If I could send letters to the dead, the Japanese Cemetery Park at 825B Chuan Hoe Avenue, Singapore 549853 would be the address my correspondence could be posted for the karayuki-san buried in Singapore. They were women who lived as prostitutes, mostly forced to work in the flesh trade. Many were sold from Japan as young girls throughout Southeast Asia, Siberia, Hawaii, Australia and parts of India from the late 19th century.
It took me forty years to discover this little known part of the history of my country and Japan’s, through the book ‘Ah Ku and Karayuki-san: Prostitution in Singapore, 1870-1940’ by James Francis Warren. Over 1,000 karayuki-san are believed to have worked in Singapore from the 1900s, many of whom died under unspeakable conditions. Out of the 910 graves in the park, at least a third belong to karayuki-san.
Unable to pay my respects to the karayuki-san because their tombs are nameless for reasons that I may never fully understand, I wrote a poem to honour the story of the women who had gone overseas, inspired by the true story of three karayuki-san as told in the aforementioned book by James Francis Warren: amaksan Otama, her close friend Ohatsu and okasan (mamasan) Osatsu.
Deeply unhappy and lonely over the three years after her friend Ohatsu had died, Otama, aged 21, cut her throat with a razor about three times on 5 June, 1900. Months later, Osatsu who witnessed the public suicide of her amaksan Otama, went insane and killed herself .
I taught you at eight,
to call me haha,
to tell each and every stranger
that I was your mother.
You hobbled off the ship,
up the gangway to the end of the dock,
the sleeves of your yukata black with coal,
your cheeks grey with ash and tears.
I wanted to tell you, don’t cry.
I am your new family now. Don’t cry.
This is Shinkinzan, the new gold mine.
Here, your onesan will teach all you need to know to keep the table full for your old family.
Didn’t you know? We are born outsiders. No one cares who you are and where you go. Remember the baby girls in winter left by the roadside; a coin
tucked into their folds for passers-by?
Remember and don’t cry.
The melon gruel they call flower soup? Those few grains floating in rice water?
Remember and don’t cry.
From today, you will not have to carry your stomach full of air.
You will sleep and wake
with more than plain water to sip,
the neck of a sweet potato to eat.
Here, you can have rice three times a day, fish everyday! Isn’t that good?
When I saw your flat nose, I told myself: 2,000 yen to give life to a girl
is not without happiness. A small happiness. I am your only guarantee of a future.
You belong to me now. You are my guarantee of a future.
Some call us fallen women but not you, the brightest blossom in our suteretsu.
Other daughters were sold to white men but no, not you.
When our doctor pronounced you sick, I never had you work,
even when Imperial ships came to port. I tied on my plum kimono
and went in your place. Remember that.
There is a saying here in Nanyo that cities are made by people.
But what is a city where our people won’t name us patriots?
I will sing you this song:
“Lovers” chatter is like the dust of any country.
Oh, where will be her grave?”
Otama, I am sorry to bury you without your name.
that I beat you when you turned 13 to make you entertain.
Now, you alone can choose who comes into your home.
But do not invite me. I will come home on my own.
And brightest blossom, you will have new life soon.