Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 19, February 2009
Rey Ventura

Into the Country of Standing Men

Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2007.
ISBN:978-971-550-507-9 (pbk), pp. ix + 314

reviewed by Greg Dvorak

  1. Journalist Rey Ventura's Into the Country of Standing Men is his second book exploring Filipino labour migration to Japan, and apparently his first attempt at sharing his observations in the form of an autobiographic exposé. It is a rare work that provides a stark and realistic view of Japan from the perspective of a male migrant worker from the Philippines, while it ambivalently also savours some of Japan's bittersweet pleasures and compares them to life back in Manila. Meandering from episode to episode gleaned from many years living and working in Japan, being married to a Japanese woman, and researching the lives of Filipino migrants, Ventura casts himself as the first-person protagonist, Rey, as he recounts his experiences in an unpolished sketchbook-diary style. Combining Japanese, Japanese street slang and various dialects, Tagalog, Ilokano, and English, he paints a complicated and ambivalent portrait of a marginalised but multicultural Japan that hides in the shadows.
  2. The book's title is derived from the Japanese slang term 'tachinbō' (literally, 'standing man'), a term that originated in the early twentieth century, referring to lower-class men who would stand on the side of the roadways and earn tips for pushing vehicles that got stuck along their way. Today, tachinbō is a rather condescending term that refers to day manual labourers—particularly migrants—who are prepared to take whatever odd job comes their way. While heated debate currently ensues in the Japanese Parliament about officially changing immigration law to provide for a more robust foreign labor force—increasing the number of foreigners in Japan to 10 million over the next fifty years—under the surface, Japan is already home to a steadily increasing population of low-wage-earning migrant workers from nearby Asian countries, many of whom have overstayed their visas and work discreetly at jobs that young Japanese refuse to fill. This is the world of the tachinbō.
  3. The Filipino tachinbō men in the world that Ventura paints are critical to Japan's survival, but they work behind the scenes—out of sight, out of mind. Many of them live in ghettos that do not appear on the map, like Kotobuki—a shantytown in an abandoned area under a bridge in Yokohama, filled with 'blue mansions' (homeless dwellings made out of the blue vinyl sheets from Japanese construction projects). They are 'standing' between one place and another, unable to go 'home' in Japan and too mired in poverty and immigration limbo to go 'home' to face their families in the Philippines. Despite their drive to integrate into Japanese society, these workers—like Ventura himself—remain on the fringes of the world of 'the Japanese,' making observations from afar. Some integrate more than others, but there is a tension throughout Standing Men that suggests that the Filipino migrant can never truly belong, except in this tumultuous underworld camaraderie of working-class Japanese, yakuza gangsters, landlords, drug lords, and other foreign laborers. Nonetheless, their community is vibrant and held together by longing for home in the Philippines.
  4. An interesting comparison could be drawn between this tachinbō narrative of an Asian immigrant to Japan and to the genre of orientalist postwar writing about Japan by Americans and Europeans in the 1950s, as well as the touristic travelogues written during Japan's economic 'bubble' in the 1980s. Indeed, the same old hackneyed tropes are sketched out for the reader in all their exoticism—cherry blossom viewing, public bathing, bullet trains, Mount Fuji, and so forth. Yet while those 'Western' narratives contemplate the curious and aesthetically-pleasant indulgences that await the foreigner, this rare piece of reportage from a subaltern perspective—while it still marvels at Japan's pleasures—exposes how nearly every one of these delights is denied to the migrant underclass. Though outsiders just the same, Ventura implies that while the 'first-world' foreigners get to experience Japan from the front door, 'third world' itinerants experience it from the back—if not from the toilet. In one rather symbolic scenario, for instance, Rey and his tachinbō friends work as scrubbers in the filthy sewers of one of Japan's most prominent cosmetics and perfume manufacturers.
  5. What is most intriguing about Standing Men, however, is its depiction of the intersections between multiple, contending masculinities in contemporary Japan—across the lines of nation, class, and race. Indeed, it covers a tremendous and vast territory—from Japanese élite bureaucrats to taxicab drivers and construction workers, Korean and Filipino foreign workers to the educated Asian élites that Ventura knows from his journalism career. However, a sort of universal notion of manhood is emphasised consistently throughout the book by a heterosexual fascination with, or rejection of, women and their bodies. Rey even visits hostess bars with Japanese friends, where—despite flirting with her in Tagalog—he indulges in the services of a 'japayuki' (a derogative term to refer to Filipino women who go to work in Japan as entertainers and prostitutes; literally meaning 'Japan-bound'). He is, first and foremost, a (straight) man, and although he chronicles a life of marginalisation from the Japanese hegemony, it is in this shared sense of manhood in opposition to womanhood that he strongly claims and defends a sense of solidarity with Japanese men.
  6. This sort of solidarity appears most lucidly in a vignette that unfolds in a sentō (public bath), in a rather poetic narrative about shared male nakedness and equality where Ventura remarks, '…in the ofuro [bath] we were all men naked and unconcerned with our social origins and status' (p. 206). Yet, interestingly enough, this moment—like many others throughout the book—serves as a point of departure for Ventura to imply that Filipino masculinities are actually superior in their manliness, toughness, or virility to their Japanese counterparts.
  7. Rey encounters another Filipino man in the bath, who points out the pale, uncircumcised penis of an elderly Japanese tachinbō patron nearby. Laughing, the two joke in Ilocano delighting in the fact that they are much younger and prouder than their Japanese comrades—that the circumcised 'heads' of their penises are 'smarter' than the 'covered' heads of their Japanese counterparts (p. 208) The Filipino men's kugit (circumcised) penises, Ventura elaborates, are symbols not only of cleanliness but of manliness; for a 'hidden' penis head (sukot or uncircumcised), like that of most Japanese men, is a sign of cowardice and sissyness. He relates how prepubescent boys in his native village are circumcised by the local medicine man, lining up naked and bravely enduring the pain of the wound. Rey and his bathing companion conclude as they leave the sentō that even if they were somewhat emasculated in Japanese society for having darker skin, their youthful virility and circumcised penises more than made up for it.
  8. It is fascinating 'messy' moments like these throughout Into the Country of Standing Men that make the book a precious insight into a world that has rarely been described so vividly from within. Yet, it is this very messiness which unfortunately undermines and complicates the book's coherence, making it highly inconsistent and nearly impossible to follow at times—if not difficult to understand simply because of the constant rambling from style to style, anecdote to anecdote with very little semblance of a narrative arc.
  9. To give this seasoned journalist the benefit of the doubt, I was in fact inclined to wonder whether this overall format of writing was chosen as a way of emulating Japanese literary conventions of linked verse, such as renga poetry or some other sort of haiku-inspired structure. Yet the entire book is a series of numbered paragraphic entries, few of which have much linkage to each other at all, let alone much poetry, except in certain passages. Ventura's own status as a privileged Filipino élite migrant with a Japanese spouse allows him to see through multiple perspectives; yet his eclectic writing style conflates and jumbles these vantage points to the detriment of the important stories he relates. Meanwhile, for any reader unfamiliar with the hodgepodge of words Ventura uses in multiple languages, his linguistic eclecticism is also bewildering. Worse yet, there are a number of inaccuracies in the spellings or interpretations of Japanese expressions, which reveal Ventura's own naïveté about Japan and suggest yet another unfortunate parallel to that genre of 'outsider-looking-in' 'Bubble-Era' writing I described above. It is hard not to wonder whether Ventura's depiction of migrants in Japan is limited by this language and cultural barrier. Indeed, some of his sweeping generalisations about Japanese people give a sense of Filipino stereotypes of Japanese and perceptions about Japanese stereotypes about Filipinos and other groups, but they do little to reveal the human faces behind these stereotypes.
  10. Still, this is a worthy and unique take on transnational labour migration and masculinities which desires a wide audience, preferably in Japan. This is no doubt a much-needed antidote to the sterile, preposterous discourses and propaganda of Japan as a 'homogeneous' society, and it deserves translation and publishing in Japanese. With some more rewriting and consultation with Japanese sources, the English original of this book would also likely be a useful addition to the library of anyone concerned with multicultural masculinities in Japan.


Intersections acknowledges the assistance of the Gender Relations Centre, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University in the hosting of this site.
© Copyright
Page constructed by Carolyn Brewer.
Last modified: 18 February 2009 1128

This page has been optimised for 1024x768
and is best viewed in either Netscape 2 or above, or Explorer 2 or above.