Karayuki-san

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In the centre of suburban Singapore, overlooked by three-storey houses, is the Japanese Cemetery Park. The cemetery dates from 1891 when Tagajiro Futaki, a Japanese brothel and rubber plantation owner, established the cemetery as a final resting place for the poor and destitute Japanese prostitutes called karayuki-san.

Japan once had a long history of poor rural families who sent their daughters overseas to work as prostitutes in order for the family to survive. Karayuki-san literally translates as ‘going to China’ or ‘going overseas’. During the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries this was a not uncommon future for girls born into poor, rural families. It is quite common in areas throughout Asia to find a cemetery near to where the karayuki-san lived and worked, which is evidence of the difficult life these women must have lead. A Japanese traveler recorded in 1917 of a visit to several karayuki cemeteries that the grave markers recorded most of the ladies as having died early – aged 17 or 18.

The karayuki-san in Singapore typically received a wooden marker over their grave. The tropical humidity is not kind to wood, causing it to rot very quickly. Over time many of the wooden grave markers have been replaced with stone, which copes much better with the humid conditions. Much of this work was done by the Kyosaiki, or the Mutual Self-Help Society, which was a charitable organisation run by ex-karayuki-san.

I’m unable to read Japanese so I can’t translate the grave marker inscriptions but most don’t record the birth name of the girl interred under it. Rather it records the Japanese Buddhist name they were accorded at their death.

In a country that routinely exhumes graves and re-purposes cemeteries it’s heart-warming to see that women who were forgotten in life are allowed to rest in peace in death.

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