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Japanese Studies Spotlight: Sex, Migration, and Reimagining Modernity from the Transpacific Underground

by Paula Curtis on 2023-07-19T10:35:00-04:00 | 0 Comments

The NCC is collaborating with institutions and scholars to release a monthly series on our blog entitled Japanese Studies Spotlight. These features showcase exciting online collections available to researchers and students in Japanese Studies, introducing the archive or project, describing their contents, and demonstrating how they can be usefully engaged in research or in the classroom. If you are interested in submitting something to the series, please contact Paula R. Curtis, NCC’s Digital Media Manager, at

Ayaka Yoshimizu (Assistant Professor of Teaching) & Saeko Suzuki (Ph.D. Candidate)
Department of Asian Studies, University of British Columbia


Sex and Migration in the Transpacific Underground is a bilingual and multimedia open educational resource (OER) that engages histories of interracial sex, intimate labour, and migration – the undercurrent of imperial expansions and settler colonialisms in the Pacific region. The web-based OER brings together Japanese-language primary sources of multiple modalities that include stories and portrayals of individuals involved in the transnational and interracial sex trade between the mid-nineteenth century and early twentieth century in the transpacific world. The English translation of these materials help students, researchers, and community members start exploring these underrepresented histories and question how they are remembered today.

Figure 1. An advertisement for Exploration of Devil Caves in Tairiku Nippo Newspaper (left); Kiyū Drawn in an Ukiyo-e Print (right).

What Is the Transpacific Underground and Why Is It Important?

Ayaka Yoshimizu (Assistant Professor of Teaching, UBC), one of the co-creators of this resource, has been developing the notion of the “transpacific underground” in her research. She defines the transpacific underground as a series of illicit, stigmatized, and multicultural networks that extended across and beyond the Pacific region and facilitated the migration of people from lower-class, low-status, and/or racialized backgrounds, who were compelled or forced to engage in sex trade (Yoshimizu 2021). It is also a “method and an epistemological location from which to engage with the history of transpacific worldmaking” (ibid., p.26). Sex and Migration in the Transpacific Underground showcases stories that portray, albeit in biased and often ideological manners, individuals who lived and died in this migratory space. We ask, What happens if we re-imagine the processes of modernization and modernity from the transpacific underground? What does this location allow us to see that we do not see from more dominant locations of nation-states (such as Japan, Canada, etc.)? What is still obscured from this location?

One of the core goals of the site is to shed light on the underrepresented histories of the transpacific sex trade through the presentation of primary sources that have not been considered as significant or worthy of scholarly analysis or translation. It also addresses the gaps within and between Asian Studies and Asian Migration Studies in North America (such as Asian American/Canadian Studies and Asian Diaspora Studies), disciplines/fields that have very different historical foundations and trajectories (Sakai 2010, Lee 2015, Morris-Suzuki 2020). At the University of British Columbia, for example, courses in Asian Studies have historically focused on the geographical area of Asia and been organized by national and regional categories. As a result, the histories and stories of transnational migration across Asia and from Asia to places outside Asia have not been adequately discussed in these courses. On the other hand, Asian American/Canadian Studies tend to focus on literature and historical sources produced in English as part of studying and teaching the histories and cultures of Asian diasporas. As a result, stories written by Asian migrants in Asian languages are severely underrepresented in the field (Ichioka 1988, Leong 2015). This project aims to address this lacuna by creating an OER that includes English translations of literature, art, and journalistic reports that were originally produced in Japanese.

Figure 2. The Sex and Migration in the Transpacific Underground homepage featuring Panorama of the open port of Yokohama (1859).

Primary Sources

As of July 2023, the website includes two sets of primary sources in English or with English translations. The first set of sources is a collection of ukiyo-e prints made from 1870 to 1902 that depict “The Tale of Kiyū” (Kiyū no hanashi 喜遊のはなし), the tragic story of a sex worker from Gankirō, a brothel in the Miyozaki Pleasure Quarter of Yokohama that catered to Western clients after it opened as a treaty port in the mid-nineteenth century. According to the legend, Kiyū is forced to take an American client despite her role as a prostitute for Japanese clients only. Desperate, she commits suicide to protect her racial purity, leaving a patriotic death poem behind.

In the 1870s, this narrative was actively published as woodblock printed books, with which popular readers were familiar, in order to cultivate a notion of Japan as an emerging nation-state. Early modern literary media were used as educational tools in the modern nation (Sasaki, 2007), and Kiyū products were manufactured to teach a general audience that women, seen as a second-class gender, should serve the empire as loyal members of the state. However, due to the simplistic and didactic quality of the story, this narrative has received little attention in mainstream literary and historical studies. The Sex and Migration website includes images of three prints from Waseda University Library (Fig. 3) and Tokyo Metro Library collections, and each print includes a synopsis of “The Tale of Kiyū.” Translations into contemporary Japanese and English are provided along with the images.

Figure 3. Shōgi Kiyū no hanashi (1878), by Yamazaki Toshinobu; Waseda University Library

The second set of primary sources is a pseudo-journalistic stories, Exploration of Devil Caves (Makutsu takenken-ki 魔窟探検記), written by journalist Osada Shōhei 長田正平 (1877-1930) and serialized in Tairiku Nippō 大陸日報, a Japanese language newspaper based in Vancouver, Canada (Fig. 4). The two-part series consists of 72 installments published in 1908-1909 and 31 installments published in 1912.

The series includes over 180 named individuals and stories of Japanese migrants involved in the sex trade in Canada at the turn of the twentieth century. Osada’s dramatized stories introduce to local Japanese-speaking readers key members of what Osada calls the “devil society,” referring to brothel owners, managers, procurers, pimps, and women working for them in debt bondage. He identifies them by their names and/or nicknames and hometowns. Osada also describes how women are “imported” from Japan and how Japanese-owned prostitution businesses work in Canada, elaborating on violent incidents and relationship scandals.

Figure 4. The first Exploration of Devil Caves feature in Tairiku Nippō 大陸日報, November 19, 1908. Image courtesy of the University of British Columbia Library Digitization Centre.

While Osada’s series has been used and cited in historical studies and nonfiction writings on Japanese prostitutes in Canada (Kudō, 1982, 1991; Oharazeki, 2016), it has usually been used as a source of historical information and not as a creative work. In the context of our website, we are able to also integrate a new treatment of these stories as part of a narrative on transnational migration. The original source has been digitized by the University of British Columbia’s Library and the website offers an English translation of the series. Users are able to navigate the source by topics and a keyword search function. The individual names that appear in the series have been replaced with pseudonyms in the English translation to protect descendants’ privacy.


Sex and Migration in the Transpacific Underground includes teaching modules that introduce critical approaches to engaging with the primary sources featured on the website. For example, Kiyū’s tale reveals how imperial expansions are gendered processes, and, more specifically, what Japan’s encounter with these Western powers might have meant for underprivileged women like Kiyū. At the same time, the story is also dramatized in ways shaped by the interests and desires of the new imperial government, the publishing industry, individual writers and artists, and literary consumers. The module for "The Tale of Kiyū" introduces these historical contexts through interactive images with English and modern Japanese translations (Fig. 5), a glossary of key Japanese words, a short video lecture, and guiding questions to allow users to analyze the images and texts of the ukiyo-e prints in an informed manner.

Figure 5. The interactive image resource from the “The Tale of Kiyū” module.

Osada’s newspaper series was published with an intention to eradicate Japanese prostitution in Canada in the context of anti-Asian racism in Canada’s settler colonial society and therefore depicts individuals engaged in sex trade in an extremely biased and derogatory manner. The module for Exploration of Devil Caves is interested in reading this material against the grain and encourages users to imagine the lives of racialized migrants involved in sex trade in alternative ways. In order to do so, we included “Critical Glossary” that lists some of the derogatory expressions that repeatedly appear in the series to help users consider what biases and assumptions underlie the use of such expressions. This module also comes with two short video lectures and a set of guiding questions as examples of how to read the source against the grain (Fig. 6).

Figure 6. A screencap of the Guiding Questions section from the Exploration of Devil Caves module.

These modules are designed for both classroom implementation and individual learning and research. Instructors teaching in higher education in disciplines and fields such as Asian Studies, Asian Diaspora Studies, Transnational History, Gender Studies, Migration Studies, Literary Studies, or Media and Cultural Studies will find these modules well-suited for use in their undergraduate courses. Each module includes ideas for pre-lesson activities, 15–20-minute video lectures and review questions (Fig. 7), guiding questions and activities to engage with the primary sources, and additional resources.

Figure 7. A screencap from the lecture video “Sex Workers, Waitresses, and Wives” by Ayaka Yoshimizu.

Students can integrate the primary sources into their research or study the modules to learn about the histories of sexual and intimate labour in the transpacific world. Researchers can use the primary sources or cite modules as secondary sources in their research. Our modules are written not only with academics, but broader community members in mind, aiming to be as accessible as possible.

Future Plans

The materials housed in Sex and Migration in the Transpacific Underground provide merely a starting point to achieve a more comprehensive and coherent understanding of the lives of individuals involved in the transnational and interracial sex trade from the mid-nineteenth century to the early twentieth century. However, it is important that we create a space to imagine the historically underrepresented lives of those who survived and died in the transpacific underground economy. By engaging with these resources, readers and researchers will be able to both question and complement existing narratives and representations of these individuals and their histories.

The first two sets of primary sources and accompanying modules were translated, analyzed, and developed by Ayaka Yoshimizu and Saeko Suzuki and include a short video lecture by Asato Ikeda, Associate Professor at Fordham University. This project was supported by the UBC OER Fund, the Bibliographical Society of America Short-term Fellowship, and would not have been possible without the work of Julia Aoki, Sayano Izu, Ashley Robinson, Sarah Ogoshi, UBC’s Arts ISIT, UBC’s Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology, and UBC Studios.

Currently, the primary sources and accompanying modules included in this website are offered in English and modern Japanese. We are planning to also add new primary sources in different modalities (e.g. audio sources) and other Asian languages to further diversify and complicate the narratives of modernization and nation-state building presented in Sex and Migration in the Transpacific Underground. We encourage viewers to thoroughly explore the archival materials and translations presently featured, as well as visit the site again to learn from future contributions.


Ichioka, Yuji. The Issei: The World of the First Generation Japanese Immigrants, 1885–1924. New York: The Free Press, 1988.

Kudō Miyoko. Kanada yūgirō ni furu yuki wa. Tokyo: Shūeisha, 1989.

———. Kanashii metsuki no hyōryūsha. Tokyo: Shūeisha, 1991.

Lee, Christopher. “Mobility and Metaphor: Theorizing the (In)human in Asian /Diaspora.” Verge: Studies of Global Asias 1, issue 1 (Spring 2015): 138–161.

Leong, Andrew. “The Pocket and the Watch: A Collective Individualist Reading of Japanese American Literature.” Verge: Studies in Global Asias 1, issue 2 (Fall 2015): 76–114.

Morris-Suzuki, Tessa. On the Frontier History: Rethinking East Asian Borders. Acton: Australian National University Press, 2020.

Oharazeki, Kazuhiro. Japanese Prostitutes in the North American West, 1887–1920. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2016.

Sakai, Naoki. “From Area Studies toward Transnational Studies.” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 11, no. 2 (May 2010): 265–274.

Sasaki Tōru. “Iwayuru ‘Chosakudō kakiage’ o megutte: Robun no tenshin ( Edo to Meiji no hazama ni - keizoku to danzetsu -).” Nihon bungaku 56, no. 10 (2007): 26–35.

Yoshimizu, Ayaka. “Unsettling Memories of Japanese Migrant Sex Workers: Carceral Mobilities of the Transpacific Underground at the Turn of the 20th Century.” Topia 43 (Summer 2021): 24–43.

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