Slavery in Japan

Japan had an official slave system from the Yamato period (3rd century A.D.) until Toyotomi Hideyoshi abolished it in 1590. Afterwards, the Japanese government facilitated the use of "comfort women" as sex slaves from 1932 – 1945. Prisoners of war captured by the Japanese were also used as slaves during the Second World War.

Early slavery in Japan

The export of a slave from Japan is recorded in 3rd century Chinese historical record, but it is unclear what system was involved, and whether this was a common practice at that time. These slaves were called seikō (生口 "living mouth").

In the 8th century, slaves were called Nuhi (奴婢) and laws were issued under the legal codes of the Nara and Heian periods, called Ritsuryousei (律令制). These slaves tended farms and worked around houses. Information on the slave population is questionable, but the proportion of slaves is estimated to have been around 5% of the population.

Slavery persisted into the Sengoku period (1467–1615) even though the attitude that slavery was anachronistic seems to have become widespread among elites.[1] In 1590, slavery was officially banned under Toyotomi Hideyoshi; but forms of contract and indentured labor persisted alongside the period penal codes' forced labor. Somewhat later, the Edo period penal laws prescribed "non-free labor" for the immediate family of executed criminals in Article 17 of the Gotōke reijō (Tokugawa House Laws), but the practice never became common. The 1711 Gotōke reijō was compiled from over 600 statutes promulgated between 1597 and 1696.[2]

Portuguese enslavement of Japanese people

After the Portuguese first made contact with Japan in 1543, a large-scale slave trade developed in which Portuguese purchased Japanese as slaves in Japan and sold them to various locations overseas, mostly in Portuguese-colonized regions of Asia such as southern China and Goa but including Argentina and Portugal itself, until it was formally outlawed in 1595.[3] Many documents mention the large slave trade along with protests against the enslavement of Japanese. Although the actual number of slaves is debated, the proportions on the number of slaves tends to be exaggerated by some Japanese historians.[4] At least several hundred Japanese people were sold; some of them were prisoners of war sold by their captors, others were sold by their feudal lords, and others were sold by their families to escape poverty.[3] The Japanese slaves are believed to be the first of their nation to end up in Europe, and the Portuguese purchased a number of Japanese slave girls to bring to Portugal for sexual purposes, as noted by the Church in 1555. Sebastian of Portugal feared that this was having a negative effect on Catholic proselytization since the slave trade in Japanese was growing to larger proportions, so he commanded that it be banned in 1571.[5][6] However, the ban of preventing Portuguese merchants of buying Japanese slaves failed and the trade continued into the late 16th century.[7]

Japanese slave women were sometimes sold as concubines to Asian lascar and African crew members, along with their European counterparts serving on Portuguese ships trading in Japan, mentioned by Luis Cerqueira, a Portuguese Jesuit, in a 1598 document.[8] Japanese slaves were brought by the Portuguese to Macau, where some of them not only ended up being enslaved to Portuguese, but as slaves to other slaves, with the Portuguese owning Malay and African slaves, who in turn owned Japanese slaves of their own.[9][10]

Hideyoshi was so disgusted that his own Japanese people were being sold en masse into slavery on Kyushu, that he wrote a letter to Jesuit Vice-Provincial Gaspar Coelho on 24 July 1587 to demand the Portuguese, Siamese (Thai), and Cambodians stop purchasing and enslaving Japanese and return Japanese slaves who ended up as far as India.[11][12][13] Hideyoshi blamed the Portuguese and Jesuits for this slave trade and banned Christian proselytizing as a result.[14][15]

Some Korean slaves were bought by the Portuguese and brought back to Portugal from Japan, where they had been among the tens of thousands of Korean prisoners of war transported to Japan during the Japanese invasions of Korea (1592–98).[16][17] Although Hideyoshi expressed his indignation and outrage at the Portuguese trade in Japanese slaves, he himself was engaging in a mass slave trade of Korean prisoners of war in Japan.[18][19]

Filippo Sassetti saw some Chinese and Japanese slaves in Lisbon among the large slave community in 1578, although most of the slaves were black.[20][21][22][23][24]

The Portuguese "highly regarded" Asian slaves like Chinese and Japanese.[25] The Portuguese attributed qualities like intelligence and industriousness to Chinese and Japanese slaves which is why they favoured them.[26][27][28][29]

In 1595, a law was passed by Portugal banning the selling and buying of Chinese and Japanese slaves,[30] but forms of contract and indentured labor persisted alongside the period penal codes' forced labor. Somewhat later, the Edo period penal laws prescribed "non-free labor" for the immediate family of executed criminals in Article 17 of the Gotōke reijō (Tokugawa House Laws), but the practice never became common. The 1711 Gotōke reijō was compiled from over 600 statutes promulgated between 1597 and 1696.[31]

Before World War II

Karayuki-san, literally meaning "Ms. Gone Abroad" (technically -san is gender neutral), were Japanese women who traveled to or were trafficked to East Asia, Southeast Asia, Manchuria, Siberia and as far as San Francisco in the second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century to work as prostitutes, courtesans and geisha.[32] In the 19th and early 20th centuries, there was a network of Japanese prostitutes being trafficked across Asia, in countries such as China, Vietnam, Korea, Singapore and India, in what was then known as the ’Yellow Slave Traffic’.[33]

World War II

In the first half of the Shōwa era, as the Empire of Japan annexed Asian countries, from the late 19th century onwards, archaic institutions including slavery were abolished in those countries. However, during the Second Sino-Japanese War and the Pacific War, the Japanese military used millions of civilians and prisoners of war as forced labor, on projects such as the Burma Railway.

According to a joint study by historians including Zhifen Ju, Mitsuyoshi Himeta, Toru Kubo and Mark Peattie, more than 10 million Chinese civilians were mobilized by the Kōa-in (East Asia Development Board) for forced labour.[34] According to the Japanese military's own record, nearly 25% of 140,000 Allied POWs died while interned in Japanese prison camps where they were forced to work (U.S. POWs died at a rate of 27%).[35][36] More than 100,000 civilians and POWs died in the construction of the Burma Railway.[37] The U.S. Library of Congress estimates that in Java, between 4 and 10 million romusha (Japanese: "manual laborer"), were forced to work by the Japanese military.[38] About 270,000 of these Javanese laborers were sent to the Outer Islands and other Japanese-held areas in South East Asia. Only 52,000 were repatriated to Java.[39]

During World War II the Japanese empire used various types of foreign labor from its colonies, Korea and Taiwan. Japan mobilized its colonial labor within the same legal framework that was applied to the Japanese. There were different procedures for mobilizing labor. The method used first, in 1939 was the recruitment by private companies under government supervision. In 1942 it was introduced the official mediation method, where the government was more directly involved. The outright conscription was applied from 1944 to 1945.[40]

According to the Korean historians, approximately 670,000 Koreans, were conscripted into labor from 1944 to 1945 by the National Mobilization Law.[41] About 670,000 of them were taken to Japan, where about 60,000 died between 1939 and 1945 due mostly to exhaustion or poor working conditions.[42] Many of those taken to Karafuto Prefecture (modern-day Sakhalin) were trapped there at the end of the war, stripped of their nationality and denied repatriation by Japan; they became known as the Sakhalin Koreans.[43] The total deaths of Korean forced laborers in Korea and Manchuria for those years is estimated to be between 270,000 and 810,000.[44]

Since the end of the Second World War, numerous people have filed lawsuits against the state and/or private companies in Japan, seeking compensation based on suffering as the result of forced labor. The plaintiffs had encountered many legal barriers to be awarded damages, including: sovereign immunity; statutes of limitations; and waiver of claims under the San Francisco Peace Treaty.[45]

According to the United States House of Representatives House Resolution 121, as many as 200,000 "comfort women" [46] mostly from Korea and China, and some other countries and territories such as the Philippines, Taiwan, Burma, the Dutch East Indies, Netherlands,[47] and Australia[48] were forced into sexual slavery during World War II to satisfy Japanese Imperial Army and Navy members. Many of these women — particularly the Dutch and Australian women — were also used for hard physical labour, forced to work arduous tasks in the fields and roads such as digging graves, building roads and hoeing hard soil, in hellish heat while on starvation rations. While apologies have been handed out by the Japanese government and government politicians, including the Asian Women's fund, which grants donated financial compensations to former comfort women,[49] the Japanese government has also worked to downplay its use of comfort women in recent times, claiming that all compensations for its war conduct were resolved with post-war treaties such as the Treaty of San Francisco, and, for example, asking the mayor of Palisades Park, New Jersey to take down a memorial in memory of the women.[50]

See also


  1. Thomas Nelson, "Slavery in Medieval Japan," Monumenta Nipponica 2004 59(4): 463–492
  2. Lewis, James Bryant. (2003). Frontier Contact Between Choson Korea and Tokugawa Japan, p. 31–32.
  3. Hoffman, Michael (2013-05-26). "The rarely, if ever, told story of Japanese sold as slaves by Portuguese traders". The Japan Times. Archived from the original on 2021-07-05. Retrieved 2021-07-04.
  4. In the Name of God: The Making of Global Christianity By Edmondo F. Lupieri, James Hooten, Amanda Kunder
  5. Nelson, Thomas (Winter 2004). "Monumenta Nipponica (Slavery in Medieval Japan)". Monumenta Nipponica. Sophia University. 59 (4): 463–492. JSTOR 25066328.
  6. Monumenta Nipponica: Studies on Japanese Culture, Past and Present, Volume 59, Issues 3-4. Sophia University (Jōchi Daigaku). 2004. p. 463.
  7. Ehalt, Rumolo (2018). Jesuits and the Problem of Slavery in Early Modern Japan (PhD). Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. Retrieved 6 July 2021.
  8. Michael Weiner, ed. (2004). Race, Ethnicity and Migration in Modern Japan: Imagined and imaginary minorites (illustrated ed.). Taylor & Francis. p. 408. ISBN 0415208572. Retrieved 2014-02-02.
  9. Kwame Anthony Appiah; Henry Louis Gates Jr., eds. (2005). Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience (illustrated ed.). Oxford University Press. p. 479. ISBN 0195170555. Retrieved 2014-02-02. japanese slaves portuguese.
  10. Anthony Appiah; Henry Louis Gates, eds. (2010). Encyclopedia of Africa, Volume 1 (illustrated ed.). Oxford University Press. p. 187. ISBN 978-0195337709. Retrieved 2014-02-02.
  11. Monumenta Nipponica. Sophia University (Jōchi Daigaku ). 2004. p. 465.
  12. Joseph Mitsuo Kitagawa (2013). Religion in Japanese History (illustrated, reprint ed.). Columbia University Press. p. 144. ISBN 978-0231515092. Retrieved 2014-02-02.
  13. Donald Calman (2013). Nature and Origins of Japanese Imperialism. Routledge. p. 37. ISBN 978-1134918430. Retrieved 2014-02-02.
  14. Gopal Kshetry (2008). FOREIGNERS IN JAPAN: A Historical Perspective. Xlibris Corporation. ISBN 978-1469102443.
  15. J F Moran, J. F. Moran (2012). Japanese and the Jesuits. Routledge. ISBN 978-1134881123. Retrieved 2014-02-02.
  16. Robert Gellately; Ben Kiernan, eds. (2003). The Specter of Genocide: Mass Murder in Historical Perspective (reprint ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 277. ISBN 0521527503. Retrieved 2014-02-02. Hideyoshi korean slaves guns silk.
  17. Gavan McCormack (2001). Reflections on Modern Japanese History in the Context of the Concept of "genocide". Edwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies. Harvard University, Edwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies. p. 18.
  18. Olof G. Lidin (2002). Tanegashima - The Arrival of Europe in Japan. Routledge. p. 170. ISBN 1135788715. Retrieved 2014-02-02.
  19. Amy Stanley (2012). Selling Women: Prostitution, Markets, and the Household in Early Modern Japan. Vol. 21 of Asia: Local Studies / Global Themes. Matthew H. Sommer. University of California Press. ISBN 978-0520952386. Retrieved 2014-02-02.
  20. Jonathan D. Spence (1985). The memory palace of Matteo Ricci (illustrated, reprint ed.). Penguin Books. p. 208. ISBN 0140080988. Retrieved 2012-05-05. countryside.16 Slaves were everywhere in Lisbon, according to the Florentine merchant Filippo Sassetti, who was also living in the city during 1578. Black slaves were the most numerous, but there were also a scattering of Chinese
  21. José Roberto Teixeira Leite (1999). A China no Brasil: influências, marcas, ecos e sobrevivências chinesas na sociedade e na arte brasileiras (in Portuguese). UNICAMP. Universidade Estadual de Campinas. p. 19. ISBN 8526804367. Idéias e costumes da China podem ter-nos chegado também através de escravos chineses, de uns poucos dos quais sabe-se da presença no Brasil de começos do Setecentos.17 Mas não deve ter sido através desses raros infelizes que a influência chinesa nos atingiu, mesmo porque escravos chineses (e também japoneses) já existiam aos montes em Lisboa por volta de 1578, quando Filippo Sassetti visitou a cidade,18 apenas suplantados em número pelos africanos. Parece aliás que aos últimos cabia o trabalho pesado, ficando reservadas aos chins tarefas e funções mais amenas, inclusive a de em certos casos secretariar autoridades civis, religiosas e militares.
  22. Jeanette Pinto (1992). Slavery in Portuguese India, 1510-1842. Himalaya Pub. House. p. 18. ing Chinese as slaves, since they are found to be very loyal, intelligent and hard working' . . . their culinary bent was also evidently appreciated. The Florentine traveller Fillippo Sassetti, recording his impressions of Lisbon's enormous slave population circa 1580, states that the majority of the Chinese there were employed as cooks.
  23. Charles Ralph Boxer (1968). Fidalgos in the Far East 1550-1770 (2, illustrated, reprint ed.). 2, illustrated, reprint. p. 225. be very loyal, intelligent, and hard-working. Their culinary bent (not for nothing is Chinese cooking regarded as the Asiatic equivalent to French cooking in Europe) was evidently appreciated. The Florentine traveller Filipe Sassetti recording his impressions of Lisbon's enormous slave population circa 1580, states that the majority of the Chinese there were employed as cooks. Dr. John Fryer, who gives us an interesting ...
  24. José Roberto Teixeira Leite (1999). A China No Brasil: Influencias, Marcas, Ecos E Sobrevivencias Chinesas Na Sociedade E Na Arte Brasileiras (in Portuguese). UNICAMP. Universidade Estadual de Campinas. p. 19. ISBN 8526804367.
  25. Paul Finkelman (1998). Paul Finkelman, Joseph Calder Miller (ed.). Macmillan encyclopedia of world slavery, Volume 2. Macmillan Reference USA, Simon & Schuster Macmillan. p. 737. ISBN 0028647815.
  26. Duarte de Sande (2012). Derek Massarella (ed.). Japanese Travellers in Sixteenth-century Europe: A Dialogue Concerning the Mission of the Japanese Ambassadors to the Roman Curia (1590). Vol. 25 of 3: Works, Hakluyt Society Hakluyt Society. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd. ISBN 978-1409472230. ISSN 0072-9396.
  27. A. C. de C. M. Saunders (1982). A Social History of Black Slaves and Freedmen in Portugal, 1441-1555. Vol. 25 of 3: Works, Hakluyt Society Hakluyt Society (illustrated ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 168. ISBN 0521231507. Retrieved 2014-02-02.
  28. Jeanette Pinto (1992). Slavery in Portuguese India, 1510-1842. Himalaya Pub. House. p. 18.
  29. Charles Ralph Boxer (1968). Fidalgos in the Far East 1550-1770 (2, illustrated, reprint ed.). Oxford U.P. p. 225. ISBN 978-0-19-638074-2.
  30. Dias, Maria Suzette Fernandes (2007), Legacies of slavery: comparative perspectives, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, p. 71, ISBN 978-1-84718-111-4
  31. Lewis, James Bryant. (2003). Frontier Contact Between Choson Korea and Tokugawa Japan, p. 31-32.
  32. 来源:人民网-国家人文历史 (2013-07-10). "日本性宽容:"南洋姐"输出数十万". Ta Kung Pao 大公报.
  33. Fischer-Tiné 2003, pp. 163–90.
  34. Zhifen Ju, "Japan's Atrocities of Conscripting and Abusing North China Draftees after the Outbreak of the Pacific War", Joint study of the Sino-Japanese war, 2002,
  35. "Japan Today: Japan News and Discussion". Archived from the original on 7 February 2008. Retrieved 15 February 2016.
  36. "American Experience - Bataan Rescue - People & Events". PBS. Archived from the original on 27 July 2003. Retrieved 15 February 2016.
  37. "links for research, Allied POWs under the Japanese". Retrieved 15 February 2016.
  38. Library of Congress, 1992, "Indonesia: World War II and the Struggle For Independence, 1942-50; The Japanese Occupation, 1942-45" Access date: February 9, 2007.
  39. Younce, William C. (2001). Indonesia: Issues, Historical Background and Bibliography. Nova Publishers. p. 51. ISBN 978-1-59033-249-8 via Google Books.
  40. Nakano, Yoichi (1997). "Japan's Wartime Use of Colonial Labor: Taiwan and Korea (1937-1945)" (PDF).{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  41. brackman,87,253n "according to Korean historians. of 670,000 brought to Japan."Data on Japanese Democide of WWII, Lines 118-123
  43. Lankov, Andrei (2006-01-05). "Stateless in Sakhalin". The Korea Times. Archived from the original on 2006-02-21. Retrieved 2006-11-26.
  44. Rummel, R. J. (1999). Statistics of Democide: Genocide and Mass Murder Since 1990. Lit Verlag. ISBN 3-8258-4010-7. Available online: "Statistics of Democide: Chapter 3 - Statistics Of Japanese Democide Estimates, Calculations, And Sources". Freedom, Democracy, Peace; Power, Democide, and War. Retrieved 2006-03-01.
  45. LAW LIBRARY OF CONGRESS, JAPAN (September 2008). "Japan: WWII POW and Forced Labor Compensation Cases" (PDF). Library of Congress.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  46. Congress backs off of wartime Japan rebuke
  47. "The Chosun Ilbo (English Edition): Daily News from Korea". Archived from the original on 5 June 2008. Retrieved 15 February 2016.
  48. "Abe ignores evidence, say Australia's 'comfort women'". 3 March 2007. Retrieved 15 February 2016.
  49. "Japan's 'Atonement' to Former Sex Slaves Stirs Anger". The New York Times. 25 April 2007. Retrieved 15 February 2016.
  50. Kyung Lah, CNN (6 June 2012). "Forgotten faces: Japan's comfort women". CNN. Retrieved 15 February 2016. {{cite web}}: |author= has generic name (help)


  • Fischer-Tiné, Harald (June 2003). "'White women degrading themselves to the lowest depths' : European networks of prostitution and colonial anxieties in British India and Ceylon ca. 1880–1914". The Indian Economic & Social History Review. 40 (2): 163–190. doi:10.1177/001946460304000202. ISSN 0019-4646. S2CID 146273713.
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