Women as Commodity: Karayuki and Japayuki

Karayuki-san were Japanese women who travelled to East Asia and Southeast Asia in the second half of 19th century to work as prostitutes (sex workers). . . . . . The word Japayuki-san is created in 1970s by Tetsuo Yamatani (山谷哲夫) who is documentary movie director, but now everyone don’t call like that. Japayuki-san is women from the Philippines, Thailand and so on come to Japan to work as prostitutes.”

from: Tomotaka Isono article on Japansociology blogsite: https://japansociology.com/2012/05/13/karayuki-san-and-japayuki-san/

A wonderful and thought-provoking theatre play by Roda Vera, entitled Fly Me to the Moon, is showing around the United States at the present. It moves in time-warp between a traditional kimono-clad karayuki-san sent from Japan to the Philippines, Singapore, and/or Malaysia who meets on board a ship, with a modern-day transgender Filipina, a Japayuki, going to Japan. Both are going to their respective works. Both, have a love for a far-away lover. It is a fantastic piece that tells the larger story. Japayuki is a modern term coined in 1971, to refer to Southeast Asian and other non-Asian women coming to Japan to become sex workers.

A group of karayuki-san photographed in Singapore.


In discussions on prostitution in Asia, the discussions usually point to “immorality” and so-called Red Light Districts in Asian cities, or the issue of the Comfort Women of Japan. The tension between women’s rights, human rights, sex workers’ rights, human-trafficking policies and moralities, and LGBTQ rights within the framework of individual moralities of state workers, tourist privilege, the police, military personnel, and nation-state official policies, is immense and ongoing. It seems, since the beginning of human society, the smaller and frailer bodies were most often used as objects of sexual and violent pleasures. In the market-economy of the world and its desires for peace, the buying, selling and trafficking of women, gay boys, and transgender people are integral to many nation-states’ entire economies. This cannot be realized lightly. In these issues, women’s rights seems to be the most pronounced because it is more “allowed” in national and global dialogue.

Korean women commemorating the memory of Comfort Women

“Comfort Women” who were women who were either forcibly or indirectly forcibly (out of patriarchal economic-political and caste imperatives) sent to Japanese military outposts during World War II to entertain and sexually pleasure (“comfort”) Japanese soldiers, is a huge topic and getting very much-needed airplay and discussion. Korean, Filipino, Vietnamese, Taiwanese, Indonesian, Dutch, Chinese, and other women were taken in the Japanese “Comfort” system. Since much of this is particularized to become almost “anti-Japanese” in its approach to demanding redress and justice, the linking together of histories and people across Asia has become more strained as of late. In the rush to address grievances and to heal, the long history of the use of bodies has been fractured and made to be at war with each of the different populations who experienced similar circumstances and disempowerment, as well as the blinding of the prioritizing “victim-hood” over the more complex issues of economic savior—by the women who became breadwinners of their families, even as they were vilified as unclean and impure to societies’ constructed hierarchies of morality. In Asia, all of the colonization by the British, French, German, and Dutch; in all of the military occupation by the United States, were not done in a sexual vacuum. Girls, women, boys, and men, were used by the western military. In the Occupation of Japan, although there were Japanese government-sponsored Comfort Stations that were eventually banned, the industry continued in other ways, not lessening the use of the bodies of “the other.” The United States, even now, especially, tends to publicize its “high moralities” regarding sex and the dirtyness of it, but makes use of prostitutes quite liberally in Asia and elsewhere, especially around the military bases.

A blogger recently commented on a lecture by Ambeth Ocampo entitled Before the Japayuki: Japan in Philippine History  speaks refreshingly about how the lecture openned the blogger’s mind to the link between history and the present, and how it is continued and travels, even from events and conditions that are “forgotten” (more likely repressed, refused, and denied) such as the realities of living in the prostitution districts of the Philippines. The links between the names of certain enjoyable foods, the author mentions, and the karayuki-san’s memory, is poignant and makes the world timeless, as it is. Our moralities and forgetting make us repeat, and makes the world small.

For an excellent short article on the famous Yoshiwara district of the 1600s in Japan, for “entertainment,” see: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4862280/Japanese-sex-workers-held-cages-enslaved.html 

For a nice readable post on the Karayuki-san by Edmund Yeo, go here: http://www.edmundyeo.com/2011/10/karayuki-san-forgotten-japanese.html    

US soldiers partake in Japanese women at the sponsored Comfort Station Yasuura House, during the Occupation of Japan.

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