Facts About Karayuki-San, The Japanese Sex Workers Trafficked To The Rest Of The World

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Japanese women from impoverished rural communities became a new international workforce called the karayuki-sanKarayuki-san were sex workers positioned throughout Asia using an exploitative system of human trafficking.

Like in some countries today, sex work was a legal profession throughout Southeast Asia. The karayuki-san helped bring Japanese culture and goods to the rest of Asia and established the red light district in Singapore. These sex workers were sent to Australia, throughout Southeast Asia, and into the hands of European imperialists in the region. 

  • The Distribution Of Karayuki-San Was An International Business Enterprise
    Photo: Kusakabe Kimbei / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Distribution Of Karayuki-San Was An International Business Enterprise

    Starting in 1877 in two brothels in colonial Singapore, Japanese sex workers known as karayuki-san - translated literally as "going to China" or "going to a foreign land" - were hired primarily from peasant families in the Nagasaki region. "Flesh brokers" sold or coerced these women into service and trafficked them throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The two establishments in the 1870s started with as few as 14 workers, but those establishments grew into Singapore's red light district in the following decades.

    As Japan expanded its imperial interests and grew its economy, the state became aware of the importance of sex work in establishing political relations with Europe's colonial powers. Throughout Southeast Asia, men were imported from across Europe's colonial empires, and Japanese merchants brought karayuki-san to China and Southeast Asia to satisfy the needs of those men.

  • The Women Weren't Told They Would Be Sex Workers

    Mediators negotiated with poor rural families to recruit girls for relocation overseas. They were told they would have opportunities to make money, but not that they were being sold as sex workers. Some girls and women went on their own, without their family's involvement. The mediators would then find a ship captain willing to take the women. Once they arrived at the destination, the mediator would sell them for between ¥20-300.

    The young women were exploited; they were charged hefty fees to be taken abroad, which they were required to pay back. In one case, a girl from Nagasaki named Usa was brought to Thursday Island, a small island off the northern coast of Australia. There, she made an agreement with the brothel-keeper to use a large portion of her earnings to pay for her transportation - considerably more than the cost of a regular ticket between Japan and Thursday Island.

  • Many Karayuki-San Perished Traveling Overseas
    Photo: Torii Kiyonaga / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Many Karayuki-San Perished Traveling Overseas

    There were many hazards for karayuki-san. Mediators and ship captains often forced the women to stow away in small, compact areas of a ship to smuggle them into ports. The cramped quarters proved hazardous: one ship carrying women and men from Japan to Hong Kong began with 12 stowaways, but by the time they reached port in Hong Kong, eight had passed. The four who survived nearly suffocated and arrived in critical condition.

    Women who were told to hide in coal reserves could be crushed or burned by coals spontaneously combusting. Others starved or perished due to dehydration. On one ship, traveling between Nagasaki and Hong Kong, nine women and two men were scalded when a boiler burst.

  • Brothels Told Many Karayuki-San That They Were A Part Of Japan's War Effort
    Photo: Yoshitoshi / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Brothels Told Many Karayuki-San That They Were A Part Of Japan's War Effort

    In the late 19th century, Japan went through the Meiji Restoration, which modernized economic, social, and political policy throughout Japan. One of the most important effects was its introduction of Japan on the global stage as an expansionist power.

    Before World War I, Japan entered two conflicts to aid their new imperial policy. During the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895, Japan challenged Chinese supremacy over the Korean Peninsula; a decade later, Japan fought the Russian Empire in the Russo-Japanese War to prevent further European expansion into East Asia. Japan won both, cemented a reputation as a developed global power, and inspired a militaristic national pride.

    Everyone was encouraged to be a part of the national effort, including the women who went to work as karayuki-san. Brothel owners used the nation's newfound patriotism to persuade the women they served as a female army, contributing on behalf of their country. 

  • By 1910, There Were Thousands Of Japanese Sex Workers Overseas
    Photo: Kusakabe Kimbei / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    By 1910, There Were Thousands Of Japanese Sex Workers Overseas

    The number of karayuki-san overseas expanded quickly. Though there were only 14 in Singapore in 1877, by 1910, an estimated 20,000 registered Japanese sex workers were working outside Japan. Ships sailed from port to port, selling women in Kuala Lumpur, Malaya, and Java. 

    Within the Malay Peninsula, around 90% of all Caucasian men had an Asian concubine, and many are assumed to have been Japanese. In most cases, karayuki-san were popular with Caucasian men; as compared to Malay and Indonesian concubines, karayuki-san were able to leave their employer's service "when the white men wanted to take wives from their mother countries."

  • Karayuki-San Had Some Small Freedoms
    Photo: Baron von Raimund Stillfried-Rathenitz and H. Andersen / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Karayuki-San Had Some Small Freedoms

    Karayuki-san were allowed to go out during the day and weren't punished if they didn't meet a daily quota of customers. The okāsan, literally "mother," didn't meddle in a karayuki-san's personal affairs; they had a relationship more akin to that of a debtor and creditor.

    The okāsan would collect a share of the karayuki-san's wages and keep track of her debts, in exchange for housing, clothing, travel, and other expenses.