Sex, Soap and Silk: Japanese Businesswomen in North Queensland, 1887–1941


Few historians have considered Japanese women in northern Australia beyond their role as impoverished sex workers, overlooking their entrepreneurial activities in the sex industry as well as in laundries and shops. This article adds to research by Su-Jane Hunt (1977) and Yuriko Nagata (2004) about Japanese women who were entrepreneurs and community members in Western Australia and the Torres Strait, incorporating more detail about their business activities throughout north Queensland, both within the sex industry and outside it. A mosaic of newly accessible documentary sources—including newspaper, immigration and internment records—provides the foundation for a more complex history of Japanese women and their roles in the economic life of north Queensland between 1887 and 1941. This material reveals that Japanese women worked in partnership with their husbands, or sometimes as sole operators, to manage and run businesses such as brothels, laundries, stores and even cafes. Not all Japanese women were in business, but discussing those who undertook business activities invites us to cast aside the ‘moral suspicion’ that has loomed over these women’s stories. The reality of their lives was far more interesting

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