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Behind the Scenes :: A Pillow Book

Mitchell Hagerstrom

The cover of Miss Gone-overseas is a vintage photo of a group of kimono-clad women that wraps both the front and back of the book. The women appear to be on some kind of outing — water and mountains in the background. My guess is Lake Biwa, northeast of the old capital of Kyoto and a popular tourist destination in Japan. I am grateful to these anonymous women for acting as stand-ins for the brothel workers in my book, and to Lake Biwa for standing in for the island of Pohnpei.

miss gone-overseas

The title, Miss Gone-overseas, is a translation of karayuki-san — the term for girls and young women who were sent as prostitutes to Japan’s Southeast Asian and Pacific Island colonies. For the most, they were unsophisticated and came from poor agricultural or fishing families who sold them to brokers who, in turn, passed them on to commercial brothel owners. Keep in mind that prostitution was legal in Japan until late in the American post-World War II occupation of that country.

My book was written as a first-person narrative in a form known as a pillow book (makura no soshi) — a notebook or collection of notebooks, much like Western diaries, recording events and impressions from the writer’s life. High, wooden pillows were necessary to preserve the complicated hair-dos of pre-modern Japanese women. Often these pillows were hollow, roomy enough for makura no soshi among the other necessities — not unlike the drawers of our modern bedside night stands.

I first encountered pillow books as a literary form in my early 20s at the Smiley Public Library in Redlands, California. I was still under a spell of enchantment from reading Murasaki’s Tale of Genji and I was seeking more of the same. In the stacks I found The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, also written at the end of the 9th Century and beginning of the 10th Century and also by a lady-in-waiting at the royal Japanese court. This was the Heian Age, a high renaissance compared to European countries then deep in the Dark Ages. So, from a court lady’s impressions and gossip I modeled my musings of a lowly brothel worker in a far corner of the Japanese Empire on a tropical Pacific island during World War II.

April 13, 2013 11:40 am

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