Temple, goddess, prayer and contributions

In a trance like state, I prayed.

In Shimabara, there is a small hill called the Benten-zan, which has a shrine and a temple. The shrine enshrines the Benzaiten goddess, who is the goddess of everything that flows: water, time, words, speech, eloquence, music and extension of knowledge. Her origins are with goddess Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of knowledge, music, arts, wisdom and learning. I thought it apt to pay my respects, as it was in my making of a performance that brought me to this place.

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Entrance to the shrine with Benzaiten; photo by Mayu Kanamori

Further up the hill is the Risho-in Taishi-do, a Buddhist temple established in 1895 by Gonsho Hirota. In 1906 Gonsho went on a pilgrimage to India, and whilst on his journey through South East Asia, he met hundreds of karayuki san, many who were born in this area.

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Entrance to Risho-in Taishi-do temple; photo by Mayu Kanamori

At the highest point on the hill is their tennyo-to (could be translated as goddess tower), to enshrine a Buddhist statue he brought back from India. Gonsho built the tower with donations of his followers, many who were karayuki san he met during his travels. Women’s names, the amounts of contributions, and the places they lived, like Singapore, Ipoh, Siberia and Rangoon are inscribed on the stone fence posts surrounding the tower.

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Tennyo-to at Risho-in Taishi-do temple; photo by Mayu Kanamori

It is worth mentioning that karayuki san had sent much of their earnings back to their hometowns. D.C.S. Sissons wrote that Osaka Shimbun newspaper, before WWII, calculated that annual remittances home from Amakusa women exceed 200,000 yen, which went a long way towards covering the import surplus of the region. *

Sissons also wrote that the earnings of karayuki san in Australia was much higher than their counterparts in other countries.* I carefully looked at the 286 stone fence posts to see if I could find contributions from Australia, but couldn’t any. Although many of the engravings in the posts had faded, it is probably because Gonsho did not travel to Australia.

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Posts with names of contributing karayuki san

Opposite the tennyo-to, there is a stone monument by Tomoko Yamada, the author of Joshi-gun Aishi: Karayuki, shofu, itokoujo tachi no sei to shi (could be translated as Tragedy: Karayuki, prostititutes and the silk factory women’s sex and death). The monument is dedicated to not only the karayuki san, but also to the Comfort women in Asia.

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A monument for karayuki san and Comfort Women.

Many of the books with information about karayuki san I had read at the National Library of Australia during my residency, also had chapters on WWII Comfort women. Writers like Tomoko Yamada, Yoshimi Kaneko, Ill-myon-Kim and others elaborate on the connection between the long history and culture of often state endorsed institutionalized prostitution in Japan and the atrocity of the WWII Comfort women.

There were 8 Buddhist figures surrounding the tennyo-to, each a protecting diety for one or two of the animals on the Chinese zodiac. I slowly walk around the tennyo-to in an almost trance like state, and prayed.

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  • * Sissons, D.C.S. (1977) ‘Karayuki‐San: Japanese prostitutes in Australia, 1887–1916—       I*’, Historical Studies, 17(68), pp. 323–341. doi: 10.1080/10314617708595555.

Shimabara & Kuchinotsu Port

Acknowledging the contribution made by women

Shimabara today is a pretty place with hot spring bathing houses, streams of running spring water all around town, a castle with infamous history of the Shimabara Rebellion (1637-8) and a series of well-preserved homes of samurai who worked for the daimyo who occupied the castle. I decided to walk the town to understand the historical context of those who had ruled this land.

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Shimabara; photo by Mayu Kanamori

Heavy taxes imposed for the costly building of the Shimabara Castle, combined with poverty and famine, and local discontent due to the preceding persecution of Catholic Christians in the area were what caused the rebellion. It resulted in the beheading of 37,000 rebels and sympathisers as well as the ruling daimyo for misruling. Local interpretive boards and pamphlets provide tourists with history of the area with series of names of important rulers and rebels – all men.

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Samurai houses in Shimabara; photo by Mayu Kanamori
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Shimabara Castle; photo by Mayu Kanamori

Travelling just over an hour south from Shimabara on a local bus,  I arrived at Kuchinotsu. Kuchinotsu Port was one of the first modern ports in Japan that accepted foreign traders. From around 1888, karayuki san boarded a ship from this port to go abroad, often as a stowaway hidden in the bottom of a coal export ships. Many travelled to East and South East Asia in places like Singapore, Hong Kong, and Malaya, but they also settled in many other parts of the world such as India, Siberia, Manchuria, South Pacific, Australia and the United States. Today the port services local fishing boats and a ferry that connects Kuchinotsu to Oniike in Amakusa.

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Kuchinotsu Port; photo by Mayu Kanamori

It is noteworthy that Kuchinotsu Port is where Manzo Nagano (1855–1923), a local 15 year old boy boarded an British ship bound for Shanghai as a trainee sailor. In 1877 he arrived in New WestminsterBritish Columbia, and became the first official Japanese immigrant in Canada. The Canadian Mount Manzo Nagano is named in his honour. Although the term karayuki san is generally used for women who went overseas and worked as prostitutes, in so far as the term comes from this district, and it means someone who goes to or has gone overseas (literally it means going to China, but in those days, going to China equated to going abroad), Manzo Nagano can also said to be a karayuki san.

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Kuchinotsu History, Folklore and Marine Museum; photo by Mayu Kanamori

At the mouth of the port was the Kuchinotsu Museum of History and Folklore & Marine Museum, which had a significant section dedicated to information about the karayuki san with displays of their belongings such as a suitcase, contracts signed with traffickers of the trade, historical photographs and a video display of a modern-day documentary on their plight.

After spending most of the day understanding the history of the area through efforts of local men, I was glad to see that finally in this museum was acknowledgement of the contribution made by countless women who left this port to support themselves and in many cases, the livelihood of their impoverished families.

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Section on Karayuki san at the Kuchinotsu History, Folklore and Marine Museum; photo by Mayu Kanamori

Much information was provided about karayuki san in South East Asia, but I could not find any information about those who lived and worked in Australia. I thought of Okin. I thought of the many graves of Japanese women in Japanese Cemeteries in Broome, Thursday Island and Cowra. I thought of other women who had made Australia their home: of the war brides that married Australian servicemen, of the young working holiday women who have found husbands in Australia… and of myself.

Shiranui – atmospheric ghosts

Shiranui is an unknown fire, atmospheric ghost fires peculiar to Kyushu.

The sun was beginning to set as the train I had boarded in Isahaya slowly travelled along the Ariake Sea coast and down the Shimabara Peninsula. The villages on this peninsula and in neighbouring region of Amakusa were the two places in Japan on the island of Kyushu where many of the karayuki san , the early Japanese prostitutes who came to Australia had come from. The Ariake Sea lies between the two.

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View of the Ariake Sea from my train window on the Shimabara Railiway Line with Amakusa in the distance; photo by Mayu Kanamori

According to D.C.S. Sissons, there are no definitive sources of the birthplaces of Japanese women who came to Australia, but varying sources, such as Alien Registration in 1916 and inscriptions on Japanese tombs stones in places like Thursday Island and Broome indicates that more than half of the women were from Nagasaki prefecture where Shimabara is located, followed by those from neighbouring Kumamoto prefecture, where Amakusa is. Other studies show that more than half of the karayuki san worldwide appears to have been from Shimbabara Peninsula and from the Amakusa Islands.* I am here to find out more about them.

It had been a long day for me, having left Tokyo early in the morning, and changing trains six times to reach the castle town of Shimabara for the night. Hoping to reach my hotel before dark, I gazed out to the sea, counting the number of stations until I reached my destination. I thought of the women before me who left this land and sailed on this sea to what they thought was to find a better life for themselves. I thought about my leaving Japan to come to Australia. I was chasing an Australian boy. I wasn’t driven abroad to support myself and my family. I thought of people I love in Sydney and Tokyo, and imagined the shiranui* before my eyes.

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“Shiranui” from the Shokoku Rijindan by Kikuoka Tenryo; source Wikipedia

But by the time the train left Omisaki station, I felt as if I was transported to another realm, another time…

18:02 local time, 7 June 2016 on Shimabara Railway Line between Omisaki and Matsuomachi on Shimabara Peninsula, Kyushu; video by Mayu Kanamori

Sissons, D.C.S. (1977) ‘Karayuki‐San: Japanese prostitutes in Australia, 1887–1916—       I*’, Historical Studies, 17(68), pp. 323–341. doi: 10.1080/10314617708595555.

*Shiranui means unknown fire. It is peculiar to Kyushu. They are atmospheric ghost fires, much like the St Elmo’s fire in the West. Shiranui is said to appear several kilometers from the beach in the open sea on days of the noon moon when the wind is weak and are seen at night. There would first be one or two fires, which would split off to the left and right and multiply, and in the end, several hundred to several thousand fires would be lined up on the surface of the sea.