Category Archives: Islands

Amakusa: Islands of dread

As is commonly known, the term karayuki-san is a contraction of karahitoyuki (a person going to Kara, i.e., China, or abroad) or karankuniyuki (going to China, or a country overseas). It refers to the overseas prostitutes who, from the final stages of the Tokugawa shogunate in the mid-nineteenth century through the Meiji period (1868-1911) and until the middle of the Taisho period (1912-1925) at the end of World War I, left their native country behind and traveled north to Siberia or continental China, or south to the various countries of Southeast Asia, to sell their flesh to foreigners. These women came from all over Japan, but it is said the vast majority came from the Amakusa Islands and the Shimabara Peninsula.

 Sandakan Brothel No. 8, Tomoko Yamazaki (1972)

Some places are born cursed, while others are cursed by the whims of history. It has been Amakusa’s tragedy to suffer both fates. Amakusa’s woes began at birth, in the course of the Paleogene, 65mn-23mn years ago, as volcanoes shaped the islands over millions of years and cursed them with a thin gruel of a soil, fit for millennia only for the coarsest barley, until the arrival of the hardy sweet potato from the New World in the 16th century. Rice never made it to the islands until the advent of cheap phosphate fertilizers and improved strains in the 20th century. The convoluted currents created by the tortured ria coastline of west Kyushu conspired to keep the bounty of the ocean unfishably far from shore. Besides, Amakusa had been blessed with only one good natural harbor, at the port of Ushibuka in the remote southwestern corner. Nature’s cruelest trick, though, was to make Amakusa islands at all: the two principal and most of the eight minor islands are separated from each other by the narrowest of channels, never more than a few hundred meters wide, and the island nearest the mainland is scarcely more than a skimmed stone from it. But islands they are, and the straits and seas that engird them were to keep them isolated for centuries—and in many ways still do.

The first man-made misfortune to befall Amakusa was the arrival of proselytizing and trading Portuguese-sponsored Jesuit missionaries on Kyushu in the middle of the 16th century. Jewish-born Jesuit missionary Luis de Almeida (1525-1583) pitched up on Amakusa in 1569 and swiftly won converts to the faith, including local daimyo lord Konishi Yukinaga (小西行長, Don Agostinho, (1555-1600). Konishi made the fatal error of backing the losing side at the Battle of Sekigahara (1600), a fight that was to determine the fate of the nation for the next two-and-a-half centuries, and was executed for his pains, his demesnes being awarded to the Lord of Karatsu, Terazawa Hirotaka (寺沢広高, 1563-1633), a lapsed Christian, whose first act was to have the islands surveyed so they could be taxed to within an inch of their lives to fund the construction of his self-glorifying Karatsu Castle. Christianity, subject to intermittent prohibition from the late 16th century, was finally banned outright by the Tokugawa shogunate in 1614. Fierce persecution of recalcitrant Christians became the rage: on the Shimabara Peninsula to the north of Amakusa, the daimyo Matsukura Shigemasa (松倉重政, 1574?-1630) proved partial to boiling them alive in the scalding springs of Mount Unzen.

Stirrings of revolt began to brew among dispossessed masterless samurai, oppressed peasants, and repressed Christians, culminating in the Shimabara-Amakusa Rebellion (島原天草の乱) of 1637-1638, the very last uprising of any size in pre-modern Japan. The rebellion was led by a charismatic 15-year old, Masuda Tokisada, (益田 時貞, 1621?-1638), who took as his nom de guerre Amakusa Shiro (天草四郎literally “the fourth son of Amakusa”), in tribute to the prophecy of Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier (1506-1552) that a “fourth son of heaven” would lead the conversion of Japan to Christianity. The rebellion culminated in a five-month siege of Hara Castle on the Shimabara Peninsula, defended by some 35,000 rebels, ultimately no match for the besieging forces, who came to number some 120,000 men. Every last rebel was executed and the severed head of Amakusa Shiro taken to Nagasaki, where it was displayed on a pike, in awful warning of the folly of insurrection, until the flesh fell off.

All of this is familiar enough to the history books; there is a solid account of the rebellion, albeit one narrated from a Catholic perspective, here. What is less well known is the fate of Amakusa in the wake of the revolt. The islands, deemed too overrun with malcontents for daimyo rule, were made “heavenly territory” (天領) under the direct jurisdiction of the shogunate. A new magistrate, sent to administer them, appealed for a lighter tax burden, was rebuffed, and disemboweled himself. The population of the islands had been halved by the rebellion, from around 16,000 to 8,000: Tomoko Yamazaki notes that, “in the villages close to the Shimabara Peninsula, it was unusual to see smoke rising from a human dwelling.” To repopulate Amakusa, the shogunate instituted a resettlement policy, forcing peasants to move there from elsewhere in Kyushu and using the islands as a dumping ground for unwanted convicts, ne’er-do-wells, and other undesirables.    

The result was a population explosion unparalleled anywhere else in the nation in the Edo era (1603-1868). While the population of Japan remained almost unchanged over these two-and-a-half centuries, Amakusa’s soared. It regained the level of the 1637-1638 rebellion in 1659, then swiftly doubled, doubled again, and doubled yet again.

1691: 34,357

1746: 74,650

1784: over 100,000

1794: 112,000

1818: 132,200

1832: 143,041

1868: 156,161

1924: 195,344

1955: around 240,000

So unfolded one of the world’s first encounters with a very contemporary, if barely acknowledged problem: overpopulation. By the dawn of modernity at the Meiji Restoration in 1868, more than 150,000 souls were coaxing the most impoverished of existences out of the mostly rocky, barren, and mountainous lands of an archipelago with a total area of only around 1,000km2.

It was into this world that Osaki, the child-prostitute who is the subject of Tomoko Yamazaki’s Sandakan Brothel No. 8, was born in or around the year 1900. The daughter of a farmer father who gambled his land away and died young and a mother who abandoned her three children on remarriage, Osaki was born on the very lowest rung of society:

There were days when I would have nothing to swallow but water from morning ’til night. Even when noon came around, or when the sun had set, I still hadn’t even had the neck of a sweet potato to eat. … By the time winter arrived, the barley box and the potato tub were empty, and days would go by when not only was there no barley gruel, but we couldn’t even sip potato broth.

The karayuki-san prostitutes derive their name from the girls and women of the Amakusa islands and the Shimabara Peninsula, who, once the travel restrictions of the Edo era were lifted in the 1870s, poured first into Nagasaki as the maids and mistresses of wealthy Chinese merchants, on occasion travelling to China with them as concubines. From these origins, the karayuki-san trade came to encompass much of East and Southeast Asia, extending as far as Siberia and North America. At its peak around 1910, there were perhaps some 30,000 Japanese women—almost all from Amakusa and Shimabara—working overseas as prostitutes everywhere from Rangoon to Mukden, San Francisco to Vladivostok, compared to only around 50,000 prostitutes in the home islands.

After many adventures, much exploitation, and some loving bonds forged, Osaki is discovered, now well into old age and back in the Amakusa village of her youth, by a young Tokyo ethnographer and feminist, Tomoko Yamazaki, in 1968, four years after the Tokyo Olympics and the year Japan overtook West Germany to begin its 42-year reign as the world’s second largest economy. This is how Yamazaki describes their first encounter, in a tiny restaurant in the tiny port of Sakitsu: 

She had already finished her rice and was using a toothpick as she drank tea. … She was of slight build, and about one meter and thirty or forty centimeters tall. Her entire body was thin and frail, her arms and legs no more than chicken bones. She wore a faded blue skirt with a well-laundered shirt, and on her feet were a pair of worn rubber thongs…

Withdrawing a slender pipe from a cloth bag and pulling a partly smoked cigarette out of a pack of Shinsei, she stuffed it into the pipe bowl and began smoking. As she contentedly exhaled pale purple smoke, she reached out for the three ashtrays in the small shop and, collecting the smudged out cigarette butts one by one, she knocked off the ashes and stuffed them into the Shinsei pack.

Due to an extreme tobacco shortage during World War II and shortly afterward there were a number of people who would pick up cigarette butts dropped by others, but today, no matter where you went, you would never even hear that sort of thing mentioned. Yet here, right before our eyes, was an old woman totally engrossed in collecting cigarette butts.

 A railway line was laid out up the Uto Peninsula to the now sweetly slumbering town of Misumi, the gateway to Amakusa, as early as 1899, but never extended further, and Amakusa remains about the most populous place in Japan outside Okinawa to be bereft of the pleasures of rail. Utterly deserted and overrun with grass and weeds, Misumi station had, like many a rural terminus does, a mournful end-of-the-pier feel.

The five short bridges needed to connect Amakusa to the mainland were finally built in 1966, largely depriving the railway of its raison d’être. Freight services were halted in 1982, expresses in 1986. Passenger volume fell by more than 40% between 1986 and 2007 and the line loses more than Y30 for every Y100 it generates in revenue.  

It was with some shapeless trepidation that I crossed the first of the five bridges to Amakusa.

Immediately I was stricken with the apprehension that something, somewhere, was wrong.

The shops in the strip-malls of the first island, Oyano, wore jaunty expressions. Where was the spectral gloom for which I had come in quest? And why, I wondered irritated, does a “London” bus always turn up in the unlikeliest of locations, in this case with its downstairs windows papered over with a London evening newspaper from just months before?

This Leyland Atlantean from 1981, GSC655X, once pounded the stately pavements of Edinburgh and York and as recently as February was kitted out in slate blue and white livery. But why was the URL for a Japanese restaurant in London’s West End and the phone number for an Amakusa stationer’s, neither of which were called Sophie’s Kitchen? This was not the last of the islands’ mysteries that was to prove unfathomable.

After peaking in 1955 at close to a quarter of a million, Amakusa’s population went into precipitous reverse, as youngsters flooded off the islands in search of work at lathe or till or jackhammer, falling to around 173,000 by 1980 and almost halving to below 127,000 in the summer of 2010, already back to the level of the early 19th century. From here it is poised to fall by more than a third over the next quarter century, to perhaps 80,000 in 2035, the mid-18th century level. Further out the demographic crystal ball grows murkier, but it is at least conceivable that Amakusa will return to its population level at the time of the 1637-1638 uprising by the end of this century, completing an extraordinary half-millennium of rise and decline.

While once beset by the burden of too many mouths to feed, the whole of Amakusa is now deemed by the state to be a zone of underpopulation (過疎地域), a designation that covers an astonishing 50% of the land area of Japan, if only some 6% of its people—although this is bound to rise in coming years, as the avenging angels of depopulation sweep down from the mountains to lay claim to ever larger conurbations. 

Overpopulation has a biological definition—the number of people exceeds the carrying capacity of the habitat—but underpopulation, at least in a Japanese context, is more of judgment call. The word for underpopulation (過疎) only appeared in the language in 1966, and it was initially defined as falling population densities, ageing, and a growing difficulty in maintaining established lifestyle patterns as the result of a declining population.

The population of the islands’ largest constituent municipality, Amakusa City, is falling faster than any other city of its size (50,000-100,000 people) in Japan, tumbling by more than 8% between 2005 and 2010 alone, due to a combination of continued outmigration by the young (there were 1,031 17-year olds but only 396 19-year olds in the city in 2005), a birthrate that has in recent times fallen below even the already low national average (there were 1,088 14-year olds but only 740 babies under one in the city in 2005), and a high and rising elderly ratio (nearly a third of everyone was over 65 in the city in 2005).

But where were the ruins?

It’s not that there weren’t any: this blot on the seashore landscape of a ryokan hotel had seized up some years before. In the lounge, slabs of green leatherette armchairs, as listless as caged big cats, bore the crinkled imprints of posteriors of yore and the sturdy ashtray stands beside them still held the last guests’ stubbed-out butts. Eerily, the ghost of the ryokan website still haunts the cobwebbed corners of cyberspace, not updated since at least 2004.

Ruination had not taken hold in the way I had expected, though. Ruinology—the divination and detection of ruins—is an imprecise discipline, more art than science. As populations tip lower (and the population is falling in 535 of Japan’s 786 cities, 639 of its 757 towns, and 154 of its 184 villages), the first rubble generally builds in downtown shopping districts—the dead don’t spend—followed by the humbler sort of roadside pit-stop—the dead don’t eat—and the gasoline stand—the dead don’t drive. It takes truly monumental population loss, however, for housing to fall into shell-shocked ruin.

Amakusa’s other city, Kami Amakusa, is a good illustration of this. Its population, 51,000 in 1960, had fallen to 32,500 by 2005, yet the number of households rose to 11,400 in 2005 from 10,200 in 1960, as the average number of people per household fell from over five to under three. By 2035, though, when Kami Amakusa’s population is projected to fall to around 18,000, the ruination will be general. A parallel story plays out on the national stage: although the population started its long slide in 2005, the number of households does not peak until 2015, at about 50.6mn, and even by 2030 is barely back to its 2005 level. Take heart, though, connoisseurs of ruin: in part because of the geographical mismatch between supply and demand, the total housing stock is expected to reach 60.4mn units in 2015, meaning that a staggering 9.8mn houses and condominiums, or 16% of the total stock, will lie vacant or derelict across the land (aside from a clutch of of holiday homes).  

On the shores of Shimabara Bay, I was joined for lunch by the signed poster of a singer of enka folk ballads, a local boy made good.

Born on Amakusa in 1971, Ryuji Hamasaki worked after graduation from high school as a salariman at an electrical design firm for many years before chucking it in to serve as an apprentice to a famous songsmith, Toru Funamura, and finally releasing a debut single in 2005 under the stage name Amakusa Jiro (天草二郎, “the second son of Amakusa”), in tribute to Amakusa Shiro, the leader of the Shimabara-Amakusa Rebellion. Those legendary lines of William Faulkner, about a very different time and place, sprang to mind: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

The moral rectitude of the balladeer’s hairstyle, which could have been cropped into its just-so contours at any time over the last half-century, is underscored by the catch-copy:


An honest fellow for times like these!!

The poster is for the debut single, Amakusa Katagi (天草かたぎ), which might be rendered, with a nod to Billy Joel, as Amakusa State of Mind. The lyrics cover familiar enka tropes, a formulaic directory of expressions and images designed to summon forth instant nostalgia for the hometown—in this case, it’s the cold comforts of sake for the sons of fisherfolk marooned in Tokyo, who recall fondly the house on the cape, the drying persimmons, and of course mother, while bewailing the impossibility of return—but it ends with an ambiguous couplet that departs from the familiar


and which could be interpreted in two ways: “Hot-bloodedness/Amakusa state of mind”, which is in all likelihood what the lyricist intended, or “Red rivers of blood/Amakusa state of mind”, in a nod to the islands’ blood-soaked past.

Crossing from Kamishima, the upper island, to Shimoshima, the lower island, I paused awhile in Hondo, the largest town on the archipelago, replete with a 24-hour drive-in McDonalds, a Uniqlo, pachinko parlors with giant LCD screens, gaudy car dealerships and all the other delights of the contemporary urban experience. This has been post-war Japan’s great genius, to spread the light of a modicum of prosperity to even the most benighted places of the land.

Downtown, however, the Gintengai shopping arcade, finished in 1973, was more exquisitely deserted than any I have ever strolled.

The entranceways to the arcades were adorned with monstrous signboards featuring collages so nightmarish they would scare the most determined shopper away.

While perhaps only a third of the stores had given up the ghost, doom hung heavy in the air for the rest.

One of the survivors was a rare combination these days, and one that might require elucidation for younger readers: an independent retailer of compact discs. Compact discs, familiarly known as “CDs”, were optical discs used to physically store digital data, often music, and independent retailers were those not affiliated to any larger chain.

Being a stick-in-the-mud technophobe, I only have a CD player in the car, and it so happened that I was after a particular CD—Lily of da Valley, an album of metal-tinged candle-in-the-air hip-hop anthems by Dragon Ash, not out of any longstanding affection for the band but because a few days earlier I’d bought a T-shirt designed by leader Kenji Furuya and in an inversion of the usual process (“You loved the songs! Now buy the T-shirt!”) wanted to hear the music.

I was in luck; it was in stock. Behind the counter stood a graying woman in a cardigan.

“This is Japanese music, you know?”

Does she, I wondered, ask the obverse of a Japanese customer buying a Beatles album.

“Yes, I know. In fact, I’m wearing a Dragon Ash T-shirt.”

She peered blankly at the T-shirt, which bears the opening line of William Blake’s Lily:

The modest Rose puts forth a thorn,
The humble sheep a threat’ning horn:
While the Lily white shall in love delight,
Nor a thorn nor a threat stain her beauty bright.

Across her face, the waters of cognition receded from the shores of reason. Snapping back to the present, she mumbled, “That’ll be Y3,045 ($36.50), please.”

No wonder piracy is killing music. She entered the purchase in pencil in a ledger, as I strained to read it upside-down and tally up her sales: over Y20,000 ($240). Not bad for mid-afternoon, I thought, and then realized this was the total for the week to date. It was Thursday.

Still the nagging feeling that something was wrong was dogging me.

The real reason I had come to Amakusa was the discovery that in the January 2010 Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport land price survey, the price of residential land had fallen faster at two locations on Amakusa than anywhere else in provincial Japan—down by 16.1% and 15.8%, following declines of 14.4% and 15.2% in 2009, when they ranked third and first fastest fallers.

In the aftermath of the housing bubble across the West, drops of a third or so in couple of years might not sound exceptional, but residential—and commercial—land prices have been falling across provincial Japan without interruption since 1993, with the regional residential average down by nearly two-thirds from the peak. The situation is not so different in the big cities—Tokyo residential land prices are 40% of their 1991 peak and commercial land prices just 25%—but there were glimmers of stabilization in 2006 to 2008, hopes snuffed out for now by recession. No such hopes were sparked across provincial Japan: you don’t have to be familiar with the theory that the worth of a piece of land is the discounted present value of its future cash flows nor an expert in hedonic regression analysis to sense instinctively that land price stability remains a distant daydream across swathes of the nation.

Amakusa, though, was playing hard to get: while Hondo had the odd roped-off gas station, pumps pulled out like so many rotten teeth, and its share of shuttered curbside laundromats and patisseries and dry cleaners, the blight was not as dismal or general as I had expected. What I needed, I decided, was a real estate agent.

Half of Mori Fudosan’s window was taken up with rental apartments, priced in the Y30,000-Y50,000 a month ($350-$600) range, which would consume a fair chunk of an Amakusa salary—and you would obtain scant gratification from living in any of them. While Japan excels at food porn and fashion porn, it cannot but help falling flat on its face when it comes to property porn.

Mr Mori, in his fifties, and his comely twentysomething daughter betrayed no foreknowledge but also no trace of surprise when I told them of Amakusa’s latest claim to notoriety. To what did they ascribe the plunge in the price of land, I asked.

Immediately Mr Mori took charge and launched into a tirade against the new Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) administration.

“Things might be all very fine for you folk up in Tokyo, but we’ve got nothing to survive on but construction down here.”

He was clearly a fervent believer in concrete over people rather than the DPJ slogan “people over concrete”. Certainly, dotted around Amakusa were hoardings demanding more roads, including one that fancifully demanded a bridge, which would need to be at least a couple of kilometers long, to the island of Shishijima (pop. 1,050 and heading in only one direction). These hoardings often sign off with “this is the ardent desire of the people”, although as they are erected not by people but by bureaucrats, it’s hard to be sure how ardent the people’s desires are. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that the DPJ had only been in power for only four months when the land price survey was conducted and that even the most ham-fisted bunch of merry incompetents could not have contrived to send the price of Amakusa land spiraling lower in such a brief spell.

“What we need is an expressway to the mainland.”

I didn’t have the heart to tell him that the “straw phenomenon” (ストロー現象), whereby improved transport infrastructure paradoxically causes the district it was designed to invigorate instead to atrophy, as people and life are sucked away to the big city bright lights which burn with even greater luster, just as a drinker drains a glass, means that an expressway is the very last thing Amakusa needs.

“What about tourism?”

“Oh, that’s a non-starter. We’ve got nothing to see, well, nothing special anyway, nothing people elsewhere don’t have themselves.” Amakusa’s brooding past does indeed hang heavy over the islands like a malignant vapor; tales of insurrection and execution are not the stuff of holiday postcards home.

“Jumbo Ozaki [94-time Japan Golf Tour winner] was going to build a resort here, but it all came to nothing.” I didn’t have the heart to tell him that was probably for the best, as Jumbo declared bankruptcy in 2005, with liabilities of over Y5bn ($60mn), due to a string of golf course development failures.

“They tried cultivating olives, too, but that didn’t work out either. The boars ate all the olives.”

I thanked the Moris for their time. They had plenty of it; in the half-hour I was with them, no phone rang and no customer darkened their door.

Changes in the price of land are best thought of as a subspecies of inflation (or deflation, which is only a subset of inflation). Large moves in either direction, like inflationary and deflationary spirals, are best avoided, as the West has learned to its great cost over the last decade.

Japan’s Bubble, though, was almost an order of magnitude greater than anything seen in all but the frothiest property markets of the West: from 1974 to 1991, the price of land essentially quadrupled in Tokyo and tripled nationwide, with the price more than doubling in Tokyo in just two years, from end-1986 to end-1988. The US median house price, by contrast, took a decade, 1997-2006, to rise to $250,000 from $150,000.

While the run-up in land prices teased some nasty creatures from the woodwork, such as the jiageya land shark mobsters who specialized in turfing folk off their land or out of their homes to make way for redevelopment projects for rapacious realtors, the achingly long descent has on balance produced more, and more enduring, pain. The one thing that can be said in its favor is that growing affordability has lured people back to city centers: the population is rising in all but one of Tokyo’s 23 wards. On the debit side, many buyers were trapped at the top and are sinking further underwater two decades on. Even those who bought on the way down must confront the ugly reality that real estate is now not in any way a store of value, but, due to falling land prices and built-in housing obsolescence, a one-way losing bet—and nowhere is it a losinger bet than on Amakusa.

Heading out of Hondo, I detoured to Amakusa Airport, which was celebrating its 10th anniversary.


Of all Japan’s provincial airports, Amakusa is in many ways the most ludicrous. It is a bastard child of the Bubble, though it wears its Bubble inheritance lightly. The idea for an airport on Amakusa first surfaced in 1982 and it was given the imprimatur of the Minister of Transport in 1990, that fateful year of imagined infallibility, with construction beginning in 1992 and services in 2000.

So marginal is it that in Japanese it is dubbed an aerodrome rather than an airport; so marginal is it that no airline could be found to fly to it, so Amakusa and the prefecture had to create their own, Amakusa Airlines, from scratch; so marginal is it that it will be forever hamstrung by its 1,000m runway, too short to accommodate the latest generations of commuter planes.

Money was seemingly still no object as late as 1999, when the nascent airline bought a brand new 39-seater Bombardier DHC8-103, which remains its only aircraft. By the fiscal year to March 2004 (FY3/04) the airline was in the red, where it has stayed ever since. Cumulative losses had already stacked up to Y350mn (about $4.2mn) by FY3/07. Because the sole aircraft is pressed into such heavy duty, with three round trips a day to Fukuoka, Kyushu’s largest city, and one a day to Kumamoto, the prefectural capital, it has been beset by mechanical woes and is frequently out of commission, as it was on the day I was there.

All flights were cancelled and would remain so for a fortnight.

Passenger numbers peaked in FY3/06 at 85,600. In the six months to September 2010, they were down to 32,400, an annual run-rate of about 65,000. The passenger load factor on both routes was around 54%, far below breakeven at around 65%-70%. In FY3/09, revenue was down 12% from the year before and the operating loss margin an eye-watering 44%, which means the airline was effectively spending Y144 for every Y100 it took in. With its capital almost depleted, the fate of Amakusa Airlines hangs by a gossamer thread.

Amakusa Airlines is but a microcosm of the woes of the airline industry, plagued as it is with too many airports, too many airlines, and too many flights: of the 21 commuter airlines, only five were consistently profitable from FY3/07-FY3/09. JAL, the nation’s largest carrier, began axing domestic routes in October as part of its post-bankruptcy rehabilitation plan: with 30 routes going and reduced services on a further 13, the skies over Japan will grow quieter and emptier, although not yet quiet and empty enough.

Deeper and deeper into the fastnesses of Amakusa I drove. In the sleepy onsen resort town of Shimoda stood an excrescence of the Bubble so hideous I feared it would shatter the camera lens. 

In general, the more wincingly random the agglomeration of languages in the name of a place, the closer it is to the epicenter of the Bubble, and the hotel Jardin Marl Boyokaku (“the tower with ocean prospects and a garden of kaolin”) must have been at ground zero.

We are stuck with the word “bubble” to describe asset manias, thanks to the South Sea Bubble of 1711-1720, but its childish overtones, suggestive of the soap bubbles blown by a toddler, the bubbles rising from the mouth of a child’s drawing of a fish, or the bubblegum bubble blown by a teen, fail to capture the damage done by real-world asset-price bubbles, which are more like malevolent pockets of methane gas lingering in some forgotten pipe missing from the plat which, hit by some contractor’s drill, explode to kill and maim those known in movie credits as innocent bystanders.

When the ban on Christianity was revoked by the Meiji government in 1873, the missionaries returned, although they were not to meet with the proselytizing successes of three centuries before: the church at Oe, completed in 1933 by French missionary Louis Frederic Garnier, who arrived on Amakusa in 1892, is one of only three on the archipelago, and their combined congregation accounts for less than 1% of the population. 

It was abidingly eerie to see a church of such heft in such a lofty location: what with the sultriness of the afternoon, the subtropical verdancy, and the buzz-sawing of the cicadas, I felt as though I had stepped into a scene from the Philippines.

Not far beyond Oe rests the tiny port of Sakitsu, where Tomoko Yamazaki first encountered the former child-prostitute Osaki, who lived half-an-hour’s walk away, and home to one of the other two churches.

The first church at Sakitsu was erected by Luis de Almeida in 1569. Persecution of believers was particularly merciless in Sakitsu, according to the commemorative plaque beside the church, forcing them underground to become the hidden Christians of lore, who kept their faith secret in midnight masses and faintly recalled Latin prayers for two-and-a-half centuries before the return of the missionaries. Rebuilt three times since the Meiji era, the last time in a Gothic style in 1934, the altar of the church at Sakitsu stands on a spot where Sakitsu’s hidden Christians, or those suspected of being so, were made to go through the annual ritual of fumi-e, the trampling of icons of the Virgin Mary and Jesus, with those who hesitated tortured and executed.

The church at Sakitsu was the inspiration for the opening passage of Sandakan Brothel No. 8:

As I sit before my desk preparing to write about the category of overseas prostitutes known as karayuki-san, I find that one particular scene continues to surface in my memory. The setting is Tenshudo, Lord of Heaven Chapel, in the town of Sakitsu, at the southern end of Amakusa-Shimo Island…

It must have been about three o’clock. Although it wasn’t the time of day you would expect people to shut themselves up in their homes, in the vicinity of the Tenshudo not only were there no adults, there wasn’t even a single child at play. Sakitsu was so quiet, it seemed to have been abandoned…

The doors of the Tenshudo stood ajar, as if it, too, were deserted. I walked in and looked around as my eyes adjusted from the outside light. When I focused on the form of a person crouched before the altar, my eyes interpreted it at first as a stone sculpture of a person in prayer. This was because, as the minutes flowed by, the old woman kneeling on the tatami, a rosary hanging from her clasped hands, neither uttered a word nor made a single movement. However, as my eyes grew accustomed to the dim interior of the Tenshudo and I could clearly discern everything from the image of the crucifixion, the statue of Mary, and each of the candlesticks on the altar in the front, to the stained-glass windows on either side, I realized that what I had mistaken for a stone image was actually the living flesh of an old peasant woman…

She looked to me as if she might have been seventy to seventy-five years old, and that was exactly the age of the karayuki-san that one might find still living on the Amakusa Islands or the Shimabara Peninsula. This old farm woman in silent prayer like a stone image—might she once have worked as a prostitute overseas?

…Her face, which I can see clearly now, two years later, as if she were right before my eyes, was furrowed with a number of wide wrinkles, while her fingers were short, with knotted joints. Different patterns at the elbows and knees betrayed the patches on her work clothes. If her attire indicated the poverty in which she now lived, and the wrinkles on her face spoke of the many difficulties she had faced during the course of her life, then I would probably not be going too far in interpreting the true intent of her fervent prayer, not as an idealistic request for the deliverance of humankind from original sin, but rather as a heart-rending wish that she ultimately be saved from a life of poverty and hardship.

More than forty years on, Sakitsu was unchanged, although nowadays it’s no longer possible to register surprise at there having been no child at play. Time appeared to have ground to a halt in the 1950s. An old man, naked from the waist up, squatted to chisel contentedly away at a block of wood, while down a narrow alley a stooped woman fed stray cats, just as Osaki did.

And there was the harbor at Sakitsu, from whence Osaki had sailed, aged 10 or so, some hundred summers before I stood on its shore, to Nagasaki and ultimately Sandakan in the British protectorate of North Borneo, a journey that took many months, to serve first as an indentured maid and then, after a couple of years, as an indentured prostitute, bound by largely fabricated debt from flight.

Given the grimness of its subject matter, Sandakan Brothel No. 8 could be a monstrously dispiriting book. That it is anything but is testament to the way it straddles genres, its academic pretensions constantly undercut by the passion of the author. It is by turn quest, travelogue, oral history, and the tale of an implausible friendship that blossoms between two women across the boundaries of time and age, place and class. Above all, it is a celebration of Osaki, the talker to frogs on paths, the adorer of children, and the shelterer of cats without homes, whose antecedents span holy fools like the Zen monk and hermit Ryokan but also the wise old women of European fable and folklore:

Although she had emphasized that it was “a dreadful house”, I was amazed that a human being could actually live there. … Although the black pillars that supported the house somehow stood up straight, the miscanthus-thatched roof, which had not been rethatched in decades, looked like a heap of compost. On the south side grew wild chrysanthemums and dandelions, while various kinds of ferns had colonized the north. To me, it looked just like a witch’s house described in fairy tales…

Cobwebs three feet long hung from the low ceiling. Here and there the roughly plastered clay walls had crumbled in, and both the interior and exterior paper sliding doors, the fusuma and shoji, had been reduced to the skeletal structure of their wooden frames. The tatami mats in the sitting room appeared to have rotted entirely, for as I stepped into the house on her invitation, my feet sank into the mats as if I had set foot in a rice paddy. Not only did the dampness of the mats cling to the soles of my bare feet, but as I braced myself to bend down, a number of centipedes crawled up toward my knees. Overcome with revulsion, I peered down at them, only to find that the straw mats had become one giant centipede nest.

The tides of trafficking have long turned since Osaki’s day, and Japan is a destination rather than a source of trafficked women, although clampdowns by the authorities and downturns by the economy have improved matters meaningfully since the gory days of the Bubble and its aftermath, when—as I know from personal experience—every flea-bitten hostess joint in every two-bit town from Nemuro to Nagasaki was staffed by Southeast Asians and even the remotest ryokan was not replete without an “entertainer” from Manila or Medan. More needs to be done—Japan remains a signatory to but not a ratifier of the 2000 UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime and its protocols, in particular the one to “Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children”—but however horrific contemporary trafficking is, one can’t help but feel it was worse a century ago:

[There are also tragic tales] about women hidden as stowaways in water tanks. One such account tells of a number of women who hid in a tank that the trafficker and seamen involved assured them would remain empty. However, through some human error the water was turned on and the tank began to fill. The terrified women broke their promise of silence and began beating on the metal sides of the tank and screaming. The water gradually rose to their ankles, then to their knees, and then up to their chests and continued to rise. After the ship had been underway for several days, a seaman turned on a faucet and began to drink, when he noticed a long hair come floating into his glass. Strange, foul-smelling bubbles rose up through the water. When crew members investigated the water tank, they found the bodies of women, so badly decomposed they no longer retained their shape. In the high temperatures of the southern route, bacterial decomposition was a rapid process.

Sandakan Brothel No. 8 went on to sell more than a million copies and be translated into five languages, while the film of it, shorn of the troublesome “brothel” word, was nominated for the 1975 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Osaki, her last years leavened a little by income from the book, died on April 30, 1984, as old as the century.

The dull and timid day, harangued by clouds, had grown tired of itself and was ready to surrender to dusk as, vexed by an amorphous discordance, I entered the town of Ushibuka, to which I took an immediate, unusual, and visceral dislike. Perhaps it was the bleak walls of the junior high, more concentration camp than place of learning.

Perhaps it was the dreary shudder brought on by the monotony of the lifeless tenements.

Perhaps it was the way the bridge, another Bubble era vanity project, completed in 1997 and designed by Renzo Piano, architect of the Pompidou Center in Paris, disfigured the bay.

It was then I spied them: two crude effigies severed at the bottom of the torso, one with matted Jesus locks, one covered, repulsively, in flying ants, strung up on trees outside a wholesale produce market.

Was this, I feverishly wondered, a modern reenactment of the fate of Amakusa Shiro and his band of rebels, a macabre admonition by some nameless authority of the futility of revolt? It was all I could do to raise the camera before turning tail and taking flight to the mountains and the haven of a rustic onsen, where I found, to great relief, that the unease that had been stalking me had shuffled off, to be replaced by a fragile composure.

Next morning, the ferry schedule allowed a few moments to capture the spent melancholy of Ushibuka, where the price of land is falling fastest in all the nation, through the exhausted sadness of its signs

before the ferry carried me away to other, sunnier, islands, islands not of dread.

[With many thanks to A.E. for the karayuki-san tip-off.]