Doing Sensory Ethnography Among the Dead: Remembering Lives of Japanese Migrants in the Trans-Pacific Sex Trade

Ayaka Yoshimizu


Between 1908-1909 and in 1912, Vancouver-based Japanese journalist Shohei Osada published a column series entitled “Exploration of Devil Caves” in a local Japanese-language newspaper, detailing the lives of Japanese migrants involved in the sex trade in the interior of BC and further east. The series was part of the local Japanese community’s “clean-up” project, which attempted to normalize the community by disciplining members’ sexuality. Having a strong conviction that their “immorality” exacerbated racism against the Japanese in Canada, Osada’s writing condemns sex workers, pimps and brothel owners. Ironically, however, his writing remains one of the few archival documents available today that resists the historical erasure of the presence of these women in the past. While stories of sex workers are still repressed in the official Japanese Canadian history, I want to shed light on them. I followed Osada’s footsteps and travelled to Cranbrook and Nelson, which he identified as major sites for Japanese prostitution, with a hope to learn more about this history. In this paper I performatively re-enact the process of my embodied engagement with the elusive history—or what I call “unhappened lives”—of Japanese sex workers in Canada from the early twentieth century, which started with my encounter with Japanese headstones in cemeteries, and was followed by my archival research of official death records. This paper consists of photographic images, excerpts from my fieldwork journal, and an account of my encounter with Japanese graves in the cemeteries, all of which are juxtaposed with archival materials, including Osada’s reportage and Canadian official documents. While these documents are erroneous, negligent, and racist, they do provoke further imagination about the lives and deaths of migrant sex workers. Putting these materials together, I explore a way to remember, as I actively create a memory of the lives of women in the underground, trans-pacific world.

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