Saturday, April 24, 1999

Sandakan Brothel No. 8

The world of education carries with it a delicious secret. Those really hooked on teaching know that there are times when you say to yourself, “And they actually pay me to do this?” I remember when I first discovered that while some people labor for their bread and butter, whatever labor is involved in my job is more than compensated for by my being able to engage with people who love ideas. Not always. Not even every day. But much of the time.

Shortly after the start of the school year in 1999, a student came to my office and handed me a book. “Here, read this,” he said. “And then tell me what you think of it.” And he walked out.

So I did. Here’s is my response. The book was the story of a Japanese woman forced into prostitution by poverty. Stories like this are worth telling, I think, doubly so in a place like Japan where shame, which suggests otherwise, plays such an overpowering role at times.

The review is analytical, and is more a chance to put some issues on the table with a student who will not simply leave them there,than it is a serious book review. It is not really meant for public consumption. But if you stumble across it, I hope that you will pick it up. And that you will let me know you did.

1007-8 Higashi Koiso
Oiso-machi, Naka-gun
Kanagawa-ken, Japan 255-0004

April 24, 1999

Dear Tomomi:

First of all, I want to thank you for putting that book by Yamazaki Tomoko into my hands. I spent the day yesterday reading it. As I told you, I was going to read it during Golden Week, but then when you came to my office the other day, it reminded me of it and I actually got to it earlier.

It’s the kind of book you can’t put down after you start reading. I understand why it excited you that way it did.

You wanted my comments. Let me see if I can give them to you in some kind of organized fashion. I read the book on several levels at once: as an (amateur) anthropologist, and as a person interested in women’s issues, issues of class, and the sociology of knowledge—that is, how people (governments, publishing companies, academic cliques, and other groups) control information. Let me take them up one at a time, knowing that these ways of looking at the book will overlap.

1. Anthropology

The book, Sandakan Brothel No. 8 is wonderful anthropology. Some people will disagree with me strongly, because it fails to follow some important guidelines to what makes good ethnography. Ethnography (the “writing down of the ways of life of “other” people by anthropologists) is a methodology for getting at information which reflects the experience and wisdom of the community of anthropologists which thinks in terms of long-term rather than short term gains. Guidelines for good ethnography contain both ethical standards and beliefs about how one separates what is true from what is false. These include:

a. attempting to get at the “other’s” world view through his/her own eyes, and not evaluating one’s findings in terms of the anthropologist’s own cultural values;
b. keeping the identity of the people being studied secret, so that they will not be hurt by prying eyes or outsider criticism;
c. representing yourself honestly; and
d. leaving the ‘culture’ being investigated as you find it.

This study breaks all those rules. Yamazaki starts out with some very strong opinions, which reflect her own cultural values. These include:

a. poverty and illiteracy are causes of misery;
b. prostitution is shameful and degrading;
c. it is important to expose wrong in order to make it right; and
d. sex with foreigners is more degrading than sex with Japanese, and the darker the skin, the more degrading it is.

Furthermore, she breaks the rule of honesty. She

a. doesn’t reveal her identity as a researcher to her subject, Osaki, and actually participates in the deception that she is her daughter-in-law to the rest of Osaki’s community, and she
b. steals photographs which she knows will enhance her study.

Immediately, I can hear some people say, “But this is an unduly strict interpretation of the rules. The reason behind those rules is to prevent harm from coming to the people being studied, and it is clear, if Yamazaki’s conclusions and the facts given in the Afterword are accurate, that her deceptions were, in the end, for the greater good of all involved. Yamazaki, in other words, may have bent the rules, but in the end her heart was in the right place, and we must not forget that it appears to have turned out her decision to bend those rules was justified. How you judge her actions depends on whether you believe one should be judged in terms of how one plays by the rules or how well things turn out.

In this case, at least, I find myself coming down on the side of utilitarian ethics – “all’s well that end’s well.” The reason for this is that I believe there are other issues at stake. Which brings me to the second perspective:

2. Women’s Studies

The context for this study is Japan. The fact that it took twenty years to appear in an English-language version means it was intended primarily for a Japanese audience. Feminist movement in Japan has to face Yamazaki’s charge that it has tended to be taken over by middle-class women writing with middle-class blinders on, which leads them to overlook the lives of many, possibly even the majority of, Japanese women. “Mainstream” feminist studies of the lives of Japanese women (I’m thinking of Keio professor Iwao Sumiko’s book The Japanese Woman, for example) generally conclude that, as bad as things get, Japanese women are not as bad off as women elsewhere because:

a. they control the family budget;
b. women don’t have the work stress that men have; and
c. they control the culture through their responsibility for children’s education

Another book in this genre is Ogasawara Yuko’s Office Ladies and Salaried Men. It documents example after example of abuse of women by men, and still manages to come to the conclusion that women have power over men because they can manipulate and humiliate them.

Yamazaki’s study of Osaki and other women of Amakusa sold into prostitution as young girls, unlike Iwao’s and Ogasawara’s studies, understands the larger context in which women’s lives are lived. It is refreshing, after reading so many tunnel-visioned studies of middle-class women claiming to tell the Japanese woman’s story, to find somebody who understands how easy it is for those who control the presses, school curricula, and government funds by dint of their position as members of the “mainstream” (i.e., power-structure) institutions to lay false claim to universality, and to make sure we have a more complete picture.

3. Class and gender conflict

Japanese suffer from the same malady that Americans suffer from – an unwillingness or inability to appreciate the significance of class conflict. The reason may be the long struggle within these two societies against communism and the belief that any argument using class struggle as a framework suggests marxist, and by association, communist sympathies, and are not to be taken seriously. But Yamazaki lays the blame for the bitter poverty of Amakusa on a distant central government which, at times by conscious design, at times by bureaucratic insensitivity, not only does nothing to alleviate the misery of outlying rural poverty, but actually fosters it. The kind of misery about which she speaks happens to specific kinds of people: women, not men; rural not urban people, followers of governmental policy, not its designers. To say the problem is one of chance, that the victims of poverty were simply unfortunate to have been born in this time and place, is to miss the whole point that there were, and still are, many who benefit from their condition.

4. Power and Knowledge

Yamazaki’s story is not simply the story of one woman’s life of abuse; it is simultaneously the story of how difficult it is to tell such stories. First of all, publishers are afraid the public will not read about misery. Let’s grant that they may be right, in most cases. Secondly, such stories carry with them the internalized shame of the victims themselves. Part of Yamazaki’s difficulty, and the chief reason it took her many years to get the story to press, is that she tried to maintain the rules of professional ethics. Here it is the profession itself which maintains the silence and prevents the story from being told and therefore any chance of restitution. In the end, most of us wouldn’t have it any other way, and we are grateful that it was Osaki herself, finally, who pressed for publication. Added to this, one must wonder how much easier it must have been for Keio professor Iwao Sumiko to have her views on the Japanese woman published, when, unlike Yamazaki, who had to carry her story from publisher to publisher, professors from prestige universities are routinely approached by publishers who solicit their work for publication.

5. Story-telling

I read the book in a single sitting (all day sitting, to be sure, but all in a single day) because I couldn’t put it down. I think there is no way to separate good anthropology from good story telling. Part of our knowledge comes from our own experience, and part from those we find to teach us. When we find people (or they find us) who know how to capture and hold our interest while we learn from them, we are lucky indeed, and that is true whether our teachers are social scientists, writers of poetry and fiction, or our elders simply sharing their life stories over the dinner table. I love a good story, and Yamazaki tells a good story. So much so, that when I find myself talking about the book, I withhold the ending.

Finally, let me add some personal remarks. I am not Japanese, and although I have lived in Japan for many years, I remain an outsider here. I no longer find Japan exotic or mysterious, or even unfamiliar, but I do note that sometimes things still strike me as curious and quaint. Yamazaki writes with a naivete that I would find unattractive in many, but I find it appealing in her. I can’t tell you why, exactly, but part of the reason, I suspect, is that I have always found curious the arbitrariness with which some people seem to find themselves engaged in things. I expect to hear carefully constructed reasons why people become doctors, or why they start collecting stamps or watching birds or insects. In Japan, I tend to hear simply, “I decided to dedicate my life to telling the story of this woman.” In Yamazaki’s case, this dedication is a magnificent obsession, and the cynics of the world and all those who complain “is this all there is?” can only envy her passion. I certainly do.

Yamazaki’s frequent reference to the shame of sleeping with “native men” and men of color surprised me. Such racial reference is taboo in Western countries – we pretend it isn’t there – and the openness of such racial consciousness is another reason I find Yamazaki’s telling refreshing, not because it is good, but because it is honest.

The whole story of the need for Japan to match the power and might of the West, out of a sense of ambition or out of a fear of becoming colonized, is encapsulated in the story of Osaki, Oshimo, Ofumi and the other karayuki-san who went abroad and sold their flesh to raise revenues for the home country. Pakistanis sell their labor in Saudi Arabia, Mexican farm laborers in the United States, and there are whole economies dependent on the income from their citizens working in miserable jobs abroad. In this sense, the karayuki-san are not unique. But this is the story of female children taken against their will to do this work, and, as Yamazaki relates so well, the psychological devastation of this lack of control commonly leads to the destruction not only of the bodies of the women involved, but of their souls as well.

Of all the horrors of Osaki’s life, nothing about her sexual servitude touched me as much as the description of Osaki’s life in the present. She lives only short distances (in our terms) from those whom she would give anything to see, but knows nothing of motion sickness medicine which would enable her to travel ten kilometers to see a friend who, when she finally makes the trip, turns out to have been dead for three years. She eats next to nothing because her son, Yuji, is too intimidated by the shame her mother might bring into his life if he were to take her in, and too insensitive to check to see how she is actually living on the money he sends her. The government agencies are unable to get round the fact that since her birth certificate is off by ten years she is unable to take advantage of the social welfare programs for destitute old people in place. And on and on the story goes of how Osaki’s early enslavement, which prevented schooling and the inculcation of a sense of dignity and right to lay claims on what others take for granted as civil and human rights, continues to keep this woman in a life of deprivation and misery.

I now have to find the film made of Osaki’s life. I wonder if they were able to tell the story without becoming patronizing. I wonder if the publicity of the book and the movie have moved governmental agencies, or individuals to act without them to seek out others living in such conditions in Japan as Osaki. I wonder what effect this story of poverty and neglect has had on the general consciousness of the nation about the meaning of a just society.

As you can see, the book was an important experience for me. Let me thank you once again for putting it into my hands.

Yours sincerely,

Alan J. McCornick