She compliments their clothes and their smiles, laughing uncontrollably at their forced jokes and making sure their beer glasses are always full and their cigarettes always lit.

Her patter is honed from three previous spells in Japan as a hostess and, equally, the fact that her performance here tonight affects not only her future, but also those of her 11-year-old daughter, her parents and extended family back in the Philippines.

But no matter how good she is, Linda's quest for financial security is almost certain to come to an end in a matter of weeks, when the Japanese government imposes new restrictions on those eligible for entertainer visas.

Tens of thousands of other Filipino women face the same uncertain future.

Enough money

"I have my own company in Manila now, but I want to make it bigger and make sure that we have security in the future," Linda, 34, said as she poured more beer and smoothed down her tight blouse.

"This is my third time working as a hostess in Japan, but it's the first time I have worked in a club in Yokohama. I think I will have to come maybe two more times after this trip to make sure I have enough money."

Remittances by Filipinos in Japan
amount to an estimated $1 billion

Linda starts work at 8pm, in the basement-level Manila Dream club in Yokohama's Isezake-cho nightlife district, and finishes at 4am. The lighting is subdued and the tables low.

The girls - most of whom appear to be in their early twenties - are immaculately dressed and made up and move between different customers every 15 minutes or so. Linda has been in Tokyo for three months and has a similar amount of time left on her visa. In all that time, she will not have one night free.

Contrary to the image that some have of the hostessing industry, it is not always a cover for prostitution.

"I get up at about 4pm and do some chores before getting ready for work, but as soon as work is over I go home and go straight to sleep," Linda, who is separated from her Filipino husband, says. "I try to phone my daughter, Lan-lan, once a week and it's good to hear her voice."

Livelihoods at stake

Linda is coy about the amount that she earns on a good night - singing karaoke in Tagalog or Japanese and encouraging the guests to order another drink - but the word has spread among the other hostesses that their livelihoods are under threat.

"I've already been given three visas, so they will allow me to come back again, don't you think?" she asks.

Japan's new visa curbs are aimed
at combating human trafficking

From 15 March, just 8000 entertainer visas will be granted to Philippine nationals applying to work in Japan. At present, that figure is 80,000, while there are an estimated 130,000 foreign entertainers in the country.

Japan's decision is the result of international pressure to combat human trafficking, highlighted last June when the US State Department downgraded its opinion of Japan's efforts to fight the problem.

A clear indication of what may lay ahead for women working in hostess bars and their operators came in late January, when police and immigration officials raided a bar in Kumamoto, southern Japan, and arrested 13 women - Chinese, Fillipino, Thai and Mongolian - between the ages of 19 and 33 for contravening the terms of their entertainment visas, which do not cover hostessing.

The women were to be deported, while the new law bans people charged with people trafficking from operating adult entertainment businesses in the future.

Philippine reaction

Despite its concerns about its nationals being exploited, an official of the Philippine Embassy in Tokyo underlined the impact the new rules will have.

"We lobbied the Japanese government for a moratorium on the new rules to try to give the industry enough time to adjust, but the authorities here have gone ahead with them anyway and we will just have to adapt to that," the official, who did not wish to be identified, said.

"Filipino women are always popular because we have big smiles and big hearts. I think there won't be so much smiling if we can't come back"

Linda, Filipino working as a hostess in Yokohama

In early February, Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto Romulo even went as far as paying a two-day visit to Tokyo for talks with Japanese ministers, including Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura and Justice Minister Chieko Nono, to try to sway Japanese authorities.

"I make this trip and pursue my mission in the context of the warm and friendly relations between our two countries and the goodwill that has been generated by years of people-to-people contact and exchanges, with the vast majority of our workers staying in Japan without incident," Romulo said in a statement.

"I bring with me as well the recent innovations that the government has instituted in the entertainment industry to ensure that only qualified and legitimate entertainers qualify for deployment abroad," he added.

Those qualifications include two years of training in entertainment skills, such as dancing or singing, or two years of experience.

Romulo's efforts, however, were in vain.

Vanishing smiles

Hostessing is not always a cover
for prostitution, as many think

The Philippine embassy official said: "We will have 72,000 people without work now, although the government is currently designing safety nets for them, but for those who had dreams of being entertainers here, where can they go now?"

According to some estimates, Philippine nationals in Japan send home $1 billion a year, one eighth of the total sent back to the country by people living abroad.

Losing that revenue would certainly cause hardship, the official agreed, while there is also concern that because demand in Japan is unlikely to decrease, more women might be illegally smuggled into the country by underworld groups.

"Filipino women are always popular because we have big smiles and big hearts," Linda says. "I think there won't be so much smiling if we can't come back."