- Japanese Prostitutes in the North American West, 1887–1920 by Kazuhiro Oharazeki
Japanese Prostitutes in the North American West, 1887–1920 is an informative trans-national study on the evolution of Japanese communities in the Pacific Northwest. Clearly written and well organized, the book will appeal to students and scholars interested in late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Japanese American history and Asian American women’s history.
The strength of this work lies in the extensive archival research undertaken by Kazuhiro Oharazeki across three countries (Canada, Japan, and the United States). Oharazeki pieces together a detailed mosaic following the movement of young women from their native places to nearby cities or ports to find work, the trans-Pacific journeys arranged for them by procurers, and the lives they led working in the brothels and bars catering to transient migrant laborers at work camps or local ethnic communities in the major cities of the Pacific Northwest. Of particular merit is Oharazeki’s ability to reconstruct—from fragments of information gleaned from Canadian and US police files, divorce court records, census data, and Japanese consular reports—the experience of this group of women both in Japan and the North American West. Oharazeki’s dedication and adroitness in the archives will be a hard act to follow.
Oharazeki’s study is heavily influenced by Yamazaki Tomoko, who ascribed to females who became overseas sex workers “the collective expression” of Japanese [End Page 123] women “repressed under the double yoke of sex and class” in her prize-winning non-fiction work Sandakan hachiban shōkan (Chikuma Shobō, 1972; p. 8). First, Oharazeki shares Yamazaki’s position that young Japanese women were prostituted by others abroad primarily because of the feudal remnants of patriarchy and tradition/custom. Second, he, too, is interested in the lived experiences of the women and is keen to understand the psychological motives that drove them into lives as overseas sex workers. Third, he shares Yamazaki’s starting point that overseas Japanese prostitutes were from “historically marginalized groups” who “continued to suffer prejudice” during the Meiji era and took to prostitution because they had “limited options for survival” (p. 203). Indeed, one of his boldest claims is that overseas Japanese prostitutes in the Pacific Northwest and their procurers came predominantly from outcaste communities (eta). Oharazeki considers overseas migration to have offered the women and men from this social class respite from the poverty and prejudice that shaped their daily lives in Japan.
In terms of methodology, Oharazeki, again following Yamazaki’s example, places great stress on generic modes of oppression—patriarchy, capitalism, race—as the causes behind overseas Japanese prostitution. Using case studies mined from the archives, Oharazeki presents detailed vignettes of the oppression and racial prejudice that the women faced. To his credit, however, he eschews reducing their lives to victimization or violence. He devotes a whole chapter to investigating how Japanese women in the Pacific Northwest utilized the Canadian and US legal systems to either divorce husbands who kept them in prostitution or invalidate indenture contracts drawn up in Japan.
Unfortunately, the strengths of Japanese Prostitutes in the North American West are also its weakness. Following Yamazaki’s cues, Oharazeki sees the prostitutes as losers “who failed to adjust to the new economic order” (p. 54) and as “deviant women” who do not fit “into the standard narrative of Japanese immigration history” (pp. 6–7). To Oharazeki, the sex work the women did was both illegal and a form of social deviance. The connotation of criminality that the words “overseas Japanese prostitute” carry in Oharazeki’s account, and the force by which they mark select migrant women as miscreant, work to reinforce social difference via processes of socialization that invest heavily in status and stability. For this reviewer, at least, the sting to the narrative of disenfranchised Japanese women who ended up selling their bodies in the Pacific Northwest is that they were chastised for their enforced transformation into prostitutes and treated as voluntary criminals by North American and Japanese authorities. The question to...