The Tears of Sandakan’s Cemetery
As I wandered among the weathered tombstones shaped like stunted obelisks, I noticed the ages of death were mostly the early 20’s. A military cemetery? “No,” said my wife looking at a Kanji enscripted grave stone, “These names are all girls. They were are the karayuki, the prostitutes of the Meiji era sent to the ports of Asia.” Little did I suspect this emotional discovery would inspire chapter 1 of a book I didn’t know I would write one day. What would happen, I later asked, if a girl sold to a brothel escaped her fate?
Back in the early 90’s, my wife Tomoko and I lived in Taiwan. I managed a Disney licensee selling English Language materials featuring the Disney characters. While on vacation to near-by Koto Kinabalu in the Northern Borneo province of Sabah, Malaysia, we flew to Sandakan for a day visit to the orangutan preserve. Tomoko wanted to pay her respects at a near by Japanese cemetery. If she had told me the purpose of the cemetery, I had not listened carefully. A fault I still struggle to overcome.
Gnats buzzed around my ear canals and mosquitos feasted on my neck while we sweated up the hill to the tiny graveyard. I admit I wasn’t all that eager to visit the cemetery and the tropical heat gave rise to excuses I wish I had thought of earlier and let Tomoko do the honoring herself. I was not prepared for the date of death images that have stuck with me to this day. I still think of how each girl arrived needing to pay off the debt the procurer paid her parents. Did she dream of sending money home for five or ten years and returning? Or did she know once you entered the trade, you can’t go back? What were these girls last thoughts as they neared premature death?
Brothel madam Kuni Kinoshita originally from Amakusa, an island almost synonymous with karayuki a century ago, opened the hilly memorial in the 1890’s to pray for the souls of the girls who died there. She is buried on top of the hill overlooking the hundreds of women who sacrificed their lives for family and empire.
Surprisingly, the burial grounds, didn’t look as tattered as I anticipated given that no one had been interred there for three generations. Tomoko explained a feminist writer from Japan had heard about this cemetery and used her own funds to spruce it up. I understand from TripAdvisor updates that the cemetery has fallen back into dilapidated times.
That feminist was journalist Tomoko Yamazaki who in the early 70’s found a survivor of Sandakan 8, one 20 Japanese brothels each known by its number. In 1972, she wrote a best selling book, “Sandakan 8” based on her interview with the survivor. The karayuki sex trade had long been a taboo subject in Japan. Yamazaki’s book created a sensation by opening up the topic to lively debates. Two years later, Kei Mumai directed the movie version staring Kinuyo Tanaka.
Upon returning from our holiday, with the help of a new company called Amazon.com, I ordered the English translation of the book and the movie with English sub-titles. They are gut wrenchers.
The story of Saki Yamakawa (a pseudonym ) was typical of the era. Told that it was her patriotic duty, she was acquiescent when her poor parents sold her to an agent when she was ten years old to work as a maid in Sandakan. Upon puberty, she was forced to work in a brothel. A faithful girl to her family, she always sent money home. Karayuki earnings not only helped improvised parents, but after coal and silk was the most important source of foreign exchange, which explained, why Meiji government facilitated the trade.
Saki was lucky. She still had her health when she finally retired. Saki sailed home to live with her brother in the home she had bought for him and his wife.
Now the saddest part. Her brother refused her … after all he couldn’t have a prostitute living in his home could he?
The cemetery visit, the book, and movie were evocative moments in my life. But ones that would surely fade from memory as the years passed. But they didn’t.
It would be a decade before I began to write.
Picture Bride, the first volume of my trilogy, celebrating the Japanese Americans who fought in WWII, focuses on their mothers who arrived in Hawaii or the West Coast with anxiety, hope, and a picture of their husbands. The first question I had to ask was, who would be the novel’s heroin, my Scarlett O’Hara who overcomes all obstacles? Where would she come from?
Some where in this creative process, I wondered what would have happened, if among the tens of thousands of young girls sold overseas, one escaped her fate.
Haru was “born.”
What kind of environment shaped her young life? How would she escape it? To Where? How could she start a new life? What happens to her parents who sold her? What sort of woman would she grow to be? Those questions took me to the island of the karayuki … Amakusa, forty miles south of Nagasaki.
And that’s the story of the next article.