Amakusa – The Island of the Karayuki
More than a decade passed after my visit to Sandakan’s karayuki cemetery when I decided to write a novel honoring the American-Japanese soldiers of the 442/100. While conducting the research on their fighting exploits, I started to think, “Their story didn’t start with Pearl Harbor. Didn’t these young men have mothers?”
But what mother? Whoever it was must reveal life in the impoverished Meiji era that drove migration. That’s when the memory of my Sandakan visit triggered the birth of Haru. No place better represents the consequences of Meiji’s rural poverty than Amakusa off the coast of northern Kyushu.
Today, Amakusa is a charming hot springs resort island. My wife, Tomoko found us a ryokan where I could exhibit my multi-tasking resourcefulness by re-reading Sandakan 8 in our outdoor hot springs bath graced with lush greenery. We relaxed in our yukata robes while eating the chef’s choice kaiseki dinner in our room followed by a shiatsu massage — just the preparation needed to energize my muse’s powers to create Haru’s home where we meet her at age thirteen in 1905. A date chosen for this history laden novel because this was when Japan suddenly attacked Russia foretelling another attack thirty-five years later when Picture Bride ends.
The next morning, while hiking up Amakusa’s tallest breathtaking mountain trail, I thought of how the gods must have been in a sour mood the day they created Amakusa. Where would a farmer plant rice on this rugged topography? Atop the peak, I watched water crash against the rocky coast while chapter one precipice scenes danced in my imagination. Turning around, I could see the majesty of Mt Unzen only smoldering that day, but I envisioned the havoc its acid ash caused to Amakusa’s soil when it irrupted intermittently.
But with all that water, surely islanders could support themselves fishing. Not so I learned. Those treacherous currents push the fish beyond the reach of fisherman of that era.
Next stop – the museum housing Japan’s first printing press. Fortune seem to smile on the Amakusa islands when in 1566 they adopted Christianity in the wake of their local lord’s baptism. The Portuguese not only brought the printing press and trade but the sweet potato, a plant that tolerated Amakusa’s challenging terrain. At the end of 16th century, Japan’s warring period was coming to an end. Lord Nobunaga welcomed Amakusa’s Christian soldiers into his army that unified Japan. Nobunaga became Japan’s first Shogun. Amakusa had backed a winner.
Amakusa’s single generation of prosperity came to a crashing halt in 1600 when their Christian samurai backed the wrong horse in the Battle of Sekigahara that established the Tokugawa shogunate. Amakusa’s daimyo was executed. His replacement imposed onerous taxes. When his chief tax collector begged the lord to ease the tax burden he was ordered to commit seppuku. His successor was more diligent. So diligent, that by the mid 1630’s, a famine fomented rebellion. Stepped up enforcement on the ban of Christianity fueled the flames.
As I stared at the statue of Shiro Amakusa, Amakusa’s sixteen year old Joan of Arc styled rebel, worshiped as “heaven’s messenger” by desperate Amakusans, an “ah-ha” moment revealed how his rebellion impacted Haru. This messianic leader gathered a peasant army of 25,000 and vanquished his lord’s professional army. But not for long. The third shogun, Iemitsu Tokugawa, dispatched 125,000 reinforcements. On April 12, 1638, his soldiers stormed the Hara castle in near-by Shimabara and beheaded 37,000 soldiers and civilians.
The depopulated Amakusa islands became the dumping ground for prisoners and other undesirables. (The population doubled four times over the next century!) The too high taxes assessed in too many rice bags from too many peasants sub-dividing their too small plots to too many sons on unforgiving terrain created the environment for the karayuki phenomenon. Surplus sons might be able look for work on the mainland. But the daughters? During the Tokugawa era of Shunga erotic art and the plethora of bath houses, tea houses, and “Pillow geisha” emporiums of red doors supporting legal prostitution, what choices did these surplus girls have? Their parents have?
Karayuki originally meant going to China. When by the mid-nineteenth century, the Tokugawa Bakafu eased travel restrictions, Amakusans traveled to China to work as laborers or maids. For the women, servant work often evolved into mistresses or prostitution. When the Meiji restoration removed all travel restrictions, the karayuki became prized additions to Asia’s ports. Soon, the Japanese government noticed the hard currency the girls sent back to their parents. The parents converted the remittances to yen bequeathing Japan with the foreign exchange to build their military.
Yukichi Fukuzaki, the face of the 10,000 yen note because of his role in the modernization of feudal Japan, is quoted thus, “Japanese women who want to become prostitutes should go abroad and earn money” After introducing a former karayuki-san who built a home after coming back from abroad, he added, “It is necessary to officially approve their overseas migration to enhance the country’s economy.”
Tomoko and my dinner conversation was more subdued that evening discussing the parents’ dilemma and their daughters’ loyalty to family and country.
The next morning, on to the Gion Bashi. Having read about Japan’s largerst stone bridge built in 1832, I thought the bridge’s town might be Haru’s childhood home. On arrival at the village of Funanoo-machi, I took in the palisades of two story buildings hugging the trickling Machiyamaguchi Kawa. There was the stone bridge!
A transformational vision appeared. I “saw” a famished 13 year old Haru trying to resign herself to the fate her impoverished father has imposed. Once on the bridge, I looked up at the second story of the local temple and the scenario of how Haru escapes her fate appeared.
My trip was finished. Time to write that first chapter.