The sun was beginning to set as the train I had boarded in Isahaya slowly travelled along the Ariake Sea coast and down the Shimabara Peninsula. The villages on this peninsula and in neighbouring region of Amakusa were the two places in Japan on the island of Kyushu where many of the karayuki san , the early Japanese prostitutes who came to Australia had come from. The Ariake Sea lies between the two.
According to D.C.S. Sissons, there are no definitive sources of the birthplaces of Japanese women who came to Australia, but varying sources, such as Alien Registration in 1916 and inscriptions on Japanese tombs stones in places like Thursday Island and Broome indicates that more than half of the women were from Nagasaki prefecture where Shimabara is located, followed by those from neighbouring Kumamoto prefecture, where Amakusa is. Other studies show that more than half of the karayuki san worldwide appears to have been from Shimbabara Peninsula and from the Amakusa Islands.* I am here to find out more about them.
It had been a long day for me, having left Tokyo early in the morning, and changing trains six times to reach the castle town of Shimabara for the night. Hoping to reach my hotel before dark, I gazed out to the sea, counting the number of stations until I reached my destination. I thought of the women before me who left this land and sailed on this sea to what they thought was to find a better life for themselves. I thought about my leaving Japan to come to Australia. I was chasing an Australian boy. I wasn’t driven abroad to support myself and my family. I thought of people I love in Sydney and Tokyo, and imagined the shiranui* before my eyes.
But by the time the train left Omisaki station, I felt as if I was transported to another realm, another time…
18:02 local time, 7 June 2016 on Shimabara Railway Line between Omisaki and Matsuomachi on Shimabara Peninsula, Kyushu; video by Mayu Kanamori
* Sissons, D.C.S. (1977) ‘Karayuki‐San: Japanese prostitutes in Australia, 1887–1916— I*’, Historical Studies, 17(68), pp. 323–341. doi: 10.1080/10314617708595555.
*Shiranui means unknown fire. It is peculiar to Kyushu. They are atmospheric ghost fires, much like the St Elmo’s fire in the West. Shiranui is said to appear several kilometers from the beach in the open sea on days of the noon moon when the wind is weak and are seen at night. There would first be one or two fires, which would split off to the left and right and multiply, and in the end, several hundred to several thousand fires would be lined up on the surface of the sea.