Prostitute and feminist

The story of Yamada Waka

By William Wetherall

A review of
Tomoko Yamazaki
The Story of Yamada Waka: From Prostitute to Feminist Pioneer
Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1985, 159 pages

Translation by Wakako Hironaka and Ann Kostant of
Yamazaki Tomoko
Ameyukisan no uta: Yamada Waka no suuki naru shougai
Tokyo: Bungei Shunju, 1978

A version of this article appeared in
Far Eastern Economic Review, 131(12), 20 March 1986, page 56

Japan's bookstores abound with volumes on the world's oldest profession and its players. Hundreds of tomes have appeared on this subject as an element of local culture. Dozens more have been written on the Korean, Okinawan, and other women who were pressed into the service of Japanese soldiers.

A third major genre is devoted to the plight of Japanese women in overseas brothels. Its most prolific contributor has been Tomoko Yamazaki, who has published several titles on the history of female traffic.

Two of Yamazaki's books (published in 1972 and 1974) deal with Japanese women who were prostitutes in Sandakan (in former North Borneo, now Sabah) and other Southeast Asian cities where Japanese had settled before World War II. Such women were called karayukisan, or girls who had gone to work in "China" (meaning anywhere in Asia outside Japan), often as a result of being sold or tricked into prostitution.

The Story of Yamada Waka is an English abridgment (1985) of Yamazaki's biography (1978) of an ameyukisan, or a Japanese woman who had gone to the US and become a prostitute. Asaba Waka (family name first), born in December 1879, was betrothed in an arranged marriage on August 1896 at the age of 16. By the following year, however, she had sailed to the US to flee an apparently unkind husband who was 10 years her senior.

Like some of her karayukisan sisters, Waka may have been promised a job as a maid or waitress, but she fell into the hands of a procuress who sold her into prostitution. Sometime after the turn of the century she escaped to San Francisco, where she found shelter in a Presbyterian mission and studied under Yamada Kakichi, a journalist whom she married no later than 1905.

The next year the couple returned to Japan, where Waka become a journalist herself and a minor figure in Japan's early feminist movement. In 1937 she lectured in various US cities on subjects like motherhood protection, and back in Japan she founded a house for homeless mothers and children. She died at the age of 77 in September 1957 after dedicating the last 10 years of her life to the rehabilitation of post-war prostitutes.

Much of this summary has been corrected in accordance with the Japanese edition. The English adaptation, which is no more than two-thirds the length of the original, has some wrong dates, ages, romanised names, and California place name misspellings. Some of the errors may be editorial, but others are signs of sloppiness in translation.

Despite such flaws, and an original that is padded with asides about how Yamazaki carried out her field work, the story of Waka's fall and rise is told as well as it could be given Yamazaki's travelogue approach to social history. One only wishes that, if cutting was really necessary, the translators had chosen to spare us the "dazzling sunsets" and other scenic samplers that caused Yamazaki to sigh "What a spectacle!" from the "small window" of her plane. Many of the expurgated details, like extracts from Waka's family register and statistics on the women who sought refuge in her Tokyo halfway homes, may be no less boring but are certainly more relevant.

The translators have provided a lengthy introduction, apparently to accommodate readers who need reminding that Commodore Matthew Perry "demanded" commercial and diplomatic relations with Japan in 1853, and that Asians who emigrated to North America were often met with hostility. They also admit that "certain names [of informants] have been changed [in the English adaptation] out of consideration for the individuals concerned," but they fail to explain why anonymity should be assured in one language but not another. Nor do they give any clues as to what they cut or why.

The original was sentimentalised in a 1979 TV drama that took advantage of the "Roots boom" inspired by two showings (1977 and 1979) of a fully-dubbed Japanese edition of the dramatisation of Alex Haley's saga of a black American family. Roots aroused the latent curiosity that ethnic majorities in Japan have always had about the experiences of Yamato people in other countries, especially the US. Yamazaki's books have strongly appealed to the needs of stay-at-home majorities to vicariously suffer the hardships of their overseas compeers.