Uemon and Hariprabha Takeda: Travelling into Lives

Uemon and Hariprabha Takeda

Marriage in most cases entails a shift of location for the woman as she moves from her natal home to her husband’s home. For Hariprabha Mallick, who married a Japanese migrant labourer working in a soap factory of Dhaka in 1907, matrimony entailed a trip to Japan to meet her in laws.  Madhurima Mukhopadhyay writes in two parts about Hariprabha’s extraordinary experiences in Japan. Here is the first part.

Japanese by birth, a migrant labour to colonial Bengal and married to Hariprabha Mullick (1890-1972) – a Brahmo Bengali woman, these were the several identities of Uemon Takeda (b.1875). One finds mention of Uemon Takeda, in Hariprabha’s thin volume titled, Bangamahilar Japan Jatra (A Bengali lady’s visit to Japan), a travelogue written in Bengali on her visit to Japan. The travelogue offers a Bengali woman’s perspective of a Japanese household in the early 1900s with reflections on contemporary Japanese society and culture. It was published in 1915, three years after the journey to Japan by the Takeda couple. This was the earliest published travelogue on Japan by a Bengali woman.

For Hariprabha this was her first visit to her shosurbari or in-law’s residence after her marriage in 1907 according to Brahmo rituals. It is not definitely known how Uemon Takeda came to India (then undivided) and finally to Dhaka or how he met Hariprabha and her family or about the period of courtship before marriage.

Hariprabha was born to philanthropic Brahmo parents, Sashibhushan and Nagendrabala Mullick in Dhaka. Hariprabha inherited the spirit of benevolence from her parents. She worked with utmost dedication for the improvement, maintenance and fund raising of the ‘rescue home’ for destitute women and children which had been set up by her parents. Uemon Takeda, a migrant worker to the Bulbul soap factory in Dhaka hailed from Shimamiya in Kochino town, Niwa county, Aichi prefecture. After the end of the autocratic Tokugawa period (1603-1867), the liberal Meiji period (Oct 23, 1868 – July 30, 1912) in Japan opened its gates to the world. During this period, many visited Japan for trade and commerce. Japanese individuals migrated to foreign countries including countries of the east and the west in search of livelihoods. Probably during this time Uemon Takeda arrived in Calcutta and then travelled to Dhaka. The soap factories in and around Dhaka were renowned during the early 1900s and it flourished almost like small-scale home-grown industries in places such as Farashgunj and Faridabad – the neighbourhood districts of Dhaka. Uemon, a trained chemist, joined the Bulbul soap factory in Dhaka. After his marriage with Hariprabha, Uemon set up his own soap factory in Dhaka under the name of Dhaka Soap Factory.

The travel account to Japan sparsely refers to Uemon Takeda. It narrates the experience of Hariprabha in a Japanese household while she writes about Uemon Takeda’s parents, his siblings and the love Hariprabha received from her mother-in-law. Towards the end of her account she expressed her desire of continuing to live with her mother-in-law who had such a simple and affectionate nature but she feared that such a hope would not come true. At the beginning of the account, she expressed her dream of visiting her in-laws and seeking their blessings. She also mentioned the financial help they received from others, including the Japanese businessman in Dhaka, Mr. Kohara, which had facilitated their travel abroad. The necessity of their visit to Japan was also expressed by Hariprabha when she mentioned the tremendous anxiety that the parents of Uemon Takeda had gone through for the past nine years because they received no news of their son and had left all hopes of seeing him alive. When they received the news of Uemon’s marriage and the visit of the newly-wed couple to Japan, the parents and family were much relieved. A Japanese daily, Kobe Yushin Nippo, had interviewed the couple in their hotel in Kobe and had published it. The couple attracted such popular attention because marriages among foreigners were extremely rare in Bengal and Japan during the early 1900s. From the interview of Uemon Takeda published in the daily on December 16th, 1912, we learn that Uemon was 37 years old and his wife 22-year-old when they arrived in Japan.

Hariprabha might be thought of as the Asian counterpart of Isabella Bird, a nineteenth-century English traveller and writer, who published her travelogue on Japan as Unbeaten Tracks of Japan in 1778. However, the distinctiveness of Hariprabha’s experience lies in the fact that she married a Japanese and visited her in-laws in a foreign land in the company of her husband. Hariprabha’s descriptions written in lucid Bengali are free from any extraneous colouring. At the same time, her book is not a mere guide book, and there is no shortage of personal opinions on the norms and behaviour of Japanese people, a fact which lends strength to this tiny volume. The account by this obscure housewife from erstwhile Bengal had delved into oblivion until it was retrieved and reprinted in 1999 by Sahitya Prakash, Dhaka (now Bangladesh). Rabindranath Tagore’s Japan Jatri, published in 1919 is widely read as a travelogue on Japan. Tagore’s writing being more philosophical and political in its texture is a sharp contrast to Hariprabha’s somewhat domestic and everyday account from the perspective of a young Bengali high-caste woman. This half-demy size 64-page travelogue is a rare record which has helped readers look into examples of non-standard migration and marriage. It narrates an experience, quite singular, for a woman of Bengal in the beginning of the twentieth century.

(Cover Image: Uemon and Hariprabha. Image courtesy: Manjusree Sinha, ed. and compiled, Bangamahilar Japanjatra o Onnanno Rachona. Hariprobha Takeda, Kolkata: D.M Library, 2009)

Madhurima Mukhopadhyay is a post doctoral fellow at the Institute of Development Studies, Kolkata. She can be reached at madhurima.mukhopadhyay@gmail.com. 

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