Tragic fate for the unwanted daughters

A karayuki-san in Singapore after 1920.

A sleepy park near Yio Chu Kang Road is the final resting place of about 300 women who helped Japan advance economically into South-east Asia about a century ago - by selling their bodies.

They were not "comfort women" forced to serve Japanese soldiers during World War II but sex workers in South-east Asia from the late 19th century to the 1930s.

Their plight has come under the spotlight once more with a new study on Singapore's historical role as a regional hub in the trafficking of women.

University of Wollongong historian Julia Martinez is embarking on a three-year study of the trafficking in women and girls in the Malay world, including Singapore.

Associate Professor Martinez, who studies labour migration, noted that current debates about the nature of international trafficking regulation refer to its long history, yet historians remain unsure about the nature or extent of this trade.

Her study aims to look at the networks of trafficking and compare colonial policies on immigration for sex - and to map regulation and abolition patterns in early 20th-century South-east Asia.

At a recent talk at the National University of Singapore's Asia Research Institute, she said that, along with Cantonese women from China's Guangdong province, Japanese women made up a key group trafficked between East Asia and South-east Asia and also Australia, Japanese prostitutes were in Singapore from at least 1877, with records showing two brothels and 14 Japanese women here then.

Ironically, two "economic miracles" fuelled the growth in the trafficking of these women, as Australian historian James Warren describes in his landmark book, Ah Ku And Karayuki-san; Prostitution In Singapore 1870-1940.

Economic development in Meiji Japan (1868-1912) widened the gap between cities and the countryside, sparking a growth in migrant workers. Likewise, Singapore's rapid economic growth in the late 19th century brought an influx of migrant male labourers, who in turn sparked demand for sex workers.

Singapore's gender ratio was also very lopsided then, with only one female to 14 males from 1860 to 1930, Professor Warren notes.

The number of Japanese sex workers here peaked at 2,086 in 1906, and was likely a result of famine the year before in regions such as the Amakusa islands in Kumamoto and Shimabara peninsula in Kyushu. Most prostitutes here came from these places.

"These Japanese prostitutes were the victims of a newly developing capitalism in Meiji Japan," says Mr Han Tan Juan, a retired Chinese newspaper journalist and history enthusiast, during a recent tour of the cemetery.

Many of the women were unwanted daughters who moved from villages to cities.

Kikuyo Zendo, for example, was sent to join her sister at a straw matting factory after their widowed mother died.

"These unwanted daughters were part of a region-wide market in women, in which rights to the labour of children and young teens and their very persons were routinely sold and exchanged," writes Prof Warren.

Some of these migrant women were later trafficked to South-east Asia or other places like China and Russia.

The karayuki-san, which referred to those who went to South-east Asia as sex workers, were usually sent on coal ships to Singapore via Nagasaki, Shanghai and Hong Kong. From Singapore, some went on to other port towns like Manila.

Many were smuggled in, enduring horrendous journeys of several weeks hidden in the pitch-black areas of the ships; some did not survive the trip, like eight women hiding in coal bunkers, who were crushed to death by falling coal in 1890.

Many were told they would work in hotels, only to end up as sex workers. Some girls who arrived were as young as eight and served as maids to older prostitutes before they themselves went into the trade.

It was grinding poverty at home that pushed many to escape to Singapore and other parts of South- east Asia.

Osaki, a sex worker in Sabah interviewed by writer Tomoko Yamazaki in the 1972 book, Sandakan Brothel No.8, described how she was seven and living practically in starvation with two siblings after their widowed mother left them.

"I decided to go abroad when I reached my 10th birthday... even though I was a mere child, I concluded that, if I went abroad to work, my older brother would be able to buy some land, build a big house and marry a nice girl," she said.

She was sold for 300 yen.

Some, like Kyushu native Tsuru Nonaka, were tricked into leaving for Singapore. She was 17 around 1900, when a woman asked her: "Wouldn't you like to work in Singapore? If you work in a rubber plantation there you can earn a lot of money."

In 1904, Minami Haru also jumped at the chance to go abroad, thinking she would be working at an inn in Singapore. The voyage took 29 days.

Others were kidnapped. Kikuyo was 19 and a factory worker when she was persuaded by a colleague to go to Kobe to try for a hotel job. She was kidnapped and forced onto a steamer bound for Singapore.

Prof Warren writes: "The Japanese authorities cast a blind eye towards the migration of women, prostitution, and the spread of brothels throughout South-east Asia in the name of capitalism and the state from 1895 to 1918. In effect, the Japanese were still too weak to advance politically and militarily into South-east Asia, and progressed first economically by tacitly encouraging overseas migration and prostitution to develop their economic base."

Singapore's pre-war Japanese community was concentrated in the Bugis area. There were at least 109 Japanese brothels in 1905 and they helped support businesses such as salons, dental clinics and photo studios.

Mr Han describes the area as fan rong chang sheng, citing a Chinese idiom that means prosperous, but can also be a pun for "full of prostitutes".

Remittances from these migrant women were an important source of foreign currency for Japan. But a rising Tokyo started to feel embarrassed by these women. Prof Martinez says: "This was about nationalism mostly and Japan trying to control its reputation."

In 1921, Japan banned Japanese brothels overseas and worked with governments in places such as Singapore to bring home the sex workers, some of whom continued to ply their trade slyly.

There were efforts in the 1970s in Japan to tell the stories of these women - with Ms Yamazaki's book and the 1975 documentary, Karayuki-san, The Making Of A Prostitute, by renowned filmmaker Shohei Imamura. But these women have since been largely forgotten both in Japan and in Singapore.

At the Japanese cemetery in Yio Chu Kang, scores of small tombstones bear silent witness to the time when these women worked here.

There is no trace of their real names - to avoid shaming their families at home. And unlike similar tombs of such women in places like Sandakan, Sabah, the tombstones here do not face the direction of Japan, almost as if the women no longer had a link to home.

Mr Han says: "Their fate is very tragic."


This article was published on April 6 in The Straits Times.Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to for more stories.