In 1991, as many as 615,000 Filipinos went abroad to work. One of them was Maricris Sioson, a 22-year-old girl who went to Japan. She studied modern dance in order to be accepted there as an entertainer.
Just several months later, her lifeless body was shipped back to the Philippines. Her death certificate indicated that her death was due to hepatitis. However, upon looking at her body in the coffin, her family discovered stab wounds and bruises on her body.
In her search for the proverbial "greener pasture," Sioson’s journey ended with her in the coffin. Her tragic story depicts how vulnerable Filipina overseas workers are especially in Japan’s entertainment industry and that the inaction of governments despite the medical evidence of abuse has left her case unsolved.
In April 1991, Maricris Sioson, the 13th out of 14th children in her family, worked as an entertainer in the Faces Club owned by Keizo Kato in Fukushima, Japan. Prior to her arrival, she studied modern dance for three months. She was granted a “yellow card,” a government-issued permit enabling her to work overseas as an entertainer. Her contract with a Japanese employment agency indicated that her salary for being a dancer in Japan would be $1,5000 per month.
A friend of Sioson said that an agency recruited their small group to be "cultural dancers" in Japan. At first, they assumed that the dancers would be doing Filipino folk dances. However, it turned out to be something else entirely as they were taught modern dance moves and were dressed in skimpy clothing.
Like Sioson, other Filipinas working in Japan are often called "Japayuki," an insulting term for those who went there to work in order to get out of poverty in the Philippines. Like Sioson, the newcomers soon realize that they are becoming a part of a world that views them as racially inferior, cheap, and exploitable toys to suppress sexual fantasies.
"We are rich now. No Japanese woman wants to be a prostitute anymore. So we import them," said Tetsuo Yamatani, film-maker, author, and the creator of the word, ‘Japayuki’
In 1991, an estimated 80,000 Filipinos moved to Japan to work wherein 95% of them were women— the majority of them were entertainers. They had their passports confiscated and salaries withheld until the end of their contracts. This was a normal practice then, putting these women at the mercy of their Japanese employers.
It seems that the country’s cruelty in the sex trade is due to their confused self-identity.
"We Japanese have a racist attitude towards our fellow Asians. We have an inferiority complex towards whites and a superiority complex towards Asians," said Mitsuo Matsuda, director of HELP, Tokyo’s only shelter for maltreated ‘Japayuki’
According to Matsuda, as much as 90% of women who have come to her for help were forced into prostitution. Those who refused were tortured with cigarettes and knives at the club they worked at. Many of these women had jumped off balconies in order to escape the “monkey cages” they were placed in. They were locked inside and must cater to their client’s demands. The women who suffered tragic fates were cremated before an official autopsy could be conducted, while others were tagged as “missing.”
Sioson was reportedly admitted at the Hanawa Welfare Hospital in Fukushima in September 1991. A week after, she was declared dead; then 10 days later, her body was flown back to the Philippines; along with her personal items and money worth $5,500—her earnings after three months and ten days.
During Sioson’s funeral, her family opened her coffin and found that her body had been beaten and stabbed. They requested for the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) to conduct an autopsy; which was done in Manila on October 4, 1991.
Doctor Floresto Arizala, the NBI medico-legal officer who signed her report, indicated that Sioson's body had torture marks and that her genital area had been stabbed with a bladed weapon. He also said that Sioson also suffered a subdural hemorrhage on her cerebral cortex; in which the blows to her head likely led to her death. The stab wounds found on Sioson's genital area and thigh were supposedly done with a double-edged blade by the perpetrator. The wounds on her thigh were twisted upward, downward, and diagonally; while the wounds in her genital area showed that the blade was inserted vertically.
However, Reynaldo Parungao, the Philippine Labor attaché to Japan, reported the opposite. He insisted that Sioson had no irregularities regarding her death and that she died due to multiple organ failure and fulminant hepatitis. Parungao cited the death certificate of Sioson from Hanawa Welfare Hospital in Fukushima.
"I never thought she'd be dead the next time I saw her," her mother, Basilisa, tearfully said during her wake.
Basilisa also said that if her daughter were, indeed, sick, she would have told her. The last time they spoke was on August 27.
"She just told me to wait in Manila because she was coming home," Basilisa added.
Earlier on July 27, Sioson sent a letter to her mother saying that she wanted to come home because she was "having a hard time."
"I'll go insane if I don't get away (from the club). Now I understand why a lot of Filipinas escaped from their employers here," a quote from Sioson's letter to her mother.
Then-president Corazon Aquino had dispatched a mission to Japan in order to investigate Sioson’s death. Dr. Arizala and Employment Secretary, Ruben Torres, were present in the mission, but they were unsuccessful in determining the real cause behind Sioson’s death during their discussions with Japanese officials and doctors.
Japanese authorities did a "quick probe" regarding Sioson's case and concluded that her death was due to natural illness—despite the autopsy findings.
According to Executive Director of Batis Center for Women, Carmelita Nuqui, she is convinced that Sioson's death involved foul play. Nuqui's organization seeks to provide help and support particularly to Filipina migrant workers in Japan.
Her organization reportedly monitored eight cases of abuse, rape, and exploitation of Filipina contract workers in Japan. She believes that Sioson was among their many unknown cases.
Nuqui even called out the government by saying how it pushes the narrative that overseas workers are "economic heroes" but do not help those workers when they need it. Those workers make the difficult decisions to leave their families and risk their lives in order to have money to send back home and even save the country's economy.
Sioson’s body bore marks of abuse, suggesting murder, even linking her death to the Yakuza. Allegedly, the Yakuza, an organized crime network in Japan, was involved in trafficking women for sex and entertainment. During the year of Sioson’s death, there had already been 33 other Filipino workers who died in Japan—12 of which died “under suspicious circumstances.
"The whole mechanism of women trafficking has become an industry. It’s run by international syndicates, and Japan is the main recipient," said Gina Alunan of the Kanlungan Center for Migrant Women in Manila.
Plight of OFWs
Sioson’s death embodied the plight of oppressed migrant workers worldwide. According to National Midweek,
"The gruesome death of a Filipino dancer in Japan has sparked public outrage in the Philippines against the government's failure to protect its ‘Japayuki' .... Many people are pointing out that the government's lavish praise of the billion dollar-earning maids and entertainers are national heroines is mere lip service. And nothing illustrates the government's apathy better than the mysterious death of Maricris Sioson."
According to Matsuda, foreign workers in Japan receive cheap wages and barely existent benefits—whether they work as a bar hostess or laborer. They can be fired after a two-week trial. For those who get to work longer, their work permits must be renewed and signed by their employers every two months. They have no legal safety net; especially for victims of maltreatment.
"Theoretically, foreign workers should be protected. In reality, it is different," said Eguchi Toshiki, deputy chief of the Justice Ministry’s Bureau of Immigration.
Filipino women are among the many “mail-order brides” being imported by marriage brokers to Japan, mainly for middle-aged farmers. These farmers would take organized “bridal tours” in the Philippines wherein the women, whose identities come in the form of a numbered tag, parade themselves in “bride shows.” These are conducted at town halls or hotels, enabled by municipal authorities.
Some people, particularly those who have been leading a hard and difficult life, see the “proverbial greener pasture” in different countries such as Japan; hence, they take their chances by going there for better opportunities. However, because of a lack of protection for foreign workers, a lot of them become particularly vulnerable to discrimination and abuse. While some live on to tell their story, others are not as lucky.
Maricris Sioson’s life was made into a movie entitled “Maricris Sioson Story: Japayuki” starring Ruffa Guttierez.
READ: ‘Til Death Do Us Part: Cathy Bonesa’s Escape from Abuse and Exploitation article of PH Murder Stories.
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