Living with the ‘Tachimbos’

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By Hershey D. Homol

RARELY do memoirs grace the local literary arena nowadays, and certainly none as socially probing as Rey Ventura’s Underground in Japan (Ateneo Press 2006) and its sequel, Into the Country of Standing Men (Ateneo Press 2007).
Underground kicks off with Ventura’s account of his illegal stay in Japan during the late ‘80s. When his student visa expired, Ventura went underground and sought the world of the “tachimbos” or “standing men.” The tachimbos are people with no regular, steady jobs and whose work is only determined every day as they stand on the street corners of the city of Kotobuki, waiting for employers to come and hire them. Most of the tachimbos are illegal Filipino migrant workers in Japan.
Kotubuki is described as “home to the dregs of Japanese society,” and where “among the litter, the coffee cans, and chopsticks, the vomit and urine, it’s not unusual to find a day laborer lying on the street beside his empty sake bottle.”
Ventura neatly weaves day-to-day life in Koto with the tachimbos. He tells of the illegal Filipino migrant workers’ daily feat of evading the Japanese immigration police, of the unstable nature of a standing man’s work—from coiling telephone cables, to unloading granite blocks as cranes loom overhead. Underground is also about how these Filipinos led their lives thousand of miles away from home. Filipina “Japayukis” here enter the picture, as does the infidelity of illegal migrant workers away from their families.
In the end, Ventura narrates his surrender to the immigration police driven by the desire to a safe passage home and a legitimate way to come back to Japan and to Mayumi, a Japanese woman, whom he says would be his only reason for returning.
That is where Into the Country of Standing Men opens: Ventura’s return to Japan in 2001. Fourteen years later, he goes back to permanently reside in Japan with his now-wife Mayumi and their daughter Libnos.
Revisiting Kotobuki, Ventura discovers that the city is not as bustling with tachimbo work as it was from the ‘70s through the ‘90s. He gets together with his friends, the Koto boys, some of whom have managed to stay underground through the years, start “new” families there, and have almost no plans of returning to the Philippines.
The book focuses more on what has become of migrant workers who have been away from their homes and families—how a husband finds another woman to fulfill his “need” for love, and at times, the problem of reintegration when the migrant worker returns home.
Standing Men, like its predecessor, extensively details what Filipino workers in Japan face on an everyday basis. There is still the threat of the immigration police coupled with Japanese citizen who, when adequately annoyed, tell on you. There is still tachimbo work like erecting a fence or cleaning the sewer of a cosmetics factory. Added to all that, there is also the Filipino illegal migrant worker who chose to reside in the “Blue mansions,” or the squatters dwelling near the Yokohama Bay bridge. Blue mansions for the blue vinyl sheets used to wrap and roof the dwellings with.
Standing Men gives a prelude to another Ventura book which the author says he is currently working on. The third book will follow the migrant worker who leaves Japan and now seeks greener pastures in the United States of America.
Underground and Standing Men give more insight into what is considered a global trend and a social reality in the Philippines—migration and the hardships of being cut away from one’s native land. Inadvertently, these two books measure what is given up to work abroad against the actual perks of being a migrant worker and providing for one’s family. The reader, in a way, sees for himself where the scale tips.

Montage Vol. 11 • September 2008