When I told my wife that was I going to Sandakan to look for a brothel I thought she might get upset. Luckily she had already seen me reading a dusty old book called Sandakan Brothel No.8 so she assumed, correctly, that I was just planning another one of my whacky historical travel quests.
This book (which has also been made into a film) shines a light into the largely forgotten world of the karayuki-san, poor rural Japanese women sold into overseas prostitution between the 1860s and the 1930s. During that period thousands of young Japanese women and girls were shipped off to Siberia, Korea, China and South East Asian towns like Rangoon, Singapore, Batavia and Sandakan.
The majority of these girls were from one tiny corner of Japan, the Amakusa Islands and Shimabara Peninsula district (not far from the city of Nagasaki) which was a particularly impoverished area at that time.
The author Yamazaki Tomoko, in the hope of finding someone with first hand knowledge of the times, travelled to Amakusa in 1968 and, by chance, she met and befriended a poor old woman named Osaki who used to work as a karayuki-san. Over the course of many months she earns the trust of Osaki and eventually gets her to tell her moving life story.
She was born around 1900 and her father died shortly after. Her mother struggled to feed three children and she remarried, to her brother-in-law. The mother,who was not a kind woman, moved in with her new husband and his six children and left her own children to fend for themselves. The eldest kid, Osaki’s brother, sold Osaki to a procurer for 300 Yen. Osaki was ten at the time but she was willing to go to earn money for her brother so that he could get married. She agreed to go to Sandakan provided her best friend went along too. Osaki’s older sister was also working in Rangoon. Although Osaki sent all her earnings to her older brother , he and the rest of her family (and even her son) rejected and shunned her when she returned to Japan due to the social stigma of her profession.
Osaki initially worked as a cleaner in the brothel on Lebuh Tiga in Sandakan until she turned 13 when she was forced to take customers.
There were 9 Japanese brothels on that street at that time and a further 15 Chinese brothels which seems a high number for such a small place.
Sandakan was completely destroyed in the War. Today Lebuh Tiga looks like this, a respectable street with no brothels anymore. Where Brothel No. 8 once stood is now Borneo Dispensary.
Osaki moved to Brothel No. 8 because it was, unusually, run by a woman and she treated her girls well. This elderly owner was called Kinoshita Okuni and known as “Okuni of Sandakan,” a famous and well respected personality of the town. Okuni had been the live-in-mistress of an Englishman in Yokohama but when he left Japan forever she moved to Sandakan and opened a general store and brothel.
Osaki said this about Okuni;
There are probably very few people alive today who know this, but Okuni had a Japanese graveyard built to pray for the souls of those Japanese who died in Sandakan. … It must have been when Okuni was several years past sixty, but she had gravestones ordered from Japan and built her own grave at the very top of the hill, in a place that had the best view. It was an impressive grave, so big and white. She planted bamboo grass, and there was even a gate that led to the site. If she hadn’t planned all along to turn to dirt in Sandakan, never to return to Amakusa, she wouldn’t have built such a fine grave.
By 1917 there were a hundred graves there, almost all women, presumably many karayuki-san among them dying from an unhealthy occupation in a disease ridden climate.
I wanted to see if I could find Okuni’s grave. At first I could not even locate the Japanese graveyard but eventually found this sign and I could recognise the characters for Nihonjin.
I think this must be the grave of Kinoshita Okuni but I could be wrong as my Kanji is so rusty these days.
Osaki worked for about seven years in the ‘flower and willow’ quarters of Sandakan before becoming the concubine (live-in-mistress) of an Englishman who worked with the Dalby Company in Sandakan. She stayed in his relatively palatial house for six years. He had a wife and children back in England. She called him Mister Home and said that he was carrying on with another married Englishwoman in Sandakan and he only kept Osaki so that this woman’s husband would not be suspicious. Mister Home would no doubt have been horrified to find all his dirty washing aired in a book but I guess he never found out.
If you can find a copy of this book, I would definitely recommend it.