Bodies and Structures 2.0: Deep-Mapping Modern East Asian History

Border Controls, Migrant Networks, and People out of Place between Japan and China

In late 1928, the Shanghai Mainichi newspaper published an article on “some fifty” Japanese women being bought and sold by Chinese men in Fuqing, a remote coastal county in Fujian Province, south of the treaty port of Fuzhou. Lurid stories of Japanese women's hardships in Fuqing had circulated in government reports and in the press since the 1910s, but this particular article triggered the concern of Prime Minister and Acting Foreign Minister Tanaka in Tokyo. Tanaka's queries led to reports in June 1929 that consular officials in Fuzhou, with the assistance of Chinese forces, had rescued five Japanese women and four of their children from hellish conditions, although they were unable to reach the many other women in similar straits. As one consular official reported, such women “are dressed in wretched Chinese clothes and work at farming, so at one glance it is hard to distinguish them from Chinese women of the same class.” This phenomenon, which appeared to show no signs of abating, “cannot be ignored, as it is both a humanitarian problem and a problem of our national prestige” (Fuzhou Consul General Tamura to Foreign/Prime Minister Tanaka, June 21, 1929, in DAMFAJ K.3.4.2, no. 3).

The actual number of such women remains unclear. In a report to the Foreign Minister in December 1921, Fuzhou Consul General Hayashi Matajirō wrote, “It's hard to get a precise number of such women in the region because the husbands conceal them, but there may be around 150” (December 16, 1921, DAMFAJ, v. 4). The press, however, claimed that hundreds of women were involved, and ramped-up its sensationalized coverage in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Attention to this topic was particularly strong in colonial Taiwan, where cross-Strait information flowed readily and travelers (including women exiting the mainland) brought back stories that reporters eagerly transmitted to readers curious about development on "the other shore." In these stories, Fuqing came to be described as "the antlion's pit," a trap from the struggle to escape only drove the victim deeper towards its doom.

The Japanese government's operations to prevent women from traveling to Fuqing and to "rescue" so-called "abducted" women from that place, imposed on them a narrative of victimhood that deprived them of agency, reduced Chinese migrants to the image of criminal invaders of Japanese territory, and posited the Japanese state as the patriarchal protector of national honor against a rapacious China. Rescue operations, however, were confounded not only by local resistance, Chinese civil war, and the topography of Fujian's coastal hinterland, but also by the responses of women whose interests often challenged the official narratives and reflected more nuanced apprehensions of their situations.

These cases offer one example of Japan's continuing inclusion, despite its adaptation to the global order of modern imperialism, in the historical space of the Sinosphere. They also reveal how the confluence of these diverse spatial flows and structures engendered forms of intimacy that were seen as problematic, or even horrific, because they transgressed notions of territory marked by stable, defensible borders and notions of place marked by distinct identities and social roles. Yet rather than see those borders and roles as already established and thus violated, we can use such cases of transgressive intimacy to highlight the ways in which territoriality and spatial imaginaries were being articulated in the imperial era, at both the official and the popular levels. Mobile subjects in marginal locations not only destabilized official projects for the regulation of territory and the policing of populations, but also stimulated fantasies that opened new spaces for the elaboration of imperial power in its material and discursive forms.

This module presents a set of spatial stories that play out along four interrelated paths, each of which is organized to focus on a particular figure. One centers on Japanese women in motion; another, on Chinese men in motion; and a third, on Japanese men moving into Fuqing and its environs in search of Japanese women. A fourth path follows stories and tropes of Sino-Japanese intimacy from the Meiji era onward. These paths, and the pages they contain or to which they refer, may be explored in any order. At the end of each path, you will be redirected to this landing page, ready to try a different approach.

The spatial stories also play out in two broad temporal frames: the era of imperialism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and the era of renewed, intensive Sino-Japanese relations since the inauguration of reforms in the People's Republic of China in the 1980s. How to map these two temporalities in Scalar presents challenges. Here, I have opted for three approaches. First, on each path dealing with developments in the imperial era, I have included pages that deal with the second temporality, selected for thematic parallelism or for specific direct connections (these paths occasionally include "transwar" pages, which don't necessarily forge direct lines to the developments in the second temporality). Second, I have arranged all of the pages dealing with the second temporality into their own path, so that one can follow only those elements if one so desires. The locator mark at the upper right of each page will indicate how each page fits not only into that path but into the other paths of the module. And third, as part of the overall Bodies and Structures method, I have used tags to extract meanings that can not only offer a layer of analytical organization to the present module, but also enable crossing among the various modules of the larger project.

A note regarding the text

The text in this module is based on sections of David R. Ambaras, Japan's Imperial Underworlds: Intimate Encounters at the Borders of Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), with other content added. This text cannot be reproduced, shared, altered, or exploited commercially in any way without the permission of Cambridge University Press. It is copyrighted material and therefore not subject to the allowances permitted by a CC-BY-NC-ND license.

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