Friday, January 29, 2016

Don’t Judge a Book by its Cover

"Eeeyuck!" My visitor's disapproval was obvious when he noticed the title of the book I was reading. He had immediately assumed that I was reading smut—which I could if I wanted to. So what?

The book is actually a historical study about how girls from desperately poor Japanese families ended up working as prostitutes outside Japan.

Karayuki-san... girls who went to work abroad...  some as young as 10-year-olds. Some, like Osaki, willingly left their villages to earn a living so they could help support their impoverished families as well as feed themselves. Growing food on infertile soil was bad enough without the exorbitant land tax to add to their woe. For many families, selling a daughter must have been an easy choice to make.

Besides the young girls sold by their families to procurers, there were also girls who were deceived or simply abducted and put as stowaways in ships: hidden in the coal store, in empty water tanks and such. Some were 'lucky' to reach their destinations alive. Some, forgotten in the bowels of the ships they were hidden, died of starvation or accidents. Some killed themselves by jumping into the sea.

The name 'Sandakan' in the title caught my attention. But this book is more than the story of one brothel in Sandakan. It is a study on prostitution involving young, illiterate, Japanese girls lured to work abroad... in SE Asia, China, Manchuria from around 1900... until they became a national shame and were shipped home to Japan where they were left to their own devices without any support from the government (whose economy they had helped to prop up) and shunned by the families they had supported with their earnings. 

Except for the rare few who were fortunate to have been married to wealthy foreigners, most of these former prostitutes, on their return to Japan, lived in poverty. Many must have endured terrible suffering from some sexually transmitted diseases they had contracted while they were working. 

I can't help but feel sorry for these Japanese girls. And for other girls who are so poor that all they have to offer are their bodies to willing 'renters'. 

It is easy for us to judge and to say that there are other ways to earn a living. But how many are willing to support, to educate and to give these unfortunate girls a chance? We see pictures of them in the papers—taken during surprise raids on night spots in the city—their heads bowed, their hair falling over and hiding their faces. Why don’t we feel empathy? Why don’t we sympathize? Is it because we feel we are superior to them?

Maybe instead of saying 'Eeeyuck!' we could put ourselves in the shoes of these girls and try to feel some compassion for them. 


  1. hello madam,
    where can i get the book?

  2. So sorry I just saw your message, kukuanga... A friend got the book for me. Online, probably Amazon. Hope you get this message.
    Apparently, a number of (Japanese) people went all the way to Sandakan to look for graves of these girls after reading the book.