In a July 13 column in the Seattle Times titled, “The yellowface of ‘The Mikado’ in your face,” editorial columnist Sharon Pian Chan calls attention to the offensive nature of a Seattle performance of The Mikado—a 19th century-written “comic opera” featuring 40 Japanese characters all played by white actors, including two Latinos. The performance is put on by Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society.
Chan writes: “The Mikado opens old wounds and resurrects pejorative stereotypes. The caricature of Japanese people as strange and barbarous was used to justify the incarceration of Japanese and Japanese Americans during World War II. Bainbridge Island was the first place in the country where U.S. citizens of Japanese descent were rounded up and expelled.”
The immediate reaction of people involved in the show to allegations of racism has been to ask those who are offended to not take things so seriously.
The producer of The Mikado, Mike Storie, told Chan, “Shutting down The Mikado because it offends our current sensibilities would be like banning historic books.”
In the play, KIRO radio host Dave Ross portrays a character called Ko-Ko, The Grand High Executioner of Titipu. Ross defended The Mikado on the Tom & Curley Show, saying that his performance is not unlike Yoyogi Park in Tokyo, where people dress up like Elvis—the implication being that it is normal and ineffectual for people to dress up as caricatures of another race.
The problem is that here in the United States, and particularly in the Pacific Northwest, caricatures of Japanese and Asian people have led directly to institutionalized racism and discrimination and generations of setbacks for specific groups of people.
Chan is correct to cite the incarceration of Japanese and Japanese Americans during World War II in Bainbridge Island and throughout the Northwest in order to educate those who do not understand the significance of taking part in racism, whether through art, language, social behaviors, or inaction.
It was just several decades ago that Asian Americans and other people of color could not own property in parts of Seattle because of boundaries set by real estate brokers acting on racist attitudes. The remnants of the Chinese Exclusion Act were not done away with in Congress until the Immigration Act of 1965. It was not until a Supreme Court ruling in 1967 that interracial marriage was fully legal in all U.S. states.
The International Examiner calls on the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society and the individuals performing in The Mikado to take this opportunity to listen to the people who are expressing hurt and anger and to take the time to understand why people are upset by learning about the history of discrimination against Japanese and Asian Pacific Islanders in the United States as a whole. It takes courage to set aside confusion, defensiveness, and personal individual hurts to be able to truly listen to and understand others.
The International Examiner also calls on the Asian Pacific Islander community to reach out to and embrace those who do not understand the struggles of Asian Pacific Islanders in the United States, the people at the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society, and the individuals performing in The Mikado. We must approach them with the understanding that those individuals are also influenced by the same systems created by our nation’s history of racism. In order to overcome this cycle of racism, we must have the courage to understand each other’s hurts, fears, and history and recognize a mutual path to change.
Those who enable racist attitudes to continue to exist must first recognize their own participation in the oppression of others and then take action. Those who are targeted by racism must continue to create opportunities to educate those who have not had the opportunity to learn from diversity.