From Bride to Care Worker?

On Complexes, Japan and the Philippines

How to Cite

Lopez, M. (2007). From Bride to Care Worker? On Complexes, Japan and the Philippines. M/C Journal, 10(3).
Vol. 10 No. 3 (2007): 'complex'
Published 2007-06-01


This paper explores some specific conjunctions that tie together two nations, Japan and the Philippines. Over the past 30 years both have become entwined as a transfer of people, cultures and societies have connected and formed some interesting developments. Relations between both countries have been highly influenced through the deployment of State intervention (historically colonial and post-colonial), as well as through actors’ initiatives, leading to the development of a complex network that links both countries. It is in these relations that I would like to locate a transition between two stages in Japan-Philippine relations. I argue, this is a transition, where marriages of one kind (international marriages), the bonding of social actors from two distinct cultural spheres, gives way to another form of marriage. This transition locates the term marriage as part of an ongoing process and a discursive realm in a larger ‘affective complex’ that has developed.

In this paper, I focus on this term ‘affective complex’ as it offers some interesting avenues in order to understand the continuing development of relations between Japan and the Philippines. By ‘affective complex’ I refer to the ‘cultural responses’ that people use in reaction to situations in which they find themselves which are not mediated by language. I suggest that this complex is a product of a specific encounter that exists between two nations as understood and mediated by Japanese actors’ positionings vis-à-vis foreign resident Filipinos.

In tracing a moment between Japan and the Philippines, I delineate emerging properties that currently allude to a transition in relations between both countries. I would like to show that the properties of this transition are creating an emergent phenomena, a complex? This is developing through interactions between human actors whose trajectories as transnational migrants and permanent foreign residents are coming under the scrutiny of Japanese State forces in a heavily contested discursive field. This paper focuses upon the nature of the complex that entwines both countries and examines Japan’s particular restructuring of parts of its workforce in an attempt to include foreign migrants. To do this I first offer an outline of my fieldwork and then delineate the complex that ties both countries within present theoretical boundaries.

This paper is based on fieldwork which deals with the theme of International Marriages between Japanese and Filipino couples. In the field I have observed the different ways in which Filipinos or Japanese with a connection to the Philippines orientate themselves within Japanese society vis-à-vis the Philippines. For the purpose of this paper, I will focus exclusively on a particular moment in my field: a care-giver course run privately with approval and recognition from local government. This course was offered exclusively for Filipino nationals with permanent residency and a high level of Japanese. As part of a larger field, a number of overlapping themes and patterns were present within the attitudes of those participating in the course. These were cultural responses that social actors carry with them which constitute part of an ‘affective complex’, its gradual emergence and unfolding.

To further locate this fieldwork and its theoretical boundaries, I also position this research within current understandings of complexity. Chesters and Welsh have referred to a complex system as being a non-linear, non-deterministic system. However, from my perspective, these parameters are insufficient if institutions, organisations and human actors exhibit linear and deterministic properties (properties that discursively capture, locate and define elements in a system). In my research, I am dealing with actors, in this case Filipinos who are seen first as recipients and then as providers of welfare services. Japanese actors act as suppliers of a service both to long-term residents and to the State. In this case the following question arises: whose ‘complexes’ may be defined by a mixture of both these parameters and how can it be possible to take into account relationships whose existence cuts across them? Could a complex not be any number of these terrains which have emerged through encounters between two countries? Marriage could be a starting point for complexes that can come under scrutiny at a higher level, that of the State forces.

In addition, a study of complexity in the Social Sciences focuses on how structures form rather than by focusing on any prior structured existence. Any focus on a complex system is to analyze holistic multiple elements in order to descriptively locate structures, what they penetrate, and what they are penetrated by. Human actors’ actions, strategies and expectations merge under the influence of these structures, while simultaneously influencing them. As elements interact, emergent phenomena (properties that emerge at a higher level) show a system that is process dependent, organic, and always evolving (Arthur 109).

Locating Affect

Deleuze and Guattari refined the discursive realm to emphasise how spaces of creation, dialogue and the casting of influence are affective, institutional and State-influenced. Within these spaces I locate the existence of ‘affective complexes’ which are discursively constructed and deployed by local actors. I will to argue that international marriages have laid a groundwork in which ‘affect’ itself has become a catalyst, re-orientating perceptions of and toward Filipinos.

Following Deleuze, we can understand ‘affect’ as an intensity which, to repeat, is an expression of human relationships not mediated directly through language (Rodriguez). However, I want to suggest ‘affect’ also comes under the scrutiny of, and is discursively appealed to by, State forces as ‘affective capital’. When I refer to ‘affective capital’ I mean the potential labour discursively constructed. This construction is then “projected and tapped” in response to the changing nature of Japan’s labour market – in particular, the shortage of care-givers. This construction itself exists as an ongoing management strategy that deals with certain foreign nationals in Japan. Here, in response to the transformations of service work, ‘affective capital’ is the commoditised value of care inherent the discourse. It is the kernel of ‘affective labour’. This was very clear in my fieldwork, wherein Filipinos were targeted exclusively as the recipients of training in the health-care sector based on an understanding of the form of ‘affect’ that they possess.

In this context, ‘affect’ adds intensity to meaning and is used in a wide range of cultural contexts, yet its very essence eludes description, especially when that essence as used by ‘active agents’ may be misconstrued in its deployment or discursively captured. Returning to the Deleuzian interpretation of ‘affect’, it could be interpreted as the outcome of encounters between actors and as such, a ‘mode’ in which becoming can initiate possibilities. I refer to ‘affect’, the deployment of shared, performed, communicated non-verbal ‘content’, as a powerful tool and an essential component in everyday habituated practice. In other areas of my field (not included in this discussion), ‘affect’ deployed by both actors, husband and wife, within and beyond the family, manifests itself as a mode of being. This at times adds to the location of actors’ intentions, be they spoken or performative. In this sense, locating the ‘affect’ in my research has meant observing the way in which Filipinos negotiate the availability of life strategies and opportunities available to them. At the same time, ‘affect’ is also produced by Japanese actors realigning themselves vis-à-vis both foreign actors and social change, as well as by effectuating strategies to emergent situations in Japan such as care management.

‘Affective capital’ is an inherent long-term strategy which has its roots in the cultural resources at the disposal of non-Japanese partners who, over the years, in the short and long term put to use discursively produced ‘affect’. ‘Affect’, produced in reactions to situations, encounters and events, can work in favour of long-term residents who do not have access to the same conditions Japanese may find in the labour sector. From encounters in my fieldwork, the location of ‘affect’ is an asset not just within immediate relationships, but as a possible expression of strategies that have arisen in response to the recognition of reactionary elements in Japanese society. By reactionary elements I refer to the way in which a complex may realign itself when ‘interfered’ with at another level, that of the State. The Japanese State is facing labour shortages in certain sectors due to social change, therefore they must secure other potential sources of labour. Appropriation of human resources locally available has become one Japanese State solution for this labour shortage. As such, ‘affect’ is brought into the capitalist fold in response to labor shortages in the Health Sector.


The Philippines is a prime example of a nomad nation, where an estimated eight million of the population currently work or live overseas while remitting home (Phillippines Overseas Employment Agency). Post-colonial global conditions in the Asia Pacific region have seen the Philippines cater to external national situations in order to participate in the global labour market. These have been in the form of flows of labour and capital outsourced to those economies which are entangled with the Philippines. In this context, marriage between both countries has come to be made up almost exclusively of Japanese men with Filipina women (Suzuki). These marriages have created nascent partnerships that have formed links within homes in both countries and supported the creation of a complex system tying together both nations. Yet, in the entanglement of what seems to be two economies of desire, some interesting observations can be drawn from what I consider to be the by-products of these marriages.

Yet what does this have to do with a marriage? First, I would like to put forward that certain international marriages may have developed within the above discursive framework and, in the case of the Philippines and Japan, defined certain characteristics that I will explain in more detail. Over the past 20 years, Filipinos who came to Japan on entertainment visas or through encounters with Japanese partners in the Philippines have deployed discursively constructed ‘affective capital’ in strategies to secure relationships and a position in both societies. These strategies may be interpreted as being knowledgeable, creative and possessive of the language necessary for negotiating long-term dialogues, not only with partners and surrounding family, but also with Japanese society. These deployments also function as an attempt to secure additional long term benefits which include strengthening ties to the Philippines through increasing a Japanese spouse’s involvement and interest in the Philippines. It is here that Filipinos’ ‘affect’ may be traced back to a previous deployment of categories that influences local Japanese actors’ decisions in offering a course exclusively for Filipino residents. This offers the first hint as to why only Filipinos were targeted.

In Japan, secure permanent work for resident Filipinos can be, at times, difficult even when married to a partner with a stable income. The reality of remitting home to support family members and raising a family in Japan is a double burden which cannot be met solely by the spouse’s salary. This is an issue which means actors (in this case, partners) recourse to their ‘affective capital’ in order to secure means towards a livelihood. In this context, marriages have acted as a primary medium entangling both countries. Yet changes in Japan are re-locating ‘possible’ resources that are rationalised as a surplus from these primary encounters.

Shifts in Japan’s social landscape have over the past 10 years led to an increasing awareness of the high stakes involved in care for the ageing and invalid in Japanese society. With over 21% of the population now over 65, the care industry has seen a surge in demand for labour, of which there is currently a shortfall (Statistics Bureau Japan). With the Philippines having strategically relocated its economy to accommodate demands for the outsourcing of health care workers and nurses overseas, Japan, realigning its economy to domestic change, has shown a new type of interest (albeit reluctant) in the Philippines. In 2005, changes and reforms to Japan’s Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act successfully curtailed the flow of Filipinos applying to Japan to work as entertainers. This was in part due to pressure from the interventionary power of the U.S: in 2006 the U.S. State department published the Trafficking in Persons Report, which stipulated that Japan had yet to comply in improving the situation of persons trafficked to Japan (U.S. State Department). This watershed reform has become a precursor to the Philippines Economic Partnership Agreement ratified by Japan and the Philippines to promote the ‘trans-border flow of goods, person, services and capital between Japan and the Philippines (Ministry of Foreign Affairs) and has now temporarily realigned both economies into a new relationship. Under the terms ‘movement of natural persons’, Filipino candidates for qualified nurses and certified care workers would be allowed a stay of up to three years as nurses, or four for certified care workers (Ministry of Foreign Affairs).

Nonetheless, this lip service in showing openness to admit a new category of Filipino is the continuation of a mode of ‘servicing’ within the Japanese nation, albeit under the guise of ‘care work’, and rests upon the capitalist rationalisation of hired workers for Japan’s tertiary sectors. The Philippines, a nation which is positively export-orientated in terms of its human resources in response to care inequalities that exist between nations at a global level (Parreñas 12-30), is now responding to the problematic issue of care that has become a serious concern in Japan.


To place these issues in context I want to locate the above issues within a part of my present fieldwork. In 2006, I participated in a privately funded non-profit venture set up for Filipino residents with the aim of training them to be care-givers. The course was validated and acknowledged by the local prefectural government and primarily limited to a group of 20 participants who paid approximately sixty thousand yen ($485) for the three month course including training and text books. One Filipina acquaintance enthusiastically introduced me to the retired bank manager who had set up a fund for the three month care-giver course for Filipina residents. Through interviews with the course providers, one underlying theme in the planning of the course was clear: the core idea that Filipinos have a predisposition to care for the elderly, reflecting Filipino social values no longer existent in Japan. In particular, two Japanese words employed to reflect these views – ‘omoiyari’ (思いやり), meaning “compassion” or “considerateness” and ‘yasashisa’ (優しさ) meaning “kindness toward others” – were reiterated throughout the course as a requisite for dealing with the elderly or those in need of care. One core presupposition underlining the course was that the Philippines still cherishes values which are on the decline in Japan, offering a care ethos based on Christian values ready for deployment in such work. I believe this marks a transition point in how both countries’ relations are moving away from ‘entertainment-based’ care to ‘care within an institutional setting’, such as private nursing homes or hospitals. In both cases, ‘care’ (as it is ironically known in both industries, the deployment of hospitality and attendance), operates as a dynamic of desire within a social field which orientates how residents (i.e. foreign female residents with permanent residency) are used. Yet, why would the Philippines be such an attractor? It is not difficult to see how ‘affect’ is discursively rationalised and deployed and projected onto Philippine society. This ‘affect’ acts as an attractor and belongs to an ‘imagined’ cultural repertoire that Japan has created in response to its turbulent marriage to the Philippines.

In this sense, the care course promoted this ‘caring affective side’ of Filipinas here in Japan, and provided a dynamic engagement for potential negotiation, persuasion and tension between ‘local actors’ (course providers and participants) who come under the direct remit of the Japanese State (care institutions, hospitals and nursing homes). I say “tension”, as to date only a handful (three women out of a total of sixty) of those who participated in the course have taken up employment in the care industry. As one participant, a divorcee, commented, the reluctance to seek work as a qualified care worker resided in an economic framework, she says:

this is a useful investment, but I don’t know if I can do this work full time to live off and support my families…but it is another arrow in my bow if the situation changes.

Yet, for another woman, care work was an extension of something that they were familiar with. She jokingly added with a sigh of resignation:

Oh well, this is something we are used to, after all we did nothing but care for our papa-san (husband)!

When I discussed these comments with an N.G.O. worker connected to the course she pessimistically summed up what she thought by saying:

The problem of care in Japan was until very recently an issue of unpaid work that women have had to bear. In a sense, looking after the aged living at home has been a traditional way to treat people with respect. Yet, here in Japan we have experienced an excessively long period whereby it was de facto that when a woman married into someone’s family, she would care for the husband and his family. Now, this isn’t an individual problem anymore, it’s a societal one. Care is now becoming an institutional practice which is increasing paid work, yet the State works on the assumption that this is low paid work for people who have finished raising their children; hard labour for low wages. All the women have graduated and are licensed to work, yet at 1000 yen (U.S. $8) an hour for psychologically demanding hard labour they will not work, or start and finish realising the demands. Travelling between locations also is also unpaid, so at the most in one day they will work 2-3 hours. It is the worst situation possible for those who choose to work.

The above opinion highlights the ambiguities that exist in the constant re-alignment of offering work to foreign residents in the effort to help integrate people into Japan’s tertiary ‘care sector’ in response to the crisis of a lack of manpower. To date most women who trained on this course have not pursued positions within the health sector. This indicates a resistance to the social beliefs that continue to categorise female foreign residents for gendered care work.

Through three successive batches of students (sixty women in total) the president, staff and companies who participated in this pilot scheme have been introduced to Filipino residents in Japanese society. In one respect, this has been an opportunity for the course providers to face those who have worked, or continue to work at night. Yet, even this exposure does not reduce the hyper-feminisation of care; rather, it emphasises positions. One male coordinator brazenly mentioned the phrase ashi wo aratte hoshii, meaning ‘we want to give them a clean break’. This expression is pregnant with the connotation that these women have been involved in night work have done or still participate in. These categorisations still do not shake themselves free from previous classifications of female others located in Japanese society; the ongoing legacy that locates Filipinos in a feminised discursive space. As Butler has elucidated, ‘cultural inscriptions’ and ‘political forces with strategic interests’ work to keep the ‘body bounded and constituted’ (Butler 175). It is possible to see that this care course resides within a continuously produced genealogy that tries to constitute bodies. This resides under the rubric of a dominant fantasy that locates the Philippines in Japan as a source of caring and hospitality. Now, those here are relocated under a restructuring industry outsourcing work to those located in the lower tiers of the labour sector. Why other nationals have not been allowed to participate in the course is, I stress, a testimony to this powerful discourse. Major national and international media coverage of both the course and company and those women who found employment has also raised interest in the curious complex that has arisen from this dynamic, including a series of specials aired on Japanese television by NHK (NHK Kaigo no Jinzai ga Nigete iku). This is very reminiscent of a ‘citationary’ network where writings, news items and articles enter into a perpetuating relationship that foments and bolsters the building up of a body of work (Said) to portray Japan’s changing circumstances.

As seen from a traced genealogy, initial entanglements between two nations, in conjunction with societal change in Japan, have created a specific moment in both countries’ trajectories. Here, we can see an emergent phenomena and the relocation of a discursive structure. An affective complex can be located that marks a shift in how foreign residents are perceived and on what terms they can participate or contribute to Japanese society. Within this structure, ‘care’ is relocated – or, rather, trapped – and extracted as labour surplus that resides in an antagonistic relationship of domination highlighting how a specific moment existing between two countries can be ‘structured’ by needs in the ‘engaging’ country, in this case Japan.

Non-linear elements in a complex system that contest how discursive practices in Japanese society locate foreign residents, within the rubric of an ‘imagined’ ethos of compassion and kindness that emanates from outside of Japan, seem to display ‘affective’ qualities. Yet, are these not projected categories deployed to continue to locate migrant labour (be they permanent or temporary residents) within an ongoing matrix that defines what resources can be discursively produced? However, these categories do not take into account the diverse structures of experience that both Japanese nationals and Filipino nationals experience in Japan (Suzuki).


In this paper I have briefly delineated a moment which rests between specific trajectories that tie two nations. A complex of marriages brought about within a specific historic post-colonial encounter has contributed to feminising the Philippines: firstly, for women in marriages, and now secondly for ‘potential resources’ available to tackle societal problems in Japan. As I have argued a discursively produced ‘affective complex’ is an authorising source of otherness and could be part of a precursor complex which is now discursively relocating human resources within one country (Japan) as a ‘reluctant source’ of labour, while entering into a new discursive mode of production that shapes attitudes toward others.

I also suggest that there is a very specific complex at work here which follows an as of yet faint trajectory that points to the re-organisation of a relationship between Japan and the Philippines. Yet, there are linear elements (macro-level forces rooted in the Japanese State’s approach to care vis-à-vis the Philippines) operating at the fundamental core of this care-giver course that are being constantly challenged and cut across by non-linear elements, that is, human actors and their ambivalence as the beneficiaries/practitioners of such practices. This is the continued feminisation of a highly gendered dynamic that locates labour as and when it sees fit, but through the willing coercion of local agents, with an interest in mediating services through and for the State, for the welfare of the Nation. The desiring-machine that brings together Japan and the Philippines is also one that continues to locate the potential in foreign actors located within Japan’s institutional interpellation for its care market. Within these newly emergent relationships, available political and social capital is being reshaped and imagined in reaction to social change in Japan. By exploring two entangled nations situated within global capitalist production in the twenty-first century, my research points towards new ways of looking at emerged complexes (international marriages) that precludes the reconfigurations of ongoing emerging complexes that discursively locate residents as caregivers, who fall under the jurisdiction and glare of political powers, government subjects and State forces.

Author Biography

Mario Lopez