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Reviewed by:
  • Japanese Prostitutes in the North American West, 1887–1920 by Kazuhiro Oharazeki
  • Patricia E. Roy
Japanese Prostitutes in the North American West, 1887–1920. By Kazuhiro Oharazeki ( Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2016. xii plus 292 pp.).

In an imaginatively conceived book, Kazuhiro Oharazeki examines prostitution to make a valuable contribution to transnational studies that deal with Japan, the United States, and Canada. He argues convincingly that "Japanese prostitution was an indispensable part of Meiji Japan's modernization, the growth of transpacific Japanese labor migration, and the development of Japanese ethnic community and gender systems in North America" (12). He considers social reform movements, race and class, and, of course, the key components of immigration studies, "push" and "pull." His work challenges a narrative that portrays a smooth transition from the "frontier" to "settlement" eras in North America.

Oharazeki begins by sketching how problems accompanying the Meiji Restoration of the late nineteenth century encouraged young women living in farming and fishing villages around major ports to leave their homes. These emigrants went overseas in order to contribute to their families' economies and, if the family owned land, to retain it and thereby preserve their social status. Some families simply traded daughters for cash. In other cases, procurers returning from North America ostentatiously displaying wealth lured women with promises to transcend poverty and acquire status, respectability, and for some, an education or marriage. Few women expected to work in the sex trade despite being smuggled into North America. Their passages might include posing as the wife of the procurer, using another woman's passport, bribing immigration officers, or entering the United States by crossing the porous border from Canada which, for a time, offered easier entry.

Racial and class prejudice operated within the sex trade. Prostitutes experienced the same discrimination as other Japanese in North America. They suffered similar accusations of "disease" and "immorality" as their Chinese counterparts and, like the Chinese, were more frequently arrested and charged higher fines than white prostitutes and brothel keepers. Japanese prostitutes also faced discrimination from fellow Japanese especially if they had non-Japanese clients.

While female prostitutes are the focus of Oharazeki's analysis, he does not ignore men. He shows that Japanese men of all social classes escaped the discrimination and loneliness they experienced in North America by frequenting bar-restaurants where they were "treated like 'men'" (112). The barmaids, often married women whose husbands did not support them or were pimps, served food and drink and provided music, dancing, and conversation and, in some cases, sexual services. The lives of transient single men, Oharazeki asserts, illustrate "the gendered and class features of racial formations and help reconceptualize mobility and transience as major issues in Asian American history" (114).

Prostitution had a long history in Japan, where it was licensed. On both sides of the Pacific Ocean, Oharazeki argues that prostitutes suffered economic and sexual exploitation and their responses are "best understood as their quest for freedom from oppression" rather than as an acceptance of prostitution as legitimate work for poor women (156). Because Japan regarded contracts between [End Page 635] prostitutes and their employers as legally binding, women without the means to buy their way out of the contract found it difficult to leave the trade. Yet, living in communal houses facilitated organizing, even striking, to secure better working conditions. In North America, where prostitution was illegal, prostitutes did not usually live communally. Individually, they could seek, though not necessarily receive, official help in escaping their masters. Divorce, and possibly remarriage, offered a legal escape, but not from the stigma of having been a prostitute (166). Protestant rescue homes were also a way out of the sex trade although few women stayed long in them. Using such facilities, however, did not mean assimilating into the dominant culture.

As the community became a settled rather than transient population in North America, the Japanese concept of riōsai kenbo (good mothers and wise wives) came to the fore. The mainstream Japanese community, led by consular officials, wanting to convey an impression of the "fine moral and civic qualities" of Japan and its people, sought to exclude prostitutes and prevent "virtuous women" from...


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