Prostitution: ‘mujeres publicas’ and ‘karayuki-san’ | Inquirer Opinion
Looking Back

Prostitution: ‘mujeres publicas’ and ‘karayuki-san’

/ 05:28 AM April 05, 2019

Gardenia, to millennials, is a popular brand of sliced bread. But to an older generation, it may refer to a short-time motel or the bustling red-light district closed by Manila Mayor Justo Lukban in October 1918.

On the other hand, Gardenia, to Filipino lawyers, refers to a landmark case whose decision penned by Justice Malcolm opens with: “The annals of juridical history fail to reveal a case quite as remarkable as the one which this application for habeas corpus submits for decision. While hardly to be expected to be met with in this modern epoch of triumphant democracy, yet, after all, the cause presents no great difficulty if there is kept in the forefront of our minds the basic principles of popular government, and if we give expression to the paramount purpose for which the courts, as an independent power of such a government, were constituted. The primary question is—shall the judiciary permit a government of men instead of a government of laws to be set up in the Philippine Islands?”

Today, one man speaks and acts against the laws and Constitution he swore to defend when it is inconvenient to his means and ends, but that is another story. In 1919, the question emerged from the Manila mayor’s well-meaning crusade to stamp out prostitution in the city; a century later, another mayor tried to stamp out the drug menace, both using a sledgehammer to kill a mosquito.

Police raided the Gardenia red-light district and rounded up 170 women (more, said some sources) who were then packed off to Davao without their knowledge and consent. Officials received them as “laborers,” not knowing they were exiled prostitutes. When asked to present a number of women to the court, the mayor claimed they were physically beyond his reach and authority. He was later held in contempt and fined P100 by the court. Justice Araullo dissented, because he wanted a P500 fine.


Prostitution often follows soldiers on R&R, and as early as 1898, the American colonial administration tolerated it as a military necessity, establishing a system of medical checkups of known prostitutes and records-keeping to stall an epidemic of venereal disease. Sampaloc, outside Intramuros, grew into the center of the red-light district, to get soldiers and prostitutes out of the commercial and business enclave of Escolta. By the time Mayor Lukban closed Gardenia, it filled up a block in the Tuason-Legarda estate, with 57 houses of prostitution and about 300 women, mostly Japanese expatriate prostitutes known as “karayuki-san.” There were no American prostitutes to be had after Governor-General William Cameron Forbes expelled them in 1912.

Karayuki-san is well-documented in Singapore. But in the Philippines, it’s been written up only by Motoe Terami-Wada, who provided a 1903 count by the Japanese Consul in Manila of 222 Japanese women in the following occupations: 43 nursemaids, four masseuses, one hairdresser, 16 operating liquor stores, 110 barmaids or waitresses in liquor stores, and 48 dependents of male Japanese workers. The 1903 US Census had a higher count and no euphemism: 260 Japanese prostitutes. In 1910, the Japanese Consul counted 122 women whose occupation in a census was merely listed as “others,” a hint of their true profession.

Lured from the Japanese countryside by pimps and runners and made to work throughout Southeast Asia as prostitutes, the untold stories of these women show that human trafficking was alive and well more than a century before our time.

Wada reproduced the lyrics of a popular song in 1910 that was published in the Tagalog section of the weekly magazine Renacimiento Filipino. Its title, translated from the original Tagalog, says: “Japanese low-flying doves who have nested in the sampaloc tree.” The song went: “Ako’y hindi si Remedios/ ako’y hindi si Chayong/ ang damit kong suot/ iba na sa ngayon/ damit na bagong galing sa Hapon/ Ako’y Haponesa, taga-ibang bayan/ at sa Balikbalik ay naninirahan/ uupo sa silya, laging nakadungaw/ at Amerikano ang siyang inaantay [I’m not Remedios/ I’m not Chayong/ my dress is different/ a new dress from Japan/ I’m foreign, I’m Japanese/ and live in Balic-balic/ I sit in a chair always searching/ waiting for the American].”


In Spanish archival records, prostitutes are referred to as vagrants, undocumented women, or “mujeres publicas.” Their story remains to be told, too.

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TAGS: ambeth ocampo, Americans, Japanese, Looking Back, MANILA, prostitution

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