- Japan's Imperial Underworlds: Intimate Encounters at the Borders of Empire by David R. Ambaras
Nakamura Sueko, "pirate queen" of the Taiwan Strait in the late 1920s, is just one of the figures whose experiences at the frayed edges of Japan's empire make up the narrative framework of this impressive book. How Nakamura—a Hokkaido native—became a pirate after eloping to Fujian with her new husband and how the Japanese media chose to tell that story are fascinating developments in their own right; so too are David Ambaras's detailed accounts of other Japanese women who relocated to southeastern China after marriages to Fujianese men, of children trafficked both domestically and between Japan and the continent, and of the journalist Andō Sakan, whose often sensationalist articles and books alerted readers in the metropole to the vulnerabilities of the nation's ongoing imperial project. Historians have up to this point largely overlooked the people and practices that populate Japan's Imperial Underworlds, and one of this book's several interventions [End Page 487] is that it shows us how important both were to the shaping of the Japanese public's perception of the nation as still "fundamentally enmeshed in the networks of the Sinosphere" (p. 210) in the 1920s and 1930s.
The networks Ambaras is most interested in are ones that moved people between Japan and Indochina, Hainan Island, Taiwan, and, most prominently, communities in Fujian's Fuqing County. As he points out, it has been the more deliberate and explicit of Japan's imperial agendas in China that have tended to attract the most attention from scholars, which has in turn meant that settler colonialism and initiatives firmly under state control—in northeastern China particularly—loom largest in our analyses of the empire's parameters. By taking seriously discourses and mobilities that developed outside official structures, Ambaras shows how sites in southeastern China and Indochina were important touchstones for the public's understanding of Japan's connections to Asia. In a similar move, Japan's Imperial Underworlds concerns itself not only with the protagonists that typically populate studies of the edges of empire—adventurers, laborers, settlers, and sex workers—but also with trafficked children, with women like Nakamura Sueko who joined their husbands or lovers abroad, and with other Japanese nationals whose roles as intermediaries between Japan and the rest of Asia have been given little attention by historians.
To be clear, the book never suggests that the focus of prior scholarship on northeastern China or on empire's more familiar actors was misplaced. Rather, it shows that the more tangible expressions of imperial infrastructure the field has focused on to date existed alongside other less visible but still meaningful discursive and personal relationships, ones that by definition operated outside the channels most legible to the state. Chinese traders operating in Japan, and those from Fujian Province in particular, are at the nexus of many of these relationships. Like other non-Japanese in the late nineteenth century, these traders had a limited ability to travel and conduct business outside of Nagasaki or other treaty ports. In 1899, in the wake of treaty revisions that lifted some of the existing restrictions on the employment of foreigners, regulations enacted by the Japanese authorities to keep Chinese laborers out of the country included provisions that allowed Chinese peddlers in and permitted them to move about relatively freely. Traveling salesmen of cloth and other goods soon arrived in such numbers that they quickly became a "ubiquitous presence" throughout Japan. The book goes on to show how their activities created new forms of entanglement between the two countries. The expansion of Japan's longstanding child trafficking networks to include Chinese brokers and buyers is one such development, and the growth in the number of marriages (or other affective relationships) between Chinese men and Japanese women is another. Ambaras devotes a chapter to each phenomenon, and in both he shows how [End Page 488] different forms...