Drawing on water; Redrawing history, essay published in Drawing Water exhibition catalogue, December, 2016

Water, river, ocean are metaphors for the feminine in nearly all cultural traditions.

Water is elemental, free moving, unrestrained. Some have compared these descriptions to the notion of womanhood—the mysterious ‘other’ to the rational, solid, grounded image of the masculine.

Women, like water, can sustain us, give birth to us and, at the primordial level, water connects us to each other.

Water is also what connects, rather than separates, Japan and Australia, my two homes. Drawing on this feminine realm to rethink the nexus between the two countries leads to the construction of new narratives.

So while trade and commerce have always been the focus of Australia’s relationship with Japan, I want to suggest that the most enduring connection between the two nations is, in fact, the gendered flow of people. After all, nearly seventy per cent of Japanese people living in Australia today are women. This is rather intriguing. But even more intriguing (and little known) is the fact that the first ‘flows’ of Japanese women to Australia were prostitutes.

What if we were to rethink the Japan Australia connection by exploring the history of Japanese prostitution? Where will we end up?

The water trade

Prostitution is part of the pleasure sector of Japan’s economy called mizushobai, literally: water trade. Like many Japanese words that defy exact translation, mizushobai has a rather amorphous meaning, encompassing a broad array of entertainment services like restaurants, nightclubs, ‘hostess bars’, geisha, even the peculiarly named ‘pink salon’, featuring fellatio as the main menu item. Often uttered in hushed tones, mizushobai has an inbuilt adult-only rating because it intersects with sex. But feminists, prone to calling a spade a spade, often rail against using this word to refer to the sex industry because it’s imprecise, and at best a coy euphemism.

But I’m going to diverge from Japanese feminists on this point. While the term ‘sex industry’ unequivocally declares sex’s commercial intent, the water trade is a more liquid concept that releases sex from its narrow definition as a mode of capitalist exchange, thereby releasing women engaged in sex work from the burden of always being perceived as vulnerable to exploitation. De-emphasising the value of sex as a commodity invites new ways of understanding sexual power relations, even introducing the notion of women’s erotic power.

These ideas have important implications for me as a woman, but even more so as a Japanese Australian woman. Our ethnic history is dominated by stories about men at war or men in industries like mining, pearling, wool, even sporting heroes. Women’s contributions remain conspicuously silent. This is partly because women’s stories tend to be subsumed into victim discourses. Asian women are often seen as vulnerable, submissive and in need of (white) rescue. Even in recent years, stories about Japanese women reported in Australian media are more likely to be about murder victims ending up in wheelie bins. That’s why the idea of reimagining the history of Japanese prostitutes in Australia without retrospective moralizing or unnecessary victimisation is crucial.

But to gain some insight into the lives of Japanese prostitutes, it’s worth exploring the appeal of mizushobai. As Japanophile author Donald Ritchie explains in his book of essays A Lateral View (Stone Bridge Press, 1992), ‘the world of the mizushobai offers occupations to millions who, underprivileged in various ways, cannot find proper and fitting work.’ And so it was for the many women from impoverished regions of southern Japan in the late 19th to early 20th century.

Globalisation, sex labour, women’s agency

This was the era of Meiji Japan (1868-1912), the energetic burst of Japanese industrialisation, modernisation, and globalisation that followed a long period of self imposed feudal isolation. The outward looking Meiji oligarchs actively encouraged Japanese men to leave the country and seek employment overseas. The first emigrants ventured to Hawaii in 1868, and many followed soon after to work as mostly indentured labourers in many locations, including North and South America, China, south-east Asia and Australia. Places on Australia’s coastal north like Darwin, Broome or Thursday Island in the Torres Strait attracted significant numbers of Japanese men who mainly worked in the pearl shell industry, on sugar plantations or in domestic services like laundries. This was the first significant wave of Japanese emigration to Australia.

Women were discouraged, even prohibited from travelling abroad, but for many who were unskilled and poor, crossing borders to work in brothels servicing Japanese men was often the only pathway to economic self-actualisation. So some women stowed away on boats to travel afar, while some were trafficked. Collectively, Japanese prostitutes of this period are called karayuki-san, meaning women ‘going to China’. In Australia, authorities mostly accepted the existence of karayuki-san as providers of ‘essential’ sexual services for Japanese men. But perhaps more accurately, their presence was tolerated because they kept the white prostitutes ‘safe’ from the pesky sexuality of the Japanese and the ‘coloureds’.

According to Yuriko Nagata’s important social history of Japanese settlers in the Torres Strait published in Navigating Boundaries (Pandanus, 2004), there were already 54 Japanese prostitutes working on Thursday Island alone in 1897, and by 1906, some 20,000 to 30,000 Japanese women were estimated to be working as prostitutes outside Japan. As Bill Mihalopoulos states in his detailed history or Japanese prostitution, Sex in Japan’s Globalization, 1870-1930 (Routledge, 2011), ‘prostitution was one form of labour in the integration of Japanese women into the global work force’. In other words, the karayuki-san were the 19th century equivalent of today’s mobile global citizen.

Yet a number of prominent Japanese feminists insist that karayuki-san were merely exploited, forced to work in conditions of ‘oppression and harsh circumstances’. While the intention is not to downplay any effects from the dehumanising political economy of sex work including trafficking of women and girls, Mihalopoulos and other researchers point to compelling evidence suggesting that not all Japanese women endured lives of ‘abject domination and exploitation’, or considered themselves oppressed. In fact, many women from southern Japan claimed that earning money in brothels to support their families was more important to them than avoiding the stigma associated with sex work. This sounds to me like women exercising their agency rather than passive exploitation, albeit under not so perfect circumstances.

Reimagining karayuki-san’s story

The problem with trying to reconstruct the story of karayuki-san is that so little is known about their lives. What’s worse, there seems to be even less desire to know more. Many descendants of servicemen who never returned home from World War II still continue to seek details of their ancestor’s demise, trying to fill in the gaps in their family narrative. But grandchildren and great grandchildren of karayuki-san are more likely to bury their ancestor’s personal histories out of shame. This is understandable. Today’s more prosperous Japanese may be more eager to attach stigma to sex work than a century ago when women’s options were severely limited.

young-japanese-prostitute-kalgoorlie
Young Japanese prostitute in Kalgoolrie, late 1890s, http://www.womenaustralia.info/exhib/wikb/sexwork.html

That’s why the painstakingly collated research by historians like Brisbane based Nagata is so precious. From her work in the Torres Strait, we know that after retirement, older Japanese prostitutes continued to make significant contributions to the vibrancy of community life on Thursday Island, running ‘water trade’ businesses of a slightly different flavour like boarding houses, eateries, soda shops, laundries and even a Japanese bathhouse. The Japanese were one of the largest ethnic groups living on Thursday Island, which was a richly colourful mix of indigenous Australians, Malays, Filipinos, Europeans, Chinese and other races.

These insights allow us to appreciate a more nuanced view of karayuki-san’s milieu. To remember, or worse still, to forget them as ‘merely prostitutes’ who came all the way from Japan is not only tragic, but is also to neglect a rich narrative vein in our shared multicultural history. The karayuki-san story is not a Japanese story or even a Japanese-Australian story, but a narrative that belongs to all Australians.

Unfortunately, Nagata laments that almost nothing of the karayuki-san’s material lives now remain on Thursday Island, except for ‘a handful of graves in the cemetery’ and a Japanese bathtub, excavated in 1999. The tub belonged to Onobu san, a former prostitute who ran the local bathhouse. The excavated bathtub though is surely an artifact that ignites the imagination. It does mine. What did the Japanese bathhouse look like at the turn of the 20th century? How hot was the water? Were non-Japanese allowed access to the bath given the Japanese are more pedantic about bathing etiquette than they are about chopstick manners? My imagination runs wild, which is not a bad thing. Imagination helps recreate history.

University of Wollongong researcher Julia Martinez claims that she too relies on a dose of creative lateral thinking in her attempts to reconstruct karayuki-san’s historical narrative. She is picking up where Nagata left off, investigating the lives of older Japanese prostitutes who worked in Queensland frontier towns after the introduction of the White Australia Policy. So far, studying Queensland state police records has revealed that a more than expected number of Japanese prostitutes travelled between ferociously arid inland towns like Winton and Cloncurry, staying for periods of time presumably to work in the towns’ brothels. And far from being submissive or vulnerable, Martinez believes the prostitutes were more likely to be quite assertive and ‘worldly’. And far from being ostracised by the locals, she conjectures that they were probably treated quite well, maybe welcomed. The arrival of a Japanese prostitute in dry, sparse, Winton would’ve felt a bit like a ‘good watering’ had arrived, suggested Martinez.

What’s interesting is that some of these women travelled back and forth to Japan from time to time, which raises numerous questions about why they chose to come back to Australia. What did these women come back to given most of them didn’t have families? Perhaps they enjoyed a measure of freedom or a varied and interesting life in Australia than back home in their rural village. Did they feel a sense of belonging in Australia, or did they feel out of place back in Japan?

Karayuki-san and me

I too travel to Japan from time to time. I return to Australia because this is now my home, but I also have significant ties still in Japan. Whenever I’m in Japan, I miss Australia, and whenever I’m here, I miss Japan. And I wonder if this is how the karayuki-san felt. I suspect some of them did. This sense of constant flux or ‘fluidity’ in our sense of self is common to transnationals like the karayuki-san and me.

The reason why I’m so keen to tell this history of Japanese prostitution in Australia is not just because most people are unaware of it, but because many Japanese Australians refuse to acknowledge that these stories are part of our ethnic heritage. This is a form of willful dispossession. The reasons are fairly obvious—karayuki-san were part of a dark period in Japanese history that most contemporary Japanese are keen to disavow.

This makes me even more determined to incorporate these stories into my/our Japanese Australian narrative. I’m also rather fond of the word mizushobai. I like how it forces my mouth to pucker when I say it and how it sounds like a whisper even when shouted. I like its subversive-ness, its capacity to complicate the meanings of sex, money and power. But most of all, I’m attracted to its liquid potential. Like water, mizushobai is unstable and unruly, dampens and erodes hard, upright things like social norms and regulations. And I’m keen to elevate the importance of the water trade by including it in the list of ‘trade’ links that define the bilateral relationship alongside wool, coal and iron ore. Our trade ministers would love that.

Full catalogue of Drawing Water exhibition in Brisbane, 2016 is here: