The sad fate of the pre-war Japanese prostitutes in Penang, the karayuki-san


Nowadays, Cintra Street in Penang is a popular tourist attraction with its charming guesthouses and old-fashioned architecture. Known for its booming textile and gold trade in the 1960s and 1980s, this is arguably one of those places that defines Penang as a quintessentially Malaysian historic place.

However, under the spell and the well-kept stores hides a dark past, because Cintra Street was once known as Penang red light district. And within these walls lies the tragic story of the karayuki-san, or Japanese prostitutes, who carried on their trade in and around the region in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Cintra Street, Penang. Image from: Penang Wikia

But who were these women, and how did they end up so far from home in such harsh conditions? Well, to understand that, we have to go back a long way, to the Edo period (1603 – 1867) in feudal Japan …

It all started on Kyushu Island with the two T’s: Taxes and Torture

When Matsukura Katsuie, the pro-Tokugawa daimyo (feudal lord) of Shimabara began torture Christians and tax his people pretty much to famine raise funds for his fantasy castle, the people of Kyushu revolted; arousing the Shimabara rebellion of 1637-38. Although Katsuie ultimately quelled the rebellion, he himself was later executed by the Tokugawa shogunate because, well, he really was kind of a jerk.

Katsuie’s brutality consisted of burning or boiling peasants alive. Image from: Nehemiah Japan

The severe depopulation on the peninsula caused by the fighting meant that the replacement of Katsuie, Kōriki Tadafusa had to flood the region with immigrants to stimulate the economy, the Tokugawa having chosen to blame the Christians rather than over-taxation for the whole fiasco.

Fast forward to the Meiji period (1868-1912), and things did not improve – fishermen and peasants in the region were still taxed 50% of their annual harvests, as well as pay extra tax on girls (leading to an increase in female infanticide). In addition, immigration had very limited work opportunities.

With the threat of famine on the horizon, many had no choice but to sell their daughters abroad as prostitutes, or ‘karayuki-san’, sense ‘Miss Gone-To-China / Miss Gone Abroad’.

Karayuki-san was a major source of capital for Japanese companies in Penang

Karayuki-san’s fate back then was not that different from sex workers today.: they were often fooled by job offers for waitresses or loans of money, before being forced into the sex trade, some to places as far away as Zanzibar or Siberia. Some were even lured under the pretext of patriotism, convinced that they were the equivalent of female soldiers serving for the good of Japan. Despite their difficult situation, karayuki-san would do send money home to help their poor families.

A group of Karayuki-san, circa 19th century. Image from:

In 1910 there was about 207 Japanese citizens in Penang in 1910; half of whom were in the sex trade, generally operating in geisha houses in the regions of Cintra Street, Kampung Malabar and Campbell Street. However, most of the income from the karayuki-san sex trade would go to finance legitimate Japanese companies in Penang like medicine, dentistry, hotels and photography.

This was the impact of the Japanese economic boom in Penang when Cintra Street became known as Little Japan, or Jipun Sin Lor (“New Japanese Road”). In fact, even today some Chinese-Penangites still refer to Cintra Street as ‘Jipun Kay’, with the Hokkien word ‘kay’ actually being a pun, as it can mean either ‘road’ or ‘chicken (prostitute)’, according to the intonation.

Humorous mural telling the story of Cintra Street. A karayuki-san is pictured to the right of Spy vs. Spy (yes, we got that reference right away; we are this old).

Although in competition with Chinese prostitutes in the region (‘Sin Kay’), Karayuki-san was preferred by foreigners and non-Chinese alike like they did not turn away the foreigners like Chinese prostitutes, suffered strict hygiene controls, and were qualified in hospitality and the performing arts:

“The pleasure houses were identified by red lanterns hanging on the door. These dens are remembered by the elderly as places to relax and enjoy a range of services… Well-dressed and well-behaved courtesans served opium, tea and alcohol, and provided musical entertainment and the company. – Khoo Salma Nasution, Penang Heritage Trust

A karayuki-san sporting a classic pompadour hairstyle. Image courtesy of: New Straits Times

But on the darker side of things it was not uncommon to find prostitutes from 10 or 11 years old sometimes sold by their mothers or grandmothers for as little as £ 10 and ‘rented’ to customers for around $ 150 to $ 500 according to the age, virginity, beauty and origin of women. These women were treated as little more than commodities and would be transported from city to city to earn a living.

In the 1920s, the Japanese viewed karayuki-san as a source of shame

With the rise of Japanese nationalism, especially after their victory in the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, karayuki-san began to be seen as a disgrace by the Japanese. Together with the British administration, the Japanese government decided to abolish karayuki-san worldwide, repatriating many of them to Japan, unfortunately. expose them to severe discrimination back home.

Some have finished marry locals, or even gone underground to continue the sex trade. During WWII, karayuki-san had all but disappeared from Penang, the few others becoming mistresses of ex-clients or waitresses in a cafe / restaurant in George Town, arguably enjoying a better fate than those who chose to return to Japan.

But many karayuki-san eventually died on the job, often from sickness. There is a Japanese cemetery on Jalan P. Ramlee which serves as the final resting place for many of the Meiji-era karayuki-san, who make up the the majority of the dead are interned there. However, not all karayuki-san were lucky enough to have a tombstone in their name; in the book Sandakan Brothel # 8, some of those who died in Sandakan, Sabah are said to be buried in unmarked hillside graves, being completely erased from history and memory once their crude headstones rot.

The Japanese cemetery on Jalan P. Ramlee, Penang. Image from: Malaysia Traveler

Perhaps it is a small consolation for the deceased karayuki-san that the Japanese people still honor their sacrifices today. In Kyushu, there is a monument dedicated to their memory, with hundreds of stone fence posts bearing their names, contributions and places of occupation, including Penang, Singapore, Ipoh, Rangoon and Siberia.

The tennyo-to (‘tower of the goddess’) dedicated to the dead karayuki-san, Risho-in Taishi-do temple, Shimabara, Japan. Image from: AboutOkin


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