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Studio photo of a Japanese nursemaid and her charge, 1890s

Studio 1890s
The Burden of Youth (4)

Artist Reiji Esaki
Publisher Reiji Esaki
Medium Albumen Print
Period Meiji
Location Studio
Image No. 170605-0031
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PART 1 | PART 2 | PART 3 | PART 4

This is Part 4 of an essay about komori (子守), young girls hired for childcare. They carried the burdens of the modern age on their young backs.


Indentured komori completely vanished from Japan’s landscape after postwar reforms prohibited child labor in 1947 (Showa 22). Photos from the 1950s show komori, but these are elder children taking care of younger siblings.

By the 1960s these scenes also faded away, and by the end of the 20th century even mothers were rarely seen carrying infants and toddlers around on their back using the traditional strap of textile.

These days, babies are generally carried in front in one of the arms, or using a sling or carrier. Strollers are also popular. As soon as children are old enough they are ridden around on mamachari (ママチャリ), the ubiquitous “mom’s bike” which often features two child seats.

Young Japanese girls with umbrellas carrying babies, ca. 1950
Young girls with umbrellas carrying babies, ca. 1950 (Showa 25). Unattributed, color film slide.
Two Japanese mothers with children in Kyoto, 1950s
Two Japanese mothers with children in Kyoto, 1950s. Unattributed, color film slide.

The history of the marginalized is rarely recounted, especially not in history books. This is true for working komori as well. Few people in Japan are aware of this aspect of their history. The memories of the harsh lives that indentured komori lived have almost completely vanished from Japan’s collective memory.

Countless photographs and art works have survived. But far too many of these are stylized and cleansed representations, cute nostalgic illustrations such as those found in children’s books, or “purified” photographs like the studio image shown at the top of this page in which Japanese photographer Reiji Esaki (江崎礼二, 1845–1910) made the komori look angelic.

She looks more like the idealized image of a mother promoted by the ideology of Good Wife, Wise Mother than the oppressed, marginalized and scorned girl most komori were. Esaki’s photograph is beautiful, as are most of the photographs and illustrations of komori, but few represent the reality of the komori’s existence.

Japanese  boy komori at a candy vendor, 1910s
Art Nouveau style illustration of a boy komori at a candy vendor, 1910s. Seikado Studio, collotype print on postcard stock.
Illustration of a komori knitting, 1910s
Illustration of a komori knitting, 1910s. Unattributed, collotype print on postcard stock.

However, a true legacy of komori does remain. We have the rare accounts written by women who worked as komori, such as Sayo Masuda’s Autobiography of a Geisha. There are also studies about komori, such as those by Japanese anthropologist Mariko Tamanoi, whom I have cited generously in this essay.

Incidentally, even Tamanoi was unaware of komori as work when she started her study in the 1980s:54

Until I began my field research in Nagano, I was unaware that komori as “work” had existed in the history of modern Japan. My understanding of the term was purely at the level of its etymology, that is, “to take care of children.” When the women of various groups presented it as a kind of work, I understood that the work of komori marked the beginning of their consciousness as “working” women.

Komori Songs

The komori’s greatest legacy may be the songs they created. Here the story gets a little confusing. Komori uta (子守唄), though literally “komori song”, usually means “lullaby”. There are actually two types of komori uta: a) lullabies sung by anyone caring for children, and b) work songs that komori sang for themselves. The latter are also known as moriko uta (守り子唄, babysitter songs). In this essay I have called the second type komori songs.

These songs were extremely important to the komori. Anthropologist Tamanoi calls the songs the komori’s “weapons” which signified “symbolic alienation from the values dictated by the state.” The songs give us a rare insight into what the komori’s life was truly like, as well as the girls’ emotional pain:55

In the verses of their songs, the komori could express their feeling of bitterness and sorrow toward their own lives, mock the language and attitudes of their masters and mistresses, caricature the moral teaching they received in the name of special education, protest the scornful eyes of their neighbors, and reject the norms of “good wives and wise mothers” while affirming their identities as human beings with their own wills.

Komori sang constantly and some even had singing battles (唄げんか, Uta Genka), as happened at Ume (宇目) in Oita Prefecture. This usually started at dusk after the end of a long day of work was near.

One komori would start singing, another komori would sing in response. When other komori heard this they would rush to the scene to join in. “There were no rules as to when, where, or how many. Two groups of komori naturally formed, facing each other across a stream or a road.”56

Japanese komori nursemaid in the countryside, 1910s
To keep her hair from falling onto the baby's face some komori wrapped a towel around their head. A more common solution was to tie the hair into a bun. Unattributed, collotype print on postcard stock, 1910s.

The komori songs could have been completely forgotten were it not for researchers like Tamanoi, and the “Emergency Folk Song Survey” (民謡緊急調査, minyō kinkyū chōsa) planned by the Japanese Ministry of Culture in the late 1970s.

By 1993 (Heisei 5) the project had collected some 50,000 songs and variants, including many komori songs. The survey results have been printed as volumes devoted to a single prefecture or major urban area.57

Komori songs survived in another way. Several were recorded by Japanese bands during the folksong revival movement of the 1970’s and 80’s. Some of these reached the hit charts. Two that became especially popular were Itsuki no Komori Uta (五木の子守唄), recorded by various artists, and Takeda no Komori Uta (竹田の子守唄) recorded by, amongst others, folk rock band Off Course in 1974 (Showa 49) and Junko Yamamoto (山本潤子):58

The nursemaid hates the season after bon.
It snows and the baby cries.

This baby cries all the time. This baby pulls my hair.
I get thinner day by day nursing the baby.

I want to go home. I want to leave this village.
Far over there I see my parents’ house.

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Idealized Maternal Love

The memory of komori has survived in one other way. Although komori were seen as a social issue, with crude manners and language, many men later idolized the komori that raised them as an “idealized version of maternal love.”59

A good example of this is famed Japanese author Osamu Dazai (太宰治, 1909–1948) who had a komori named Take. In Return to Tsugaru: Travels of a Purple Tramp, first published in November 1944 (Showa 19), he writes about meeting her thirty years after they last met:60

Take was someone whom I particularly wanted to meet during this trip to Tsugaru. I think of her as my own mother. It was close to thirty years since I last saw her, but I had not forgotten her face. I might even say that it is because of her that my life has any direction at all.

Although she had been only thirteen when she took care of the young Dazai, he remembered her as “a mature person in no way different from the Take I now see before me.” He recalls how she taught him to read and took him to a temple to explain Buddhist scrolls with “the pictures of heaven and hell” to teach him about “good and evil.” He even recognizes himself in his former komori:61

When I saw how strongly and freely she showed her affection, I realized how like her I am. It dawned on me that it is as a result of her influence, of the influence of this dear foster mother, that I alone of all my brothers and sisters have such a rustic, such an uncouth side to my character.

Interestingly, Take recounted the meeting with Dazai in an interview with the scholar of Japanese literature Shōichi Sōma (相馬正一, 1929–2013). Her account differs so significantly that it becomes clear that Dazai’s “retelling” in Return to Tsugaru was fiction. Take was surprised about his visit, didn’t understand why he came, and even tried to evade and ignore him.62

In Return to Tsugaru Dazai described a search for love, so he might have been sincere in writing that he learned to express his true feelings from his former komori, and that he thought of her as his own mother. Take however, did not share this feeling.

Another example of this idealized image of komori is the famous children’s song Akatombo (赤とんぼ, Red Dragonfly) by Japanese composer Kōsaku Yamada (山田耕筰, 1886–1965) and poet Rofū Miki (三木露風, 1889–1964).

Written in 1927 (Showa 2), the song is still popular today. In 1989 (Heisei 1), Japanese broadcaster NHK conducted a nationwide survey to discover Japan’s favorite song. Out of over 5,000 songs, Akatombo ranked first.63 The song represents the memories about a neeya (姐や), an elder or big sister (a komori):64

Red Dragonflies

Red dragonflies in the sunset
When was it that I watched them on someone’s back?

In mountain fields we gathered mulberries
In small baskets
Or was it just a dream?

At fifteen my big sister left home to get married
Her letters have long since ceased to come

A red dragonfly in the sunset
On the tip of a bamboo pole

Notes on Photographs

Komori were a favorite subject of domestic and foreign photographers, as well as a large number of artists. I found a lot more images of komori in my collection than I was aware of. Learning about the actual daily conditions of komori, it became obvious that the great majority of photographs and prints offered a romanticized portrayal of the girls.

One photographer however offers an important exception, Nobukuni Enami (江南信國, 1859–1929). In the second half of the 1910s he shot a series of over 700 photographs of everyday life in Japan, which includes many strikingly honest portraits of komori. The series exhibits a remarkable contrast with Enami’s previous work, which is always beautifully colored and shows a decidedly idyllic view of Japan. Note the Enami photo used as the top image in the first article:

Komori on a country road in the early 1900s
A group of komori on a country road in the early 1900s. Nobukuni Enami, hand colored glass slide.

Then contrast it with the following two images of essentially the same subject matter, a small number of komori:

Japanese komori nursemaids with their charges, 1910s
Komori fishing with their charges on their backs, 1910s. Nobukuni Enami, gelatin silver print.
Two Japanese komori nursemaids with their charges, 1910s
Two komori with their charges, 1910s. Nobukuni Enami, gelatin silver print.

The differences—in expressions, clothing, footwear, location, hairdos, hygiene, poses, etc.—are so obvious that no additional explanations are needed. The black and white photos are profoundly raw and direct.

Over the past few years I have been able to accumulate almost 600 prints of this series. Enami specialist Rob Oechsle—who first discovered Enami’s connection with these photographs—believes that this is now the largest existent collection. All the black and white gelatin silver prints in this extended essay are from this series.

I recommend going through the articles once more to look at these monochrome gelatin silver prints. They offer a unique visual record of komori during a time when the nation-state was in the process of absorbing, reforming, and erasing them.

One thing to be aware of with photographs of komori is that we cannot be sure if the komori is hired or a family member. The carrying of babies itself is not a marker of indentured labor or abuse—siblings, mothers and grandmothers also carried toddlers on their backs.

But not every elderly woman carrying a baby is a family member, some elderly women without income earned a living as komori. Only in some photographs is the family relationship obvious. The following one is a heartwarming example.

Young Japanese girl carrying an infant is holding the hand of her father, 1910s
A young girl carrying an infant is holding the hand of her father, 1910s. Nobukuni Enami, gelatin silver print.

Selected Bibliography

  1. Asano Tamanoi, Mariko (1991). Songs as Weapons: The Culture and History of Komori (Nursemaids) in Modern Japan. The Journal of Asian Studies, 50(4), 793–817.
  2. Asano Tamanoi, Mariko (1998). Under the Shadow of Nationalism. Politics and Poetics of Rural Japanese Women. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.
  3. Dixit, Aditi; Van Nederveen Meerkerk, Elise (2022). Supply of labour during early industrialisation: Agricultural systems, textile factory work and gender in Japan and India, ca. 1880–1940. The Indian Economic & Social History Review, 59 (2), 223–255.
  4. Embree, John F. (1946). A Japanese Village: Suye Mura. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., Ltd.
  5. Filler, Stephen; Koyama, Shizuko (2013). Ryōsai Kenbo: The Educational Ideal of ‘Good Wife, Wise Mother’ in Modern Japan. Leiden, Boston: Brill.
  6. Fujino Kakinami, Atsuko (2009). History of Child Labor in Japan in The World of Child Labor. New York: Routledge, 881–887.
  7. Garon, Sheldon (2010). State and family in modern Japan: a historical perspective. Economy and Society, 39:3, 317-336.
  8. Groemer, Gerald (1994). Fifteen Years of Folk Song Collection in Japan: Reports and Recordings of the “Emergency Folk Song Survey.” Asian Folklore Studies, 53(2), 199–209.
  9. Huffman, James L. (2018). Down and Out in Late Meiji Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.
  10. Masuda, Sayo (2003). Autobiography of a Geisha. New York : Columbia University Press.
  11. Paget, Rhiannon (2011). Raising subjects: The representation of children and childhood in Meiji Japan. The Japan Foundation, Sydney: New Voices Volume 4, 1-31.
  12. Smith, Robert J.; Wiswell, Ella Lury (1982). The women of Suye Mura. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  13. Tsurumi, E. Patricia (1990). Factory Girls: Women in the Thread Mills of Meiji Japan. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  14. Tsurumi, E. Patricia (1995). Whose History is it Anyway? And Other Questions Historians Should Be Asking. In this Case about the Cotton and Silk Thread Factory Women of Meiji Japan. Japan Review, 6, 17–36.
  15. Uno, Kathleen S. (1999). Passages to Modernity : Motherhood, Childhood, and Social Reform in Early Twentieth Century Japan. Hawaii: University of Hawaii Press.
  16. Wells, Keiko (1997). Japanese Folksongs Created by Child Nursemaids. 『立命館言語文化研究』 9巻1号, 251–288.
  17. 赤坂憲雄(1994). 子守り唄の誕生 五木の子守唄をめぐる精神史. 講談社.


54 Asano Tamanoi, Mariko (1998). Under the Shadow of Nationalism. Politics and Poetics of Rural Japanese Women. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 60.

55 Asano Tamanoi, Mariko (1991). Songs as Weapons: The Culture and History of Komori (Nursemaids) in Modern Japan. The Journal of Asian Studies, 50(4), 810.

56 赤坂憲雄(1994). 子守り唄の誕生 五木の子守唄をめぐる精神史. 講談社:第六章 宇目の唄げんか.

57 Groemer, Gerald (1994). Fifteen Years of Folk Song Collection in Japan: Reports and Recordings of the “Emergency Folk Song Survey.” Asian Folklore Studies, 53(2), 199–209.

58 Wells, Keiko (1997). Japanese Folksongs Created by Child Nursemaids. 『立命館言語文化研究』 9巻1号, 253.

59 Asano Tamanoi, Mariko (1998). Under the Shadow of Nationalism. Politics and Poetics of Rural Japanese Women. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 57.

60 Dazai, Osamu; Westerhoven, James (1985). Return to Tsugaru: Travels of a Purple Tramp. Tokyo, New York: Kodansha International, 152.

61 ibid, 153, 168, 171.

62 ibid, xxiv.

63 Pulvers, Roger (2009). Decade’s end abuzz and a-flutter with wist for a warm poetic past. The Japan Times.

64 English translation by







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Reference for Citations

Duits, Kjeld (). Studio 1890s: The Burden of Youth (4), OLD PHOTOS of JAPAN. Retrieved on April 12, 2024 (GMT) from

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