Episode 84 – Dr. David Ambaras (NC State)

Originally published on December 18, 2018 
[This transcript has been edited for clarity.]

Tristan Grunow: This is the Meiji at 150 Podcast. I’m Tristan Grunow. Today, I’m talking with Dr. David Ambaras, Associate Professor of History at North Carolina State University. Dr. Ambaras is the author of Japan’s Imperial Underworlds: Intimate Encounters at the Borders of Empire, published by Cambridge University Press in 2018. Dr. Ambaras, thank you so much for talking with me today.

David Ambaras: Well, thank you so much for having me.

TG: You recently published this book Japan’s Imperial Underworlds, and in the book, you map the mobility of several marginalized groups across the spatial and social borderlands of the Japanese Empire starting in the Meiji period, and taking that up even to the present day. So, can you describe who populates these groups? Who’s in these groups? And elaborate on what tracking their movements around East Asia tells us about the borders and spaces of the Japanese Empire.

DA: The book is really focused on Chinese and Japanese movements as opposed to the movements of other groups in imperial East Asia. One of the things that I’m trying to do is to show that even though we’ve been given a narrative of modern East Asian history as the fall of the Qing or the fall of China and the rise of Japan, that things were a little more complicated when you look at actual people’s lives and encounters. And so, what I do is trace out the movements of Chinese networks into Japan. In particular, I’m interested in the movement of Chinese peddlers, particularly from South China from Fuqing on the coast of Fujian Province who come into Japan during the Meiji period. Actually, they start coming in once the treaty ports are opened.

As your listeners will probably know, Japan was compelled to sign what were called unequal treaties in the late 1850s that led to the opening of a number of treaty ports. While the stories often told about Europeans and Americans coming into these treaty ports, the largest group that actually came in were Chinese and throughout the Meiji period, the largest group in the treaty ports were Chinese. And so, I look at not elite Chinese merchants who are employees of European trading firms, but the lower level Chinese who come in and who engage in petty trade or what some have called “globalization from below.” They are restricted to the ports, but after 1899, Japan, which has recovered full territorial sovereignty by this point, issues an edict that basically limits all Chinese to a former treaty port unless they work in particular trades, and one of those trades that are allowed inland as is peddlers. So, I look at how Chinese peddlers, again, largely from Fuqing, spread out throughout Japan, and the relationships that they form. And so in using these Chinese peddlers as agents for my stories, I’m looking at how they become involved in the illegal adoption or transfer or smuggling of children into Chinese spaces either into the Chinese enclaves in the treaty ports or abroad to China itself, and how this movement of children then becomes a diplomatic issue and a sensationalized media issue, and is represented as part of a Chinese threat to Japan, if you will, even though in terms of the actual history of what is going on, what we’re seeing is a historical Japanese market in children encountering a historical Chinese market in children in the treaty ports and being brought together. So, that’s one example of these kinds of movements that I’m looking at.

Another has to deal with women who cohabit with (they sometimes marry illegally or are otherwise common-law wives) these Chinese peddlers who live with them in Japan, but then accompany them back to China to Fuqing over the course of the 20th century, and who are reported to be abduction victims, or have been enslaved and are living lives of horrific abuse in Fuqing.

The next mobile group, then, is the Japanese male state agents who go into Fuqing to try and rescue or recover these women, and so, my study then looks at the encounters among Japanese men, Japanese state agents and consul police officials with local Chinese and with Japanese women that they try to so-call “rescue” from Fuqing in the 1920s and 1930s. So, these are some of the mobile groups that I look at. I look at others that I can talk about later but again, the point that I’m trying to make is that the Sino-Japanese relationship is quite complex at this time. For people on the ground who are living these encounters between migrant Japanese and migrant Chinese, it can’t all be reduced to a history of the nation or empire. That different kind of space is taking shape through these networked encounters, through migration flows that gives us a different feel for what East Asia was like at this time.

TG: By talking about these groups that are moving around in the “underworlds” of Japan’s empire, you’re really telling the story that inverts our understanding of Japan’s relations in East Asia. And so often, we think of the Meiji period as Japan opening to the West, and Perry comes in and starts this interaction with Japan and the United States. But you write that this also upends or leads to a repositioning of Japan within a larger Sinocentric East Asian sphere.

DA: Yes. I think that in regards to the history of the Sinocentric East Asian order, there’s one narrative which says essentially that by 1895, it was over, and the “Sinosphere” as it’s been called by some was a thing of the past. There’s been some scholarship that shows that in terms of elite literary activities and other intellectual and cultural activities, that that’s not true. Looking at it in terms of the movement of people on the margins, I would suggest that it’s also a complicated story than that.

Again, one narrative that we have is of Japan appropriating a kind of Orientalist mode of thinking. Stefan Tanaka’s work is the most representative here and turning China from the “Middle Kingdom” into “Shina,” this example of degeneracy in the present that has no real legitimacy as a sovereign state anymore and is ripe for taking by more advanced Japan. And there are other manifestations of this kind of Japanese Orientalist thinking at the time. But in terms of the ongoing impact or legacy of the Sinosphere, if we think of “Sinosphere” not in terms of the high culture necessarily, but in terms of these networks of capital, networks of trade, networks of merchants and networks of migration, then there’s an ongoing development. This is part of a longer history in which Chinese emigrants were helping to shape the colonial regimes of Southeast Asia, and then were helping to shape the economic development of Japan in relation to China, Southeast Asia and other parts of the world.

And so, I think that there, we need to pay more attention to the complexity of that relationship and show that China remained a significant actor as opposed to simply an object of Japan’s internal administrations. One of the things that I also show is that while we have a narrative that tells us that: “Okay, up until 1894, the relationship between China and Japan was tense, and then in 1895, the Japanese victory over China in the First Sino-Japanese War led to a complete rebalancing in which Japan could now fully claim to be an imperial power and above China,” many of the kinds of illicit (or black market or grey market) transactions in people or exchanges among people that I describe from the pre-1895 period continued or even expanded after that time. So again, on the ground, in the places where the archives don’t often take us, one can find lots of evidence of a much more complicated Sino-Japanese relationship. It’s a relationship that ties into diplomatic relations, ties into economic relations, and also builds its own kind of folklore, which appears in popular literature, in rumours and in other aspects of Japanese mentality, and continues to the present.

TG: As you write, these intimate encounters between people on both sides of the East China Sea lead to a non-state relationship between the two countries, and it’s a relationship that, as you write, is “a fragmented series of landscapes of fear and desire.” On the one hand, it’s illicit. On the other hand, it’s intimate with marriages, but also trafficking. So can you give us a few examples of those types of intimate encounters that you’re talking about?

DA: Sure. I keep thinking about this: I said “landscapes of fear and desire.” I should have said “land and seascapes of fear and desire” because a lot of this takes place on water as well. But to give some examples: so I mentioned the marriages between Japanese women and peddlers from Fuqing. Part of what happens here is that the landscape of fear is drawn through media representations of Fuqing as this barbaric place to which Japanese women are lured with false promises of lives of wealth, and then they’re put to work as domestic servants and concubines, and are unable to escape from these lives of hell.

That kind of representation gets circulated quite widely. Taiwan’s Japanese community buys into this very heavily because Fuqing and Fujian are very close by, but it also comes to the mainland as well (so the Japanese metropoles as well) and circulates there. Fuqing then becomes this kind of image of Chinese enslavement of Japanese. But when you get into the actual diplomatic records, people moved to Fuqing for very mundane reasons often, from various walks of life and were living lives that in terms of the general standard of living, would have been comparably lower than in Japan. Nonetheless, many women who went there were surprised that someone would come after them, and felt that they had committed to making their lives with their husbands and partners in China and were perfectly fine doing so. This is one example of a sensationalized depiction of a “landscape of fear” and then the realities, if you will, that may belie that representation.

Others involve pirates, for example. So, one of the women who actually elopes with a peddler to Fuqing in the 1920s (a woman named Nakamura Sueko) then elopes again, and winds up being the wife of a Chinese pirate boss as they go raiding ships in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea. It’s not clear what her purposes were in doing this, but the pirates with whom she becomes involved were actually university-educated Protestant revolutionaries who are out to overthrow Chiang Kai-shek’s regime in Fujian and cooperate with the Communist Party to try and effect social revolution. So, she gets caught up in the middle of all this and then of course because of this turmoil, the Japanese army based in Taiwan gets very interested in this pirate group and other pirate groups, and they get involved as well. We then get a “behind the scenes” (or subterranean) set of relationships among pirates, and Japanese military and intelligence officials, and this Japanese woman on the ground that the media then turns into this sensational case of a Japanese woman who has taken the lead over a bunch of bloodthirsty Chinese as they pillage and plunder in the South China Sea. Her return to Japan when she’s finally deported becomes a very sensational thing that the press plays up to, on the one hand, show what kind of dangerous women are out there who have to be controlled, but on the other hand, to show that well, the South China Sea is a place where dangerous women could actually do something for Japan.

In looking at the different relations among martial Japanese and Chinese actors, the Japanese imperialist state, the Chinese state and the media, we get to see a different kind of land and seascape of Sino-Japanese relations. If there’s one other case I could talk about briefly, it’s that of Andō Sakan who was a colonial drifter, if you will. Robert Bickers wrote a book called Empire Made Me, about an Englishman who drifts off into the Shanghai Police Force, and there are empire worlds that create opportunities for people. Andō Sakan is one of those people who drops out of fishery school in Kyūshū and wanders off to Karafuto and becomes a fisher there in Japan’s northern colony. But then, he drifts down to Taiwan, and works various jobs in Taiwan before becoming a newspaper reporter, an on and off police informant and then tries his hand at being a polemicist. He wants to be known as a colonial expert, and writes pamphlets and articles, and that doesn’t quite pan out.

But then he starts writing travel literature based on his travels to South China and French Indochina, and that begins to open doors for him. He writes about the lives and conditions of Japanese sex workers in French Indochina, of Japanese medicine peddlers who have tried to make lives for themselves in South China or Southeast Asia, and then of his encounters with Chinese pirates. This is a long running serial in the Yomiuri newspaper in the early 1930s. In each of these, he’s really trying to work out the relationship between Japanese bodies and space that is not under Japanese control, whether it be these Japanese prostitutes in Southeast Asia who are, to him, examples of the kind of pure ethnic spirit – they’re out to defend Japan and work for Japan by sacrificing themselves – and yet, their blood is polluted by contact with non-Japanese, whether it be Europeans or Chinese or others from the region.

That fear of Japanese women’s bodies basically becoming corrupted and losing their Japaneseness drives his writing. Japanese men who marry Chinese women and settle in China have the same problem of on the one hand, him celebrating their pioneering spirit for going out to these remote parts of China and striking a blow for Japanese advance, and at the same time, he’s very concerned that their so-called “mixed-blood” children are gruesome or grotesque manifestations of the mixing of Japan into a larger China and that these Japanese men don’t actually care about it, and that they’re indifferent to that dilution of Japanese blood and spirit.

With the piracy as well, he goes over to try (or he says he went over to try) and figure out Sino-Japanese relations in the wake of the Manchurian Incident, in which Japan’s army occupied Manchuria in the northeast in 1931. But he quickly loses control of the narrative. He wants to always be the observer who can describe what’s going on with authority, and little by little, this narrative develops into where the pirates have taken control of him, and he is the object as opposed to the knowing subject of the story.

So, he’s really playing around with these questions of the borders of Japaneseness, the relationship between Japan and China, and the fear that (even though Japan is a growing, powerful empire) in the South China Sea at least, the dream of southern advance that had been nurtured by Japanese ideologues since the Meiji period is really not panning out, that the Japanese who moved out to the South China Sea area are not sufficiently strong, not sufficiently supported by the state, and perhaps unable to compete with this more primordial Chinese force in the region.

TG: And you mentioned that many of these mobile subjects that you’re talking about are residing in the Chinese province of Fujian, which is right across the Taiwan Strait from Taiwan. I remember being struck when reading over the Twenty-One Demands issued in 1915 in that one of the demands was that Japan would have exclusive rights to Fujian Province, and even establish some kind of protectorate over that area. On the one hand, you can say: “Oh this is just part and parcel of this larger land grab that was laid out in the Twenty-One Demands.” I mean there must be a connection to the Japanese population there. Was this a type of linguistic based colonialism or a type of diasporic expansionism?

DA: I think that first and foremost, the Japanese population in Fujian is very low. In the treaty ports, the largest group of so-called “Japanese” in Fujian are actually Taiwanese, the so-called Taiwan sekimin. They would have had legal Japanese nationality in international terms and Fujianese who obtained Japanese nationality because that gives them extraterritorial privileges in the treaty ports.

Those Taiwan sekimin are the largest group, and then in terms of the number of what we would call “ethnic Japanese” in Fujian, you only have a few hundred, so it’s not a large population. It’s much smaller than say, Shanghai or Tianjin or once you get to Daidian and so forth, you get a much larger Japanese population there.

It is part of imperialism, of course, of the informal empire, the treaty ports, but the Japanese women, for example, who have migrated to Fujian are not seen as agents of empire. They are seen as victims in the Japanese view. They are seen as victims of a Chinese invasion of Japanese home territory that is bent on stealing Japanese bodies. The Japanese response, then, becomes a part of imperialism, it’s to mobilize Japanese anxieties about the exploitation of Japanese women into a project to re-assert Japanese patriarchal authority over Japanese land and moreover, over parts of China. So there, I think you do see an imperialist turn with this, but again, the bodies that are moving, the Japanese bodies that are circulating themselves, are not depicted as agents of empire. This is different from say, Japanese women who move to Taiwan and then wound up marrying Taiwanese women (you know, middle or more elite Japanese women who then get celebrated in the presses as these agents of the assimilation of the Taiwanese to Japanese values). It’s a different story from that that I’m telling.

TG: Are these women that you’re talking about then, the so-called “karayuki-san”? Like these Japanese women who go overseas to work as prostitutes in ports in China?

DA: No, not at all. Now, Andō Sakan, my travel writer, does when he visits French Indochina. He encounters so-called karayuki-san, and again, he writes about them, but the women that I’m talking about whose records I’ve discovered in the Foreign Ministry archives in Japan are not women like that. They are not going abroad for work. Rather, they have met these Chinese peddlers in Japan and have lived with them, and then for various reasons, have accompanied them back to their home villages or hometowns in Fuqing. Sometimes, it’s because the husband has to go back and claim land in an inheritance dispute, sometimes it’s because the economy in Japan has gotten tough for Chinese peddlers and they feel the need to go back. After 1931, it’s often because anti-Chinese hostility in Japan has gotten to the point that the Chinese community is struggling, and you have several thousand Chinese peddlers decide that they had go back rather than stay in Japan, so they take their families with them.

These are the reasons that women go, but the Foreign Ministry tended to depict all of these cases within a rubric of abduction. And once they got on the ground, once they sent the officials into the villages (if they could get into the villages) and meet women and interview them, they would find that by and large, the women did not feel that they had been abducted. Some might say that what they saw when they got there was not what they expected, but they didn’t feel that they have been abducted, and many saw no reason to leave.

TG: One of the things that I was most struck about in your book, especially in the epilogue, is when you talk about how this whole Sinosphere is upended once again in 1945, and this poses a whole new challenge for these mobile bodies going in between. So you talk, in particular, about the “left-behinds.”

DA: Yes, the story of people left behind in China really has focused on (and probably rightly so) the north. It’s focused on Manchuria, China’s northeast, where the Japanese had sent several hundred thousand settlers. And so, you had a large number of Japanese women and children who were left behind in China. Then we saw, from the re-opening of relations between Japan and China in the late ‘70s into the ‘80s, those stories coming to the fore, and those stories continue to come to the fore.

Because the Japanese who I study had not been part of any kind of official project of emigration, and had been seen, rather, as a problem for the Japanese state and empire, that is an appendage of the empire, they get forgotten very quickly. And while those who had Japanese household registration documents (so-called koseki) were able to come back to Japan in the wake of the defeat in 1945, there were many who couldn’t, and who wound up stuck in China, and who had to survive, not only the Communist Revolution, but then the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and early ‘70s as people who are identified as Japanese (as possibly Japanese spies), and their Sino-Japanese families were persecuted in this process. Then some of them started to come back later on as well when the relations between Japan and China improved, but they continued to be a different kind of problem (or phenomenon) from the Japanese in Manchuria or the Chinese northeast.

To give one example, in 2010, in Osaka, two sisters in their 70s were able to return to Japan (or come for the first time to Japan I should say). Their mother had emigrated with her Chinese husband to Fuqing in the 1920s, and the family had settled there, had lived there, had survived through the postwar years, the revolutionary years. The husband had been killed, actually, beaten to death during the Cultural Revolution as a Japanese collaborator. But the mother survived and was able to come back to Japan in the 1990s and after she died, her daughters came back, but they then were able to petition 48 (I believe) of their family members come with them. Once those family members came to Japan, most of them applied for public assistance in Osaka, and this became a big scandal, where the Japanese right accused the family of basically being a bunch of Chinese invaders who are out to exploit Japan’s wealth and goodwill.

This got tied into the question of illegal immigration and fake immigration and accusations that Chinese left-behind orphans from Manchuria as well were also faking their documents in order to come to Japan. So those older histories continue to inform the present, and at a time when Japanese-Chinese tensions over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands were growing and where in China, you had major anti-Japanese demonstrations in 2005 and then again in 2012, these older stories came to the fore, again, as part of this newer wave of Sino-Japanese tension. You even have the Japanese right publishing books from fairly prestigious publishers with titles like How China is turning Japan into a Chinese Autonomous Zone, and using examples of these kinds of returnees and immigrants as evidence for that.

TG: And so these people are almost being victimized again because they’re caught between these two states that are going through these diplomatic disputes.

DA: Exactly, and one of the things that I want to argue is that when it comes to state-to-state disputes or disputes over territory, then you see things in one way. But on the ground level, when people are moving in pursuit of better lives or out of romantic attachments or for other reasons, space takes on a very different meaning. And the boundaries and barriers that states put up to keep people out or keep people in have to be constantly negotiated by people for whom space should have a different meaning, where mobility is the basic characteristic of their existence as opposed to this being confined to one particular territory or another.

TG: I mean this comes up all the time when you talk to people from China or Japan, and say: “Well, what are your views of the other country?” Saying: “Oh well, I don’t like the country, but I have so many Japanese friends/so many Chinese friends.” And so, people are able to make this distinction between the country and the people from that country. Maybe this is a way to soften those ties.

DA: Yes, well I hope so, and one of the problems, again, is, though, that people who move get put into certain boxes: they are immigrants, and then they are either legal or illegal immigrants. In the Japanese case, there is a certain kind of Chinese illegal immigrant, or some other kind illegal immigrant, and that takes on all kinds of connotations that, again, impede our ability to see them as people. People who have relationships, people who have the same economic needs as anybody else, and people whose worlds are shaped by connections that transcend these historically artificial borders that states have put up.

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: 

David Ambaras, interview with Tristan Grunow, The Meiji at 150 Podcast, podcast audio, December 18, 2018. https://meijiat150.podbean.com/e/episode-84-dr-david-ambaras-nc-state/.

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