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Rare interview tapes with Japanese 'karayuki-san' prostitute in Singapore surface

One of the tapes containing the recording of an interview between writer Kohei Miyazaki and a woman identified as a "karayuki-san" is seen in this image provided by Zennosuke Uchijima.

TOKYO -- From the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate (1853-1867) through the Meiji era (1868-1912) and the Taisho period (1912-1926), many women in poverty left Japan as "karayuki-san" to work in prostitution abroad. Now, a recording from around 60 years ago in which one of these women recounts her grueling experiences has been found.

    The woman, whose name is not given, describes in unflinching detail the enormous amounts of debt she was forced into, and how she was made to see as many as 49 customers in a single day.

    Almost no audio recordings of karayuki-san remain, and one expert has hailed the discovery, saying, "This is an incredibly valuable historical document that helps us understand the reality of how people at the time lived and what they thought about it."

    The woman was born in Nagasaki Prefecture, southwest Japan, in the city of Shimabara. To support her sick father and siblings, she entered into an arrangement with a procurer of women in around 1904, and at the age of 16 stowed away on a ship to Singapore. There, she worked at a brothel, and was later bought out of prostitution by a man from the U.K. After World War II, she returned to Japan in around 1946, and died in 1967.

    The tape was recorded in 1961 by the late author Kohei Miyazaki (1917-1980), also a native of Shimabara, when he interviewed her at age 73. Miyazaki was introduced to her by a friend, after he told them he wanted to write a novel based on the lives of karayuki-san, but he later became busy with other work and died without completing the project. The tape was stored by his wife.

    In all, the recording of her experiences runs about 12 hours, in which she describes in the local Shimabara dialect her time stowed away on the ship and working at a brothel. She recounts spending around a month hiding in the dark at the bottom of the ship, where coal and other materials were kept and human waste would run down. The procurer would also rape the women, and to try and avoid the attacks, she said she would cover her body in excrement. "The bottom of that ship was hell," she says in the recording.

    After arriving at the brothel in Singapore, she was informed that she had incurred huge debts including her boat fare, and amid her despair she threw herself into her work. During busy periods she worked long hours and was made to take many customers; when the pain became too much she would struggle through it by applying petroleum jelly to her private parts.

    On the tape, she says things including, "It was 49 people. I did it in a day and night," and, "I'd do it in the late morning, from 9 a.m. It would go on until around 3 a.m. at night. I cried and cried." She also told Miyazaki, "It was really terrible. I can never forget, even now, how awful it was. It was terrifying."

    She also became pregnant with the child of the British man who got her out of prostitution. Although she was happy, he reportedly forced her to have an abortion and get sterilized, telling her that the child would be "of mixed race and discriminated against," and she complied. Her voice sounds emotional on the tape as she says, "I killed my uterus."

    She later found success running a rubber plantation for a time, and later went into the hotel business, but said she was conned out of almost all her assets upon returning to Japan. She lived her final years in poverty, and after raising the children of her younger sister, who died at an early age, she too passed away.


    The name "karayuki-san" was originally rendered in Chinese kanji characters meaning "going to China," and in the latter half of the 19th century became a name used for people who went abroad to earn money. However, it gradually became used to refer to women who went overseas to work in prostitution. It's thought that many of the women who did so were from the southwest Japan regions of Amakusa, in Kumamoto Prefecture, and Shimabara in Nagasaki Prefecture.

    (Japanese original by Hiromi Makino, Integrated Digital News Center)

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