20-25 year old women are in demand in the European bride import market, and women under 20 are wanted in Japan. Agents in Colombo were recruiting brides separately for Europe and Japan. However, Sri Lankan newspapers, differing from Japanese, gradually began to refuse such advertisements. Japanese export agents, in search of younger women, recruit from orphanages and schools.

Most import agencies in Japan, except for those known for falsifying marriages for the sex industry, previously ran marriage counselling businesses, largely for Japanese arranged marriages. When the counsellors visit a foreign country for business or vacations, in this case Sri Lanka, they meet agents who try to send young women to Japanese farming villages systematically. The Japanese agents are then in the position to “mediate” international marriages, as they like to think of themselves as doing. The recruiting system for exporting the women has already been established and the cost, in the case of Sri Lanka, is low. They say that 27,000 rupees (about 110,000 Yen) is enough. The profit potential for the Japanese marriage counsellor is extraordinarily tempting.

Because they are not interested in Sri Lankan society or nation, other than in profiting from it, there have been various confusions. A large number of the women sent to Japan have been Catholic, despite the promotion of similarity because both societies are Buddhist. Japanese agents feel little need to learn about Sinhalese culture or the basics of the predominant Terawaddha Buddhist school. They only try to assimilate the women to Japanese culture as soon as possible. Any trouble which occurs between Japanese and Sri Lankan agent’s centres exclusively around money, and consideration of the human rights of the young women is not an issue.

Not all local governments have overseen foreign marriages directly like some prefectures in Tohoku district. Aoki village in Nagano prefecture, an area most eager for international marriages to produce heirs for the farms, has only indirectly supported private importing businesses. When the village social committee chair and a resident’s section chief went to Sri Lanka on August 11-18 of 1986 to investigate the circumstances of the operation, they simply accompanied the tour of the Toshin Matrimonial Agency. In October of that year, a joint international wedding banquet was held at the Aoki village social welfare hall. Reported widely by various media, it opened the gate for the import of brides from Sri Lanka.

Painful choice

The marriage-counselling agency stepped up its operation with the new confidence that comes from success. They began to herd to Japan as many as 20 potential brides at one time, housing the women in a single building and numbering them with badges on their chests, to save groom candidates from learning difficult Sinhalese names. These streamlined procedures increase the number of interviews Japanese men can make while keeping costs down, and minimize the chances of rejection by the women; the agency keeps the women’s visas and airline tickets, and they don’t give them cash.

Since the Sinhalese women brought to Japan are young, (mostly ranging from 16-19 years old), they expressed to me the natural desire to marry a young man. However, they have little choice once a Japanese man has chosen them, and are threatened with the price of a return ticket if they refuse a man. I was impressed by their voices: “We’d never known the pain of poverty until we came to Japan”.

On the other hand, there are more than a few men who have difficulty in making up their minds. Still, immigration regulations require that the women must leave Japan if they cannot marry within 3 months, since they enter Japan on a tourist visa. To get over this legal, and possibly costly snag, one business minded company developed a transnational solution: a contract with an electronics firm. Toshin Matrimonial Agency established a small factory in Sri Lanka and began recruiting women to come to Japan for training. Since September of 1987, 50 Sinhalese women have come to factories located in 5 places in Nagano prefecture.

Near each factory there is a dormitory, and food and clothing are provided, but wages are not paid in cash. Japanese labour laws are evaded during this one or two year training period. Moreover, men working in these factories are often farmers with a side job, and the possibilities for marriage are thereby enhanced.

Through this innovative management reform and unique combination, the company has reinforced its economic efficiency, a fact that Nitsu Yukio, President of the Toshin Matrimonial Agency is quite proud of: 50 poor Sri Lankan women trained with a new skill, and 50 international couples. Their remarkable success has encouraged the import of Sri Lankan brides, and secured their business around the Nagano prefecture.

The making of a market

The word Kaisha (company) is an odd word in Japan. It did not exist as a word one hundred years ago. But now you cannot speak about modern Japanese living without using the word kaisha. Because for many people, the company is the centre of their lives: society coincides with company. In this structure, women are expected to support the system from the bottom. They keep the house, freeing the husband to think and work only for the company. Even their outside work is considered marginal, to adjust the gap between the demand and the supply of labour. They are part-timers, first to be laid-off in a slow period. Their average wage is only half that of their male counterparts in the corporate structure.

Agricultural sectors are self-employed and therefore distant from the often-antagonistic corporate-centred society. From the view-point of the “de-Asianization” and “de-agriculturization” theories of Fukuzawa Yukichi (1834-1901), an advocate of the industrialization and modernization of Japan, they are to be left behind. Indeed, these sectors continue to remain feudalistically male dominated, with wives sharing farm labour on top of home chores and tending elderly in-laws. It is not difficult to see why women often view the inequity of the urban centers as preferable to the misery of an oppressive rural life. Men, on the other hand, especially oldest sons, remain in the villages with their parents to inherent the increasingly valuable farmland. This value system, which positions farm women at the bottom of the bottom, presses farmers to want their daughters to marry company men.

As the corporate society has become dominant, the imbalance created by this system of values becomes marked. Indeed, in Aoki village, the birth rate of females is now low, nor is the death rate high, but the number of single women in the 30-40 age bracket is 33, compared to 134 for men. Between 1982 and 1987, there were 245 women who married, but of those 207 left the village. There have been organized efforts by local governments forming marriage-counselling centres to attract women from the surrounding areas and to promote marriages, but they have had little success.

Increasingly, they have turned to searching for foreign brides, particularly from the Asian countries, either through these counselling centres, or through private organizations. The rural community which has not been corporatized is now ironically “internationalizing’, not through the West but through Asia. And as the Westernization in the Meiji era started by setting up state enterprises, so the Asianization now is led by the public sectors. Filipino brides came to Japan for the first time to the town of Asahi in Yamagata prefecture in 1985, just one hundred years after the advocation of de-Asianization by Fukuzawa.

The success of Asahi town was reported widely through newspapers and TV. The introduction of Asian brides quickly followed in Okura in Jamagata, Azuka and Yuzawa in Nigata, HigashIyayama in Tokushima, Masuda in Akita and Sawauchi in Iwate. In the autumn of 1986, ten brides from Bacohl near Manila came to the village of Okura which has a population of nearly 5,200. A film entitled The Filipino Brides of Okura, drew attention to their enterprise, and inquiries from municipal offices and agricultural groups of sparsely populated districts came pouring in.

A private Asian-bride importing business has swelled, perhaps already surpassing the public efforts. Brides come mainly from the Philippines, but also from Korea, Taiwan, China, Indochina, South Pacific Islands, and Sri Lanka as well. Buddhist women from Chiangmai, northern Thailand, and Mandalay, central Burma, are considered to be the prototype of the traditional ideal Japanese woman, so that businesses stalk these areas. But in the language of commerce, the export markets there are not fully developed to maintain a steady supply, so they must rely on the next best districts.

In just a brief time, the Philippines and Sri Lanka have become major and seemingly steady exporters to Japan of wives, although Filipinos are sometimes seen as impure due to Western colonialism and the strong influence of Catholicism. Their rapid adaptation is no doubt related to the historical exporting of domestic labour and brides to the oil producing countries in the West Asia.

Partners or purchasers

Private enterprise importing Asian brides as commodities has adopted three common strategies to cultivate new markets:

1) Agency through membership:

This system follows the existing marriage agency system for Japanese. It offers arranged meetings with imported brides-to-be and men. The main targets are eldest sons of farmers, men supporting and living with their elderly parents, workers with little education, older men wanting to marry, multiple divorcees, mentally and physically disabled men, and socially handicapped men.

2) Explanation and exhibition:

Slick pamphlets are sent to municipal offices, agricultural co-operatives, and community centres announcing an opportunity to meet potential brides. They emphasise the naivety and gentleness of Asian women, while also explaining the legal procedures necessary for an international marriage.

3) Media Advertising:

Repeated adverts in the evening papers and sports and leisure papers, usually in the column for “soapland”. An example from the Dec. 2, 1987 edition of the Naigai Times speaks shamelessly for itself. Both public and private sectors play on the fears and needs of Japanese Men. “You are over 35 so you cannot hope to marry a Japanese woman. You are choosing the personality, not the nationality”. “Short, fat, and ugly” is an effective threat in this business.

The cost of marrying Asian brides differs greatly depending on the mediator. 2 million Yen is the average for public mediation. In the case of private enterprises, it is from 2.65 million Yen according to my survey. Average cost is said to be in between 3-4 million Yen, but the breakdown of expenses is not known. In Osaka, there is currently a suit for the return of 4.5 million Yen in marriage expenses. Strangely, few have receipts for their rather large outlays, probably due to embarrassment over the commoditization of their brides, or it just might be the lack of custom to expect a receipt for betrothal money.

Only three years have passed since the enterprise of organizing Asian brides to Japan began officially and privately. Each region has developed its own system, and general conclusions are too difficult to reach. We need to investigate more concrete cases, so I will confine myself to making just this provisional report. Paradoxically, the bride-importing project, aimed at conserving the structure of Japanese society, has the potential to drastically alter it. Ethnic and cultural variety is forming at the periphery no matter how leaders like Nakasone boast in Tokyo about the superiority of Japan’s racial homogeneity.

This hints at some positive possibilities of Asian brides being sold in Japan. We can hope for an opening of the closed Japanese rural society with a transplanted culture and diversity of values towards religious and every day life. Communication across the seas will take a different form than that between governments. And as Japanese villages are reconstructed by the hand of Asian women, the status of all women can improve. But before these possibilities can be actualized, the fundamental problem of fetishizing the women as commodities must be addressed: the project of importing foreign brides seeks to replace difficulties in direct human social relationships with market place solutions.

Another problem of no less importance is the lack of respect for the human rights of the imported brides. Is enough care being taken to prevent discrimination in social life: inheritance, employment, divorce and children’s citizenship and education? Also essential is the ratification of the Treaty on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination by the Japanese government.

The new brides are isolated and cut off from their homeland, with little organization to protect their culture and human rights. Only a few of their complaints have begun to reach long-staying students from Sri Lanka. There are complaints of the difficulty in using the telephone and mail systems because of language problems. More frightening is the 16-year-old bride who reported that her husband locks her up when he leaves the house. The student who heard her complaint was completely at a loss to help her.

Imported as commodities, these women need a space to talk about the struggle of their new lives and their day to day difficulties, a place where the human rights of the imported are defended against the predominant culture, a space to grow beyond the limits of their situation. If these young women are only locked up as the wives of an inefficient industry falling behind in the corporate society, then the possibility for change is lost. Modern Japan is asked, “Are you treating the Asian brides as commodities, or as partners in building a future?”

Reproduced from: VOICE OF WOMEN (Colombo, Sri-Lanka), Vol. 3, N°1, 1988