Bodies and Structures

Complex lives, contingent tactics

We can say more: The story of Ogura Nobu (and Chen Zhaopin, though he is even more silent/silenced than she), highlights the need to explore the material and discursive experiences of border crossing and mobility, and the contextualized histories of the bodies that move. For example, part of a deep map of this subject would have to extend to the materiality of the route, including the third-class passage on the ferry that carried Ogura Nobu and Chen Zhaopin to Shanghai (while more elite, or more carefree, passengers enjoyed NYK's posh amenities and the lifestyle they advertised on the upper deck),as well as the network of Chinese lodging houses, coastal steamers, and overland transport that conveyed migrants between Shanghai and Fuqing.It would also have to capture the careful preparation of stories, the altering of appearances (Ogura Nobu was hardly the only woman to try to pass as a Chinese for the journey), the tension and apprehension accompanying checkpoint interviews, and so on. Mobilities research must attend to factors such as ethnicity, gender, class, age, place of origin, household structure, and prior experiences and future expectations — not mention the contingent political conditions — under which such movement was undertaken. Moving bodies took shape as products of social processes (what Leslie Adelson calls embodiment, the “making and doing the work of bodies” and “becoming a body in social space”). 

And even more: Ogura Nobu was only one of the women who navigated these routes. The Foreign Ministry archives, along with other sources, reveal not only the difficulties encountered by consular authorities and police agents in reaching or extricating Japanese women, but also — especially — the complexities of the lives in which they sought to intervene.  The women who appear in the Foreign Ministry archives came from all over Japan, and from urban as well as rural areas. Many came from families that had already been on the move — for example, to the northern frontier of Hokkaidō and Karafuto.  Some of the women were reported simply to have been working at home after completing elementary schooling when they became involved with a Chinese peddler.  Others had been indentured to textile factories, or placed as housemaids or waitresses away from their families; a few had also moved around as more privileged students; and some had run away from home to Tokyo, Osaka, or other places.  Some, like Ogura Nobu​, had already been in and out of common-law or legal marriages with Japanese men (having run away or been abandoned or become widows) and had given birth to children.  A number of them had led desperate lives before encountering their Chinese partners, and may have married these men out of a desire to find a way out of those hardships; others had relationships with more than one Chinese partner.  These women thus often occupied marginal positions within Japanese territorial and social space.  Yet on the other hand, they were representative of a large swathe of Japanese womanhood, whose experiences of mobility and intimate personal struggles are only partly captured in existing studies of factories, education, or domesticity and consumerism. 

A deep/thick map of the movements connecting Japan and Fuqing, Japanese women and Fuqingese men, can draw out the multiple stories that might otherwise remain simply data points for a single argument (however nuanced it might be). These stories not only confound the narrative of ignorant women being abducted by rapacious Chinese; they break apart unquestioned notions of nation and territory and help us build an understanding of worlds shaped by translocal intimacies: what Ballantyne and Burton call the “multiple contingent spaces” created by empire, and “the fractured and fragmented character of imperial power.”  Through a focus on intimacy -- what anthropologist Ara Wilson calls "a useful category of transnational analysis" -- we can elucidate “linkages across what are understood to be distinct realms, scales, or bodies,” and develop histories of empire, nation, family, and identity formation that avoid reifying any of those categories. 

[Or, we can ask another question, part of this history of translocal intimacies and transgressive mobilities that has completely fallen by the wayside: What became of Ogura's daughter Kimie?]

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