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Who Taught the Word skebe to Americans?: Skebe in Chicago's Japanese American Community - Part 2

W. T. Stead Map, 1894, shows the block bounded by Clark, Dearborn, Harrison, and Polk Streets in Chicago's First Ward. (Source: Encyclopedia of Chicago)

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Skebe” and the Columbian Exposition of 1893

In 1892, more Japanese began arriving in Chicago to prepare for Japan’s exhibit in the Columbian Exposition, to be held the following year. The Chicago Tribune reported that “a large and constantly increasing and firmly established colony of Japanese was observed.”1 In November 1892, about forty Japanese, including the officials responsible for the exhibition (such as Masamichi Kuru, the official architect, Yoshihiko Yambe, the secretary, and twenty-five carpenters who would build the Japanese pavilion) got together with local Japanese residents in a house located at 5503 Cornell Avenue to celebrate the Emperor’s birthday.2 The house had been rented as lodging for Japanese exposition officials by Seiichi Tejima, director of the Tokyo High School of Industry, who was the Imperial Commissioner for the exhibit. A week or so later, on November 12, 1892, the Japanese Club was established at the Grand Pacific Hotel.3

In 1892, about twenty to twenty-five Japanese were living in Chicago.4 Just two years before, the 1890 census had recorded only two Japanese living in Cook County, where Chicago is located, proving that the population had grown rapidly. All of the local Japanese in Chicago, such as the university professors, businessmen, and students, joined the Japanese Club, and from then on, its membership steadily increased. They had meetings once a month.5  

The President of the Japanese Club was Dr. Masuo Ikuta; George Tsunenosuke Sakaki was Secretary; and K. Nakayama was Treasurer. Dr. Ikuta was an assistant in the Chemistry Department at the University of Chicago,6 Sasaki was a student studying literature and Christianity and working as clerk at the weekly newspaper, The Horseman,7 and Nakayama ran a Japanese goods store called “The Nippon” at 48 Adams St., between State and Wabash streets.

In this way, a small Japanese community was born in Chicago. Usually, Japanese clubs were established to promote mutual cooperation and friendship among members of Japanese immigrant communities. But the Chicago club was more than that, and indeed it seemed to be driven by a sense of mission and a pride in being Japanese, as expressed by members who said things like “The club will serve to keep alive … the Yamato-Damashii, or “Yamato-spirit” of that superlatively patriotic nation.”8 In fact, club members had a strong purpose: to tackle the serious social problem of prostitution.  

Japanese prostitutes began to appear on the West coast in the late 1880s and their numbers increased in the 1890s.9 To Japanese government officials, who were highly sensitive about the American image of Japan and the Japanese people, the prostitutes were not merely a stain on Japan’s national honor, but were also considered to be a major reason for the U.S. campaign to exclude the Japanese, similar to the Chinese exclusion movement.10 This was because they believed that one of the main reasons for strong anti-Chinese sentiment was the “high visibility of Chinese prostitutes” “who traded their sexuality in a semi-feudal manner.”11

In 1890, the Japanese consul in San Francisco was Sutemi Chinda, a Methodist who had studied in the U.S. in the 1870s. His religious background likely motivated him to tackle social vices such as gambling, alcohol, and prostitution. Masue Kawaguchi, “of Sausalito, California, who had been an active member of the Female Charitable Society in the Bay Area but also retained her Tokyo Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) membership,”12 lamented the problem of Japanese prostitutes, and sent a letter to Tokyo WCTU in 1890: in order to “prevent them from falling into the evil paths… we had been active to meet every steamer and to ask every arriving woman about their future means of living. Six to seven out of ten responded ambiguously and promised to see us at the church or the Charitable Society. By the following day, however, these women hid themselves somewhere.”13

In 1891, Japanese immigrants in Tacoma, Washington organized a group called Nihonjin-kai, who cooperated with public officials to deal with the problem of the Japanese prostitutes arriving from California.14 After receiving overseas petitions, in 1891, the Tokyo WCTU women pressed the Japanese Diet to pass a bill which punished not only solicitors but also the women themselves, in order to stop the overseas migration of Japanese prostitutes, but this move was in vain15 because “the large foreign currency remittances by Japanese prostitutes working overseas were vital to Japan’s economic development.”16

In Chicago, local Japanese were also concerned about the influx of Japanese prostitutes. Daigen Jumonji, a member of the Japanese club, was one such person. His brother, Shinsuke Jumonji, was a member of the Diet in Japan. Originally from Sendai, Daigen Jumonji had come to America in 1890. After studying business in Chicago, he worked as a manager at a Japanese company in Chicago.17

Jumonji had expressed his anxiety and concern about Chicagoans’ anti-Japan and anti-Japanese feelings in a letter to his family when he was a student. In his letter, he reported that local newspapers published many articles about Japanese women, some very negative, which could lead to anti-Japan sentiments. He also reported that some of these newspapers wrote about the Japanese government’s lack of interest in an education for girls and women, about the geisha, and about “vicious wives and concubines.”

Jumonji was distressed to even see garish illustrations used to explain this shameful history.18 For example, a Chicago Tribune article titled “Facts about The Japanese Women: They are not often such Delightful and Charming Creatures”19 could be listed among the negative media reports that caused Jumonji concern.

Accordingly, the Japanese Club in Chicago formed a committee to tackle the issue of vices concerning Japanese women, and Daigen Jumonji, Tsunenosuke Sasaki, Yoshihiko Yambe, Masuo Ikuta, and Takenosuke Furuya were chosen as committee members.20 Furuya had graduated from the law school of the University of Michigan in 1892 and lived in Chicago as the First Commissioner of the Japan Central Tea Traders’ Association for the Columbian Exposition in Chicago.21

The committee proposed to ban prostitutes, and their proposal was unanimously approved, reasoning that: “The World’s Fair is not merely an exhibition of art and crafts. It is an exhibition with all races of the world on display. Therefore, we have to put our best foot forward, showing our peculiar disposition and refinement to the world, keeping our social and international dignity, and make efforts to promote respect toward us from others. Once Japanese prostitutes come to Chicago, they will damage our reputation immensely.”22    

The members of the Japanese Club worked vigorously to prevent Japanese prostitutes from arriving in Chicago by meeting with detectives and asking government officials and other people with power for their cooperation.23 Despite their dogged efforts, they were unable to stop Japanese prostitutes from coming to Chicago.

In spring 1893, the year of the Columbia Exhibition, a Japanese newspaper reported that 300 prostitutes had been recruited to immigrate to the U.S, and that 23 Americans had helped by promising to utilize insider efforts to help them make their overseas passage. According to the article, more than 100 women had signed up to come to the U.S. with these American recruiters and Japanese officials were seriously investigating foreign steamers bound for several ports in Japan.24

It was further reported that there were five girls on a train that had arrived in Kyoto from Kobe in the afternoon of March 19th whose appearance was suspicious. However, when they were questioned, they said that they had been told that they would be going to Chicago to work at a restaurant. They had signed two-year contracts with someone by the name of Oda in Tokyo and the pay was to be thirty yen a month. They had left home without telling their families and had received only one month’s pay. Their names were Nui Miyata from Kobe, age 18, Miya Nakano from Wakayama, age 18, Shizu Takimoto from Okayama, age 17, Sayo Shidzuma from Hyogo, age 17, and Yumi Sakamoto from Osaka, age 21.25 In this way, Japanese women were gathered from all over Japan and shipped to Chicago.

It is unknown at this point how active these Japanese prostitutes were, behind the scenes, with visitors to the Columbian Exposition, but it is likely that some of them stayed in Chicago after the Fair was over. For example, an article about Japanese servants in Chicago called a Japanese female servant working for a South Side family a “Jap left over from the World’s Fair.”26

Some of these women might have continued in prostitution.

Part 3 >>


1. Chicago Tribune, December 10, 1892.

2. Chicago Tribune, November 4, 1892.

3. Chicago Tribune, November 13, 1892.

4. Chicago Tribune, December 11, 1892.

5. Yomiuri Shimbun, December 26, 1892.

6. Annual Register 1892-1893, University of Chicago.

7. Chicago Tribune, Dec 11, 1892, The Japan Weekly Mail Dec 31, 1892.

8. Chicago Tribune, Dec 11, 1892.

9. Ichioka, Yuji, The Issei: The World of the First Generation Japanese Immigrants 1885-1924, page 29.

10. Ibid, page 37-38.

11. Yasutake, Rumi, Transnational Women’s Activism: The United States, Japan and Japanese Immigrant Communities in California, 1859-1920, page 108-109.

12. Ibid, page 110.

13. Ibid, Jogaku Zasshi, Number 227, 1890.

14. Yoichi, Toga, Nichibei Kankei Zai-Beikoku Nihon-jin Hatten Shiyo, page 72.

15. Yasutake, page 110, Jogaku Zasshi, Number 227, 1890.

16. Yasutake, page 111.

17. Chicago Tribune, December 11, 1892.

18. Yomiuri Shimbun, August 30, 1891.

19. Chicago Tribune, May 9, 1891.

20. Jogaku Zasshi, Number 337, February 4, 1893.

21. Prominent Americans Interested in Japan and Prominent Japanese in America, page 83.

22. Yomiuri Shimbun, December 26, 1892.

23. Jogaku Zasshi, February 4, 1893.

24. Yomiuri Shimbun, March 29, 1893.

25. Yomiuri Shimbun, April 20, 1893.

26. Chicago Tribune, April 21, 1895.


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