Episode 61 – Dr. Kazuhiro Oharazeki (Setsunan)

Originally published on September 18, 2018

[This transcript has been edited for clarity.]

Tristan Grunow: This is the Meiji at 150 Podcast. I’m Tristan Grunow. On this episode, I’m talking with Dr. Kazuhiro Oharazeki, Lecturer in the Department of Foreign Studies at Setsunan University. Dr. Oharazeki is the author of Japanese Prostitutes in the North American West: 1887-1920, published by the University of Washington Press in 2016. Dr. Oharazeki, thank you so much for talking with me.

Kazuhiro Oharazeki: Thank you for having me.

TG: You’ve published this book Japanese Prostitutes in the North American West: 1887-1920. And so, I’ve talked with other people about Japanese migration to North America, but I was hoping that you and I could talk more about what are the migrants (who come from Japan to North America) doing when they come over here? And what is the life like for the Japanese immigrants? So, could you talk about who are these people who are coming over from Japan? Where do they come from in Japan, and how many people are we talking about?

KO: First, let me call these women ameyuki-san. “Ame” means “America” and “yuki” means going. Originally, this word was coined by historian Yuji Ichioka, a Japanese-American scholar who did the first extensive research on the subject about 40 years ago. Obviously, when he created this term, he was aware of another word: karayuki-san. “Kara” means China or foreign, “yuki” means going, so women who went to China or foreign countries to become prostitutes in the Meiji-Taishō period.

Both [ameyuki-san] and karayuki-san were mostly from poor families, daughters of farmers and fishermen whose parents are experiencing hardships because of heavy taxes, paying the rent to landowners and the economic turmoil in the Meiji period. These women were lured by procurers, attracted by glorious stories of riches in the destinations. Usually, they received money in advance, and agreed to go with them to work and pay off their debts in their destination.

One difference between karayuki-san and ameyuki-san was their geographical origins. Karayuki-san came mostly from the Kyūshū area (Nagasaki and Kumamoto Prefecture), and Ameyuki-san are from eastern prefectures near Yokohama like Kanagawa and Shizuoka Prefectures. How many women became Ameyuki-san it’s hard to tell. They fluctuate in number, and after coming to America, they often moved from town to town to escape law enforcement. But around 1900, Japanese consulates did a survey on the number of Japanese prostitutes in the Western states from California to British Columbia, and in total, about 400 were reported, but I think the actual number was probably much larger because most worked clandestinely, and some worked in restaurants as waitresses. And their numbers were not included probably because they often reported their occupation as barmaids to Japanese officials, and waitresses to census takers. So, I can only guess that about 1000 Japanese women were in some form of prostitution around 1900.

TG: And you mentioned that these ameyuki-san, or these women who come over to America, in many cases, are escaping heavy tax burdens. There’s also a lot of talk about overpopulation, and we need to send people overseas to clear up more space in Japan. But what is it that really drove these women overseas to North America? And then which parts of North America did they go to?

KO: There are many reasons for these women to go overseas and North America. And it’s hard to generalize, but based on my research, I can say that the basic factor behind any reason they had was economic. As I noted, most ameyuki-san were daughters of peasants, and they wanted to help their families financially, and I did some research on the economic background of many of them in the second chapter of my book, and my finding is that many ameyuki-san first moved to Yokohama or other urban locations, and worked as servants, helping hands.

And at some point, they met procurers, who talked about nice things of America: job opportunities or a chance to have an American education or marry rich landowners in California, who turned out to be peasants or hired hands who forced them into prostitution. I also found that not all women were unaware of what kinds of work they would do in their destinations. Some women had already sold sexual services to local foreigners in Yokohama working as servants in the houses of Chinese merchants. Others worked in brothels and dance halls, catering to foreign sailors and merchants. And in that process, they became familiarized with foreigners and Western cultures, which influenced their decision to follow masters or procurers to the American West.

So, the reason why the origin of ameyuki-san were concentrated in Kanagawa and Shizuoka Prefectures had to do with this existence of Yokohama: an international port city connected to North American ports through commercial, personal and transportation networks. And where did they go after coming to North America? Usually, they first landed at Canadian ports, where regulations [were] more lax than American ports, and then some moved inland to mining towns in British Columbia, but most crossed the border to come to Seattle. Some worked there, and others moved into the inland states of Montana, Idaho and Utah, having labourers as customers in mines and railroad construction sites. And they also moved farther down to the West Coast cities of San Francisco, Los Angeles.

And in terms of customers, they served not only Japanese, but also other races, especially the Chinese because the U.S government just stopped the migration of Chinese in 1882, and there were few Chinese women. So, Japanese women served the needs of these Chinese single men as well as Japanese and white labourers.

TG: That’s really interesting that the women came over to Canada first because they thought that was a more lax port. So, does that mean there was a discrepancy in the way that local governments reacted to this immigration? Or can you talk a little bit about how the local governments reacted? What kind of policies were put in place regarding these immigrants? Do they try to keep them out or what exactly were the local governments doing?

KO: Yes, they did try to stop the arrival of prostitutes. At the state level first, the Japanese government, you know (the Foreign Ministry) were the first institution that opposed these women. When they found scandalous newspaper reports on these women on the West Coast, they worried about Japan’s reputation as a civilized country. So, they closely worked together with Japanese consuls in the West Coast to prevent the migration.

[But] the local city governments on the West Coast, of course, were not so eager to abolish Japanese prostitution because prostitution actually helped [the] local economy, and it was considered necessary to keep the social order in these frontier towns with large numbers of young male workers. Actually, Japanese officials asked the local police to punish these pimps and prostitutes, but they were slow to move or didn’t take any action, and Japanese officials also hoped that the federal government would punish them.

And actually, there were U.S. federal immigration laws prohibiting the immigration of Asian prostitutes, but Japanese procurers developed various strategies to circumvent these laws such as coming by way of Canada, using other people’s passports or disguising themselves and the women as married couples. So, the federal laws were not so effective. At the local level, within the Japanese community, immigrant elites, students and Christians had the same concerns about Japan’s reputation. And they collaborated with consulate officials to punish pimps, appeal to the local police, but they were not successful. And they didn’t get the support of Japanese immigrants either because they are mostly, at that time, labourers, and some of whom were for sure, the customers of brothels, and local Japanese ethnic businesses were often connected to and financially supported by the work of ameyuki-san. So, it was quite difficult to abolish prostitution or stop the entry of these women in this early stage of Japanese migration.

TG: So far, we’ve talked about the institutional or more structural conditions about migration, but we haven’t really talked about the women themselves. So, could you tell us what was life like for these women who came over to North America? You mentioned that there were other Chinese migrants in North America already, so how did the conditions for these women compare to other Chinese? Or can you tell us a little bit about the conditions of the women themselves?

KO: Right. Well, it’s hard for women to live as prostitutes of colour in Western frontier towns. The police didn’t pay much attention to the brothel management, so Japanese women’s lives were basically controlled by their masters or pimp husbands. And some women worked in hotel rooms as prostitutes, serving Japanese, white and Chinese men. Others worked in restaurants as barmaids, serving Japanese men. In the workplace, Japanese women often suffered from work-related losses such as violent treatment by masters or drunken customers, contracted venereal diseases while working, and their money was stolen by customers. They couldn’t speak English, and racism prevented them from seeking jobs outside of Japantown.

In terms of race relations, Japanese women worked along with various other racial groups, and there was a clear hierarchy among prostitutes. So for instance, white women at the top, charging the highest amount for their service, and next, foreign-born whites like French and Irish, and then women of colour like Chinese, Japanese and Latina women. Also, white women could refuse to serve Asian men, but Japanese women had little say in choosing who they would serve. Also, Japanese women often became the target of law enforcement, forced to pay fines for minor charges. In many instances, they were more disadvantaged than their white counterparts.

But I think the hardest part of ameyuki-san’s lives was their isolation in both North American societies as well as the Japanese community. The local American and Canadian press described Japanese prostitutes as quote “slave girls,” degrading such practices of selling and buying of women as a sign of Japanese people’s inability to assimilate or adapt to Western moral standards. On the other hand, within the Japanese community, ameyuki-san were attacked by fellow countrymen as a shūgyōfu, which means “women engaged in ugly trade.” Because of this, their socialization was limited, limited to customers in the workplace and masters or pimp husbands.

TG: I mean, as you mentioned, it certainly sounds like a very challenging lifestyle, certainly a very challenging occupation, where [the women] ostracized from the community, not getting any protection from the police. How did the women react to this? Did some of them try to leave the profession? Did they protest, or how exactly did they react?

KO: Yes, they did react. The most common and the surest way to leave the profession was to pay off their debts that they owed to their masters or husbands, but some women – who made boyfriends while working in brothels or restaurants – escaped without paying off their debts. We can see many such stories of kakeochi (which means elopement) in the Japanese immigrant press in West Coast cities.

But in most cases, this type of elopement didn’t work because husbands or masters, with the help of extra-legal organizations, traced and forced these couples to repay their debts. It seems that it was quite difficult for women to protest working conditions individually because they were tightly controlled by their masters. But I found a few cases of collective action by barmaids against employers who cut their wages or overworked them, but I think that this type of collective action was rare in North America because it was risky. If they catch the attention of the police or federal officials, they could be arrested or even deported.

Interestingly, that sort of collective action was more common among prostitutes and geisha in Japan in the same period. In Japan, prostitution and the geisha trade were officially acknowledged by the state, and they had a strong[er] consciousness as labourers. So in thinking about the responses of Japanese prostitutes in different regions, it is important to think about the differences in the attitudes of state governments and the society for the management of sexuality in national lives.

TG: And so, if there were women who, let’s say, got fed up with their lives as prostitutes, if they weren’t able to buy their way out, and I’m sure there were cases where women decided, you know: I’m in America, I’m just going to run away, and go somewhere else in America. Were there institutions within the community to help these women escape the occupation, escape the profession?

KO: Yes, there were two major institutions that helped these women. First, Protestant rescue missions: these missions were increasing throughout Canada and the United States toward the end of the 19th century with the rise of progressive reforms against various so-called “vices” in urban areas. And when Christian missionaries noticed the presence of Chinese and Japanese prostitutes in the West Coast, they offered them shelter and tried to convert them to Christianity.

A famous such institution was so-called “Cameron House”: a Presbyterian mission in San Francisco, and one of the notable Japanese residents there was Yamada Waka, who later became a major figure in the famous Taishō feminist group Seitō (the Bluestocking), and later played a role in the movement for the protection of motherhood in prewar Japan. But she used to work as a prostitute in Seattle, and at some point, escaped and turned to Cameron House, where she helped missionaries and rescue work. But it seems that her case was exceptional.

Most of the Japanese women there were not so interested in Christian mission. They came to the house primarily to have shelter, protect them from abusive masters, or negotiate with their husband while staying there.

And the other institution that helped these women was local civil courts. Typically, Japanese prostitutes and barmaids were married women controlled by pimp husbands, so some women who couldn’t stand the treatment by [their] husbands filed for divorce from them. And in these divorce case files, we can find rich stories of these couples’ experiences in North America and Japan, and in most cases, these women won the cases and were granted alimony and the right to their children (if they had [them]). These women were financially independent, having enough money to hire lawyers, and they attacked their husbands openly in the courts. I think that their assertive behaviour provides a strong contrast to the conventional image of Japanese immigrant women, who faithfully supported the work of their husbands while caring for children and doing all household duties. Probably, as these women earned wages outside home, as either prostitute[s] [or] barmaids, they acquired a sense of independence, which was rare among Japanese women in this period.

TG: That’s interesting to note that, you know, perhaps they had a little bit more independence, but there were these institutions that would help the women escape the occupation. Now you mentioned before that you made this comparison between the ameyuki-san and the karayuki-san (and that would be Japanese prostitutes who go over to China). So, could you compare those two? Were there differences in the conditions for the women in North America as opposed to those in China or other places?

KO: It’s not easy to compare and hard to generalize, but one thing I can say is that the North American conditions were very different from those in Korea and China, where the Japanese government exercised strong control over these regions, especially after the Sino-Japanese War in the 1890s. In these Japanese territories, unlike in North America, Japanese people, including karayuki-san, were the dominant racial/ethnic group. So in this colonial situation, although karayuki-san were still looked down on as a shūgyōfu, they were sometimes assigned positive images by fellow countrymen, especially in relation to their contribution to the development of the Japanese Empire. The work condition of prostitutes was also different in colonies, where the government implemented licensed prostitution, and the women paid tax and had regular check-ups. So, I would say the conditions were more similar to those in Japan’s pleasure quarters than to the conditions in North American frontier towns.

And a key factor that shaped Japanese prostitution in North America was the status of Japanese as a racial minority. As an ethnic minority, the Japanese had to be very careful not to cause any anti-Japanese feelings among white Americans and Canadians. So, unlike in Japanese colonies or the metropole, prostitutes were assigned quite negative images. In addition to that, outside the Japanese community, Japanese women were placed at the bottom of [the] racial hierarchy. Here, I’m not minimizing the hardships Japanese women experienced under licensed prostitution in Japan or its colonies. I just wanted to say that ameyuki-san experienced particular hardships because of their status as prostitutes of colour in the countries where no regulations existed, and they had to live in [the] shadow of law.

TG: You mentioned that it might be best to compare the conditions of the ameyuki-san to the conditions of prostitutes in Japan in particular. When we think about the 1890s, the 1900s in Japan, this is a moment when there’s a lot of movements promoted by women in Japan to end prostitution. And even in the U.S. as well, groups like the WCTU (which is also active in Japan) are very aggressively carrying out anti-prostitution campaigns. Is there a[n] interrelationship between these campaigns in Japan and North America, the presence of Japanese prostitutes in North America? Is this impacting the way that prostitution is talked about in Japan?

KO: Yes. Well, I would say anti-Japanese prostitution forces developed more or less simultaneously on both sides of the ocean in the late 19th century. In North America, the first group who opposed to Japanese prostitution was consulate officials who were concerned about Japan’s reputation. They reported back to the Japanese government, and the Foreign Ministry tried to stop the migration of prostitutes.

And at the local level, Japanese Christians in the West Coast also had similar concerns about the international reputation of Japan, tried to punish or send these women and pimps back to Japan. And they also sent letters back to fellow Christians in Japan.

Meanwhile in Japan, during the Meiji period, other prostitution activists were, like you said, Christians and the educated middle class who are sensitive to Western opinions about Japan. As soon as they noticed scandalous newspaper reports on Japanese prostitution on the West Coast, they started petitioning against it, asking the Japanese government to prevent overseas migration of Japanese prostitutes. So, many exchanges were going on between Japan and the West Coast, and the two events influenced one another and developed together.

But over time, this transnational network became weak after the turn of the century. Japanese immigrants began to settle in America, had families, and their concerns shifted from Japan’s reputation to their future in America or Canada. So to prevent the growth of anti-Japanese feelings among local whites, the Japanese – not only Christians and immigrant elites, but also ordinary immigrants like farmers and store managers – no longer tolerated the existence of brothels, and with the broad support of this Japanese community and changes in federal legislation, they could deport prostitutes and pimps successfully.

But meanwhile in Japan, around the turn of the century, anti-prostitution activists began to support Japan’s expansion overseas. During the war against Russia, Japanese Christian women, WCTU women sent back little comforts, imonbukuro, to soldiers in the battlefields. In Japan, they did continue to campaign against licensed brothels but unlike in North America, public opinion was not strongly against prostitution, so as they became more integrated into so-called “the apparatus” of the nation-state, their ties with North American activists decreased.

TG: You mentioned that some of these women are deported as a result of these campaigns, but could you talk about what happens to these women as a result of this shift in perception of prostitution in North America?

KO: I couldn’t find much information, unfortunately, about the fate of these prostitutes. But as far as my evidence suggests, most former prostitutes returned after the changes in legislation in 1910, simply because there were fewer opportunities, and [it was] difficult to continue their trade. What happened to these women after repatriation? I don’t know much. Little information [is] available, and it indicates that they returned to their original places and lived quietly.

And some remained in North America, changed their trade to barmaids in restaurants or becoming managers of bar restaurants, supervising younger women. And because barmaids could earn good wages, they became financially independent and could raise their children by themselves. But from my findings, I knew that a fair number of former prostitutes and barmaids married their boyfriends whom they met while working. Of course, these women [were] not necessarily ideal candidates for marriage partners, but in the Japanese community in the 1910s, there was a big demand for wives among single men, and the tendency to settle among immigrants opened up opportunities for these women to get married, have children and become legitimate members of the ethnic community. If they returned to Japan, they would be identified as former shūgyōfu or ameyuki-san, but as long as they are in America, you know, all Japanese immigrants – either former samurai, outcaste people, prostitutes – were all together, you know, viewed as the Japanese, an ethnic minority. So, I think that there was room for former prostitutes in America and Canada. But again, I have little information about this topic, so I hope to find more in the future.

TG: The Meiji at 150 Podcast is hosted by Tristan Grunow at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. This podcast would not be possible without the cooperation of the UBC Centre for Japanese Research and the technical assistance of the UBC Faculty of Arts ISIT. Find out more about the Meiji at 150 Project, including the Meiji at 150 Lecture Series, Digital Teaching Resource and Workshop Series by visiting our website: meijiat150.arts.ubc.ca. Thank you for listening.


*Citation for this episode:

Kazuhiro Oharazeki, interview with Tristan Grunow, The Meiji at 150 Podcast, podcast audio, September 18, 2018. https://meijiat150.podbean.com/e/episode-61-dr-kazuhiro-oharazeki-setsunan/.

The Meiji at 150 Podcast is hosted, produced, and edited by Tristan Grunow, with editorial assistance from Joshua Linkous. Transcripts by Kelly Chan.