Bilog: 9 years in hiding in Japan
Manila trader reveals the fears and trials of his life as a ‘bilog’– Pinoy slang for overstaying worker in Japan.
Boy Chua froze and broke into a cold sweat as the police car stop beside him. “Are you a foreigner?” asked the policeman, getting off the patrol car and swiftly moving towards him. He knew he was about to be arrested.
A Filipino who had overstayed his visa in Japan, Boy quickly pulled out his passport and pointed to its expiration date, bringing it closer to the glare of the policeman’s flashlight.” Still up to 1992… 1992, still 5 more years,” he said
Surprisingly, the policemen let him go. “It was a fellow overstayer that taught me that technique of pointing to my passport expiry date, and not my expired visa.” It was not yet his time—at least not for another nine years.
Illegal or overstaying migrants in Japan are called ‘bilog.’ And like the Pinoy ‘TNTs’ (Tago-ng-tago, meaning those always in hiding) in the United States, they live in the shadows of metropolitan life.
“I went to Japan to earn money,” related Boy, recalling how he would envy returning entertainers whose income in just six months in Japan would be equivalent to two, even three years work in his own beauty parlor business in Manila.
But the Filipino-Chinese entrepreneur was extremely driven. At 32, a business owner with two adopted children, he had all the needed motivation, including an ultimatum from a mother, who raised him in strict and traditional Chinese values, to do well in Japan.
He was also gay. “I didn’t like it when people would look down on me for who I was proud to be,” Boy said. “And so I wanted to prove to myself what I was really capable of.”
Just days after his arrival in Japan in 1987, a friend helped him find work at a Japanese restaurant as a cook. “I knew absolutely nothing about cooking, and I hated Japanese food,” Boy recalled. “But the restaurant owner gave me a chance to learn, and that was all I needed,” he added.
He kept his first month’s salary of ¥120,000 intact for good luck. For his start-up living expenses, he used the money he earned from selling pieces of jewelry he had brought with him.
“My secret was simple: what’s left after savings was what I’d spend for expenses, not the other way around. I wasted nothing, and lived within my means.” His goal was to save half of what he earned.
His employer provided him a free apartment but it had no heating and no hot water. Stories of how Boy ingeniously survived Japanese winters have made the rounds in the Filipino community there.
“My work ended at 11 p.m., and I didn’t want to risk getting arrested by walking to the public bath late at night. So I picked up a plastic kiddie pool from the garbage, placed that in my living room, and bathed in it using a portable electric water heater,” he related, letting out a hearty laugh as he recalled his many freezing nights. “When I told my mother that I had no hot water, she immediately—without even asking me—bought a water heater at Manila’s Divisoria market and sent it to me via speed mail. I couldn’t use it of course as the 220-voltage is not the standard in Japan.”
The hot water was the easy part.
“A neighbor gave me a Kotatsu, a low table with a heating bulb underneath. I made the table stand on its side so the bulb faced my sleeping mattress. I then trapped the heat of the bulb inside with blankets wrapped around a coffin-like structure, which I built using hard cardboard and pipes I also picked up from the garbage.”
Knowing that a bilog could be arrested and deported anytime, Boy made sure to maximize his time in Japan. As his Japanese improved and his network of friends increased, he soon found himself peddling phone cards to cover his own rapidly rising costs of weekly calls to his adopted children, mother and siblings. There was no Facebook back in the 1980s, and he was too tired to write letters.
Using a product catalog he made himself, he peddled clothes and furniture to both Filipino friends and Japanese restaurant customers, which he imported from the family furniture store in Manilar.
“Temptations for easy money were always nearby,” Boy noted. “My other gay friends working as gay entertainers would easily earn double or even triple what I was making.”
“But I wanted to appreciate the job I had. I wanted to respect the opportunity entrusted to me by the owner. Good time, parties and vices were just around the corner. I came to Japan to work, I always reminded myself.”
Loneliness unavoidably set in.
Like many overseas workers, Boy discovered that dealing with loneliness and the need for human intimacy posed a very serious threat to keeping focused on his goals.
Boy dug into his savings to bring his boyfriend in Manila to come stay with him—also as a bilog. He got the guy a job in the same restaurant where he worked, introducing him as a cousin.
But his boyfriend was out in public places too often. Before a year was up, he was arrested and deported. Again, Boy spent for his boyfriend to return under a different name and thru a different airport. But when the guy eventually got into drugs, he drew the line and broke off with him.
Crime, womanizing, gambling, excessive drinking and illegal drugs are ever-present temptations especially for the bilog who toils day-in and day-out in self-imposed exile, separated from his family support system. (In 2009, it was reported that four Filipinos were arrested in Japan every day for various crimes.)
Heartbroken, Boy lost himself in work, although still scrimping and sending his savings to his mother through various means.
It was his mother who finally brought him home. She had urged him to end his invisible life, saying he would not likely see her alive anymore unless he came home immediately. Without warning, she went to Japan herself to beg him to come home with her.
She also informed him that all the money he sent home, which she had kept for him, already amounted to over three million pesos.
That year, 1997, Boy turned himself in.
Now 58 and settled back in Manila, Boy manages his four apartment buildings and has over 50 employees in his trading business.
His story, however, may be more of an exception. Many bilogs, due to their lack of legal status, struggle with no regular work, and thus are unable to send regular remittances to dependents back home. Some who are eventually arrested return broke. With job skills attuned to the Japanese market, many are unable to reintegrate into local jobs, stuck in limbo, as it were, and hoping against hope for another chance to ’do it right’ in Japan.
There were many exceptional variables working in Boy’s favor: a business that supported his dependents, full employment through his years in hiding, continuous contact with his family and a lifestyle dictated by his goals. Most of all, he had a loving mother who anchored his journey, and guided him back home.
The author is pursuing graduate studies in Japan and blogs about issues concerning Filipino overstayers in Japan at http://www.irregularmigration.info.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.