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Complex Lives, Contingent Tactics
Women's responses to efforts to repatriate them from Fuqing.
David R. Ambaras
While by the late 1920s the Foreign Ministry’s documentary apparatus had established a distinct dossier on women in Fuqing under the title “Cases related to the Rescue of Women and Children Abducted Abroad,” in fact the effort to encompass these women’s experiences within the narrative structure of abduction and rescue remained a fraught exercise. Deception or exaggerated promises no doubt played a role in some women’s decisions to travel to China, but as Fuzhou consul Moriya Kazurō noted in an August 1933 report, “actual kidnappings are rare.” Women who did desire to be repatriated cited various reasons, including, in some cases, the realization that their husbands were already married. More frequently, dismay at the quality of food, housing, or other conditions informed women’s appeals for assistance; and officials reported that local villagers took greater pains to prevent newly arrived women from leaving than they did with regard to women who had already lived for some time in their communities. Not surprisingly, many cited homesickness, illness, or husbands who gambled or drank as factors in their desire to return to Japan. In some cases, women’s hardships stemmed from the fact that their husbands had again departed to work in Japan or elsewhere and failed to remit money to their families. In others, women’s conditions deteriorated after their husbands died and other family members asserted control of their resources and/or labor.
Most women, however, refused repatriation, either provisionally or permanently. A good number of those interviewed had been involved in long-term relationships and built families with their partners/husbands before coming to China, and some had lived in China for decades when consular police officers located them. They often reported that their lives were hard, but gave no indication of having been abused. In some places, Japanese wives socialized with each other and enjoyed ample freedom of movement; a few were quite well off. Other women expressed ambivalence about leaving. Consular investigators often attributed women’s reluctance to depart to their attachment to their children (whose nationality may have been in dispute and whose fathers would have been loath to let them go), lack of money or proper clothes, or feelings of shame and resignation. One should not exclude the possibility that in some cases, women avoided speaking up out of fear of the consequences of doing so, or had been numbed by abuse into a state of resignation. Nor, on the other hand, should we discount love or desire as a factor that drew couples together and kept them so in the face of harsh material conditions, cultural frictions, or even domestic violence. Women’s ambivalence also stemmed from causes such as a sense of obligation to or affection for their Chinese families. In many cases, they were no doubt endeavoring to enact the moral prescriptions of dutiful obedience to one’s husband and his parents with which they had been inculcated since childhood. As geographer Lieba Faier has observed, one cannot understand people’s “transnational lives without considering their emotional worlds and the cultural discourses of gender and affect that shaped them.”
Rather than try to pin down women’s “true intentions,” it seems more prudent to explore the tactical choices that women made as they assessed their shifting situations and the pathways that appeared open or closed to them at any given moment. 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 Tony Ballantyne and Antoinette 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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