Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Comfort Women Once More; But, Surprise... they were Japanese!

This was where a small group of us went to last Sunday morning. It is the Japanese Cemetery Park (Nihon-jin Bochi-koen), reputed to be the largest memorial park for Japanese, high and low, famous or ordinary, in Southeast Asia. This region was known to those who were buried here as Nanyo. The photo shows many crudely hewn granite stone slabs stuck into the ground. They marked the graves of simple peasant women from Amakusa-Shimo islands in Kumamoto prefecture in Kyuushu and the Shimabara peninsula in Nagasaki prefecture.

They were given the noble sounding name, Karayuki-san; 唐行 (karayu-ki) meant "travellers to the Tang Land" that is, China. It was a very cruel joke on the women, for they were brought to China by the agents who contacted them back in their home villages. Once in China, they were passed from city to city or were shipped of to the Nanyo, sold to the brothel owners there. There was therefore a pecking-order of sorts. Top of the pick stayed on in Shanghai, followed by those shipped off to Singapore, and at the bottom of the pile, the various outlying towns of Southeast Asia. The best known of these lesser places was Sandakan, made famous by an inquisitive and sensitive home-maker,
Yamasaki Tomoko.

She put all her interview notes she made in her conversations with the women of Amakusa into a book, called Sandakan hachiban shokan: teihen joseishi josh (Sandakan Brothel No. 8: An Episode in the History of Lower-Class Japanese Women). The book was a publishing sensation when it was placed on sale in 1972. It hit a wide cross-section of Japan's nationalists really hard, when they took offence with the authoress in the way she had made nonsense of the meaning of Yamato Nadeishiko.

But, ironically these women were indeed the heroines of Japanese courage. The Karayuki-san sold abroad were dedicated patriots, sending money home to support both their poverty-stricken families and to the cause of Japan's wars against China (mid-1890's) and Russia (in 1905). The agents and brothel owners used the idea of national good to enslave the poor women who were told that their bodies belonged to the state and that they were a sort of female army. A number were certainly sold into prostitution by the horrendous famine their families were facing.

Ms Yamazaki paid a number of visits to both Sandakan's and Singapore's Japanese cemetery. Sadly, for many of the women, they remained nameless, both in life and when they are dead... nameless and unknown. But, for the efforts of Ms Yamazuki and her transcriptions of her conversations with the Karayukis still living then in the 1960s.

Alas, as Japan got richer and immensely wealthier, it was still the same, old Japan that, as the novelist Osaragi bemoaned repeatedly in his novel, Homecoming (Kikyo), the land is very narrow and its people are very poor. When you are the poor of Japan, you are indeed poor in every way... like those women from the under-class of Amakusa and the Shimabara peninsuls of Nagasaki.

When they returned from the Nanyo (after the end of the First World War when Japan had gained recognition as being the equal of the European powers), they went home only to be faced with scorn and disdain. The Karayuki-san were discriminated against in post-1920 Japan, no different from those cruel days when they were in Singapore and Sandakan. The Japanese media had painted these 2 towns as the hotbeds of Chinese boorishness and uncouth conduct; the standard impression of the Chinese among Japanese till this day. However, their once familiar friends and well-known neighbours shunned them, and made jest of their sufferings as workers of the sex trade. They faced family members (for whom they endured hardships to send hard-earned money to support them) who turned their faces away from them in shame. Their society and government turned their noses up at them and their backs towards them. However, one thing precious remained for them: their pride to remain Japanese. As it was when they were abroad, so too when they came home. Even though Japan was too ashamed of them.

The most ironical observation of Ms Yamazaki of those stout-hearted women was their Catholic faith. Indeed, her first introduction to the Karayuki-san of Amakusa was her sight of a bent old lady sitting alone, silent like a statue on a pew in a rough and simple chapel in Oe, a village near to Amakusa. She was in prayers.

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