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Selling Spring

Read Wednesday, 12 Sep 2018

Masako Fukui remembers the first Japanese women who lived and worked in Australia.

Colour-modified photograph of an early 20th Century Japanese sex worker
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The Japanese terms for prostitution are particularly evocative. The most widely used word 売春 (pronounced baishun) is a combination of two kanji characters, the first meaning ‘to sell’ and the second meaning ‘spring’, as in the season. So, to sell youth, innocence, life’s promises to come.

Japanese feminists have reworked the word, preferring 買春, pronounced exactly the same but with a different first character that means ‘to buy. I appreciate the politics of highlighting the demand side of the transaction. But my preference is for a third option, the aurally evocative combination of sell and buy – 売買春  ‘bai-bai shun, as in ‘bye-bye’ spring, because it tickles my bilingual sensibilities. But ‘bye-bye spring’ refers to more than sex work as trade. It hints at a narrative hidden beneath the commercial transaction, a narrative that’s part of my Japanese-Australian identity.

I’ve never done sex work, but I’ve been mistaken for a sex worker often. The first time was when I was about 18 years old. I was walking through the streets of Sydney’s Kings Cross on a Saturday night when a man approached me and asked, ‘Are you working?’ Not quite understanding the thrust of his question, I replied, ‘Well, I’m walking’. I remember the man’s laugh, it was an attractive laugh, gurgling with warmth. When he realised he’d mistaken my blatant naivety for a sense of humour, he seemed to lose interest in the prospect of buying my spring.

I’ve had a number of similar encounters, most of them annoying, some scary, and on one occasion, actually life-threatening. As a young woman, I was angry, furious, when this happened.

But over the years, I’ve been prompted to challenge the source of that outrage, mostly by Thai sex workers I met while volunteering at a drop-in centre for bar workers in Bangkok’s red-light district. These women were some of the most gracious, funny, resilient people I’d ever met. Their stories of moving to the city to work in bars and brothels to support their impoverished rural families made me feel ashamed of my self-absorbed, middle-class, misplaced rage.

‘As a young woman, what do you sell if you have nothing the market craves other than your “spring”’?

Of course, not all women who arrive at sex work do so through a need to overcome poverty. But many Asian women who end up in sex industries around the globe – either through circumstance or coercion – have similar stories of loss in the face of capitalist entrapment. As a young woman, what do you sell if you have nothing the market craves other than your ‘spring’? These stories interest me because I can indirectly trace my Japanese-Australian heritage to women with a similar fate – the first Japanese women to settle in Australia came here to work in brothels.


Japanese women began arriving in Australia in the late 19th Century. A long period of feudal isolation had come to an end in Japan. It was a new era of energetic modernisation and globalisation and Japanese men were encouraged to venture overseas to find work. Most went to Hawaii, Brazil, Peru, Canada, but some ended up in Darwin, Broome or Thursday Island, working in the pearl-shell industry or sugar plantations.

Women were generally prohibited from travelling abroad, but young women from the poorer regions of southern Japan stowed away on boats to find work in brothels in China, south-east Asia and even as far away as Australia. Authorities here mostly accepted Japanese prostitutes as providers of ‘essential’ sexual services for Japanese men. Perhaps, more to the point, their presence was tolerated because they kept white prostitutes ‘safe’ from the pesky sexuality of the Japanese men and other ‘coloureds’.

More than a century later, revisiting the lives of these women is difficult because virtually nothing remains of their material lives. Historical documents are scant, but University of Wollongong researcher Julia Martinez has discovered evidence suggesting many prostitutes were allowed to travel freely between ferociously arid inland towns like Winton and Cloncurry in Queensland to work short stints in brothels, even after the enactment of the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901.

But what intrigues me is that these women also travelled back and forth between Australia and Japan. Did they, like me, miss Japan when they were in Australia? And miss Australia when they were in Japan? Did they, like me, feel out of place in Australia as well as in Japan? Was their sense of belonging stronger than their sense of un-belonging?

I want to connect with these women somehow; to reimagine who they were, how they felt. To merely remember, or worse still, to forget them as prostitutes only, would be a disavowal of a rich narrative vein in my Japanese-Australian story, and in Australia’s multicultural history. These women, like any other women, were more than the work they did.

So much of Australia’s relationship with Japan is reduced to the banality of trade transactions, which is unfortunate. Bilateral trade links were what brought me here as a child. My father was a Japanese trading company executive, buying Australian commodities to sell to Japan – everything from coal and iron ore to tiger prawns and wheat. But I’d like to think Japanese people have contributed more to Australia than just trade statistics. For when the transaction is over, when the buying and the selling is done, what remains are the human narratives. These can enrich us more than the price of coal, iron ore, tiger prawns, and wheat put together.

How would our trade ministers feel if we were to include sex work in our list of bilateral trade links? I consider myself a direct beneficiary of the close commercial ties between Australia and Japan. After all, I was given the opportunity to enjoy a youth full of promise and sunshine and Chiko Rolls, plus two great places – Tokyo and Sydney – to call home. And I often find myself reflecting on the connection between my spring, spent fearlessly strutting through the streets of Kings Cross, and the spring those Japanese women said ‘bye bye’ to all those years ago.

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The Wheeler Centre acknowledges the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung people of the Kulin Nation as the traditional owners of the land on which we work. We pay our respects to the people of the Kulin Nation and all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders, past and present.