Comedian Hitoshi Matsumoto discussed proposed economic aid measures for people affected by the COVID-19 crisis on the April 5 Fuji TV talk show “Wide na Show”. He mentioned workers involved in the so-called water trade (Mizu Shōbai), which meant bars, clubs and other entertainment establishments outside of business hours, and said that these workers were paid well and therefore he did not want his taxes used to pay them support if they cannot work due to the emergency. The comment sparked an argument on social media, with many people including noted plastic surgeon Katsuya Takasu expressing solidarity with Matsumoto. The core of their position is that women in positions normally referred to as “hostesses” do nothing other than sit down next to male customers and pour them drinks.

Matsumoto’s comment was not only sexist – such businesses employ men too, but the argument appeared to be centered on women – but it also revealed his ignorance of the nature of a business that he appeared to have patronized. It also showed how prejudice can be compounded by government policies, as outlined in an April 15 article in Harbor Business Online by Mieko Takenobu, which addressed this systemic discrimination and explained how dangerous it could prove in the current circumstances .

While it is not clear how much Matsumoto understands about the current government initiatives to help people who have suddenly become unemployed, Takenobu focuses on the emergency compensation paid to people who need to take time off from work to normally to care for their children. After Prime Minister Shinzo Abe asked public schools to close on Feb.27 to contain the spread of the virus, many parents, especially those with children in elementary school, had to take time off from work to look after them . Compensation was created precisely for this situation.

However, businesses classified as sekkyaku inshokugyō (drinking establishments with hostesses or hosts) or fūzokugyō (a collective term that usually includes sexual services) are not eligible for such compensation, mainly because these businesses are sometimes associated with organized crime. However, the COVID-19 crisis is throwing the matter in a new light. By definition, hostesses, hosts, and workers performing sexual services do not practice social distancing in the workplace, and as Takenobu explains, past epidemics have been accelerated by people at the end of the economic pyramid due to poorer hygiene and the nature of their work. If a specific group of people is excluded from initiatives to prevent the spread of a disease, that group of people will result in the disease spreading to all classes regardless of other measures. And if a worker in the water trade is a single parent, giving the compensation would go a long way in convincing them not to work, making it easier to close related clubs and services so the government would include them in the subsidy scheme this time .

According to Takenobu, women are disproportionately disadvantaged by the COVID-19 shutdown for several reasons. In contrast to the 2008 recession, which primarily disadvantaged irregular male workers because factories curtailed production, the coronavirus crisis has mainly affected women performing physically difficult care tasks and women in “entertainment” stores that are closing. Like the factory workers in 2008, most entertainment workers are wage earners, meaning that if they lose their jobs they are immediately thrown into poverty unless they receive public support.

Furthermore, discrimination is not limited to just hostesses and sex workers. Single mothers are generally not always entitled to work-related welfare because the government is biased in favor of “traditional families”. According to a survey by the self-help group “Single Mothers”, 48.6 percent of single mothers expect their income to drop since school ended, while 5.8 percent expect to have no income at all.

On April 8, the Asahi Shimbun reported that hostesses who are regularly employed in such establishments usually only earn three hours a day by closing bars and “cabarets”, which is required by law, even if there is none gives customers. But as one hostess of the Asahi Shimbun said, some of her colleagues cannot even come to work because they have children, schools and daycare centers are closed.

On April 15, an article in the Business Journal reported that an association called Nihon Mizushobai Kyokai recently met with Fumio Kishida, chairman of the government’s Policy Research Council, to review allegations of official discrimination against their industry. One point the article made is that many hostesses and hosts are technically self-sufficient. They solicit customers themselves and take them to the facilities where they have contracts, forcing those customers to buy expensive drinks. They receive commissions for this, but have to pay employees who use the phones and keep the books. If the club has no customers, their income is zero.

Even so, Kaori Kohga, an executive with the association, told the Business Journal that certain club owners may pay them high salaries in order to retain hostesses and hosts. Despite the slowdown, the clubs want to guarantee their services once the economy is back on track. However, this appears to be a small segment of the industry. The workers were laid off, which means they could ask for patronage on an individual basis in order to survive. This could endanger public health.

The association called on the government to review its policy of not providing subsidies to those involved in the water trade at times like these. Government policies regarding after-hours business are vague at first, which exacerbates the common misconception among the public. Additionally, patrons tend to use the industry’s underground – or at least try to, as demonstrated by House of Commons lawmaker Takashi Takai, who was expelled from the constitutional Democratic Party of Japan for attending a gender-based cabaret show in Tokyo’s state of emergency.

“We just want to be treated the same as other industries,” says Kohga.

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