Bread & Roses: Pandemic Drives Women into “Nighttime Work”

On November 16, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government announced the disciplinary dismissal of a 28-year-old school nurse for moonlighting as a sex worker for more than a year. 

Tokyo officials interrogated her after receiving an anonymous tip about her after-hours work. The primary and middle school nurse said she wanted to save enough money to live on her own in the city. The officials used the word menshoku (removal/dismissal from office) rather than kaiko (dismissal from employment) since she was a local government civil servant. 

Japanese labor law grants employers the right to dismiss an employee (kaiko-ken), but that right cannot be abused (ranyo). In reality, you need a damn good reason (goriteki-katsu shakaiteki-sotosei-ga aru, reasonably and sufficient according to social norms) to fire somebody. The hurdle for disciplinary dismissal is even higher, requiring malicious behavior that causes considerable damage to the workplace with little prospect for recovery from the loss of “confidence” (shinrai). 

The media has kept mum about the details of this case, but we can suss out quite a bit. But the available information does not make it obvious whether she was fired for having a second job or for the nature of that second job. Local government civil servants cannot, in principle (but with exceptions), work side gigs without prior approval, according to the Local Public Service Act. 

A violation can lead to a disciplinary dismissal, according to a strict reading of Article 38 indicates that. Yet countless incidents injurious to others, including teachers driving without a license, driving under the influence, chikan groping on public trains, and lewd acts with students, did not lead to disciplinary dismissals. Most of those cases led to lighter punishments, such as three-months forced leave or pay cuts. This school nurse injured nobody, yet she was hit with the ultimate employment penalty.

It’s easy to imagine that the reason for the differential treatment lies in the nature of her side gig. Very few sex workers in our society feel confident enough to declare their occupation openly. The dismissal perhaps relates to the fact that the job of teacher (which includes school nurse in Japan) is often called a seishoku (sacred profession) and held up as a model occupation for the children they teach. The Tokyo government likely feared an adverse impact on children’s education and demands from angry parents for the immediate firing of a teacher who also works at a fuzoku sex establishment.

Yet, the reaction on social media to this case has been overwhelmingly sympathetic to the school nurse. The following quotes encapsulate many comments I have found in my research.

“Personally, I feel a disciplinary removal from office is too severe. It means she loses her teaching license. She surely had financial reasons for doing this, and I cannot accept that her mistake was so grave. Her next job hunt will be a nightmare. I worry about her future.”

“Disciplinary dismissal just for having a side gig? It’s a victimless crime. Even if it was a sex establishment, it’s odd for her to be dismissed like this just for having another job.”

Such expressions of sympathy and solidarity reflect the increasingly desperate impoverishment of women during this pandemic. The word yorushoku (nightwork) is increasingly common in Japan to refer to sex workers, in contradistinction to hirushoku (daytime work), such as administrative or sales work. Even in precovidian times, women earned less than men and had far more precarious jobs. The pandemic has aggravated this, leading particularly to women being fired, having their contracts non-renewed or losing work/income on zero-hour contracts. This has driven many women into yorushoku and some even to working day and night, with little time to sleep. 

In the past, the nighttime profession was considered a separate world inhabited only by professionals and experts – a world hard to enter and one that filled office workers with fear and trepidation. But the pandemic has robbed women of jobs, devastated their personal incomes, and aggravated the gender gap, as the Japan Research Institute reported this past April ( Female suicides have jumped since the start of the pandemic, totaling 7,026 in 2020, according to the National Police Agency.

Although we don’t know the life circumstances of our school nurse, it’s not hard to imagine she suffered serious financial hardship. Public perception considers local government servants to enjoy secure employment throughout their careers. But a skyrocketing number of people work in public education on one-year part-time contracts. We don’t know if the school nurse was, but if she was on low-wage, part-time, fixed-time employment, then her situation was indeed precarious.  

Yorushoku covers a broad range, from more hardcore services that include penetration to more softcore work such as drinking and chatting with customers at a hostess bar. Pay grows the more hardcore the work is – to a level higher than desk workers can imagine. It’s easy to imagine a woman suffering financial hardship being drawn to such high-paid work. The popularity of this word has to some degree normalized this kind of work, enabling advertisers and recruiters to lower the psychological hurdle that many women feel about doing such work and drawing them in with the high pay.

But why are conditions for day jobs so precarious and miserable in the first place, particularly for women? Normalizing nighttime work while ignoring the issue of lousy daytime jobs misses the point. On top of that, sex work entails many risks as well as the possibility for major mental and physical harm.

Why did the school nurse feel compelled to work at a sex establishment? This is a question for all workers living in Japanese society. I concur 100% with the Japanese Communist Party’s pledge to create a society in which people work 8 hours a day and live a life worthy of a human being. It’s time the government reformed their labor policy to ensure that for all workers, regardless of gender.

This article was written by Hifumi Okunuki, and originally published by the Shingetsu News Agency (SNA).