Editorial Board: ‘The Mikado’ controversy an opportunity to create and educate

The International Examiner July 15, 2014 6
A press release image for The Mikado.

A press release image for The Mikado.

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 internment of 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 internment of 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.

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  • Les

    The Mikado uses Japanese theatrical caracatures to satirise British attitudes and the government of the day. If the show and costume were racist, would the Chichibu Opera Company be able to sell it out, performing it in Japan, in Japanese, with Gilbert’s original makeup and costumes? Not only that, the piece sold out in England when performed in Japanese by this Japanese company.

    • http://www.iexaminer.org Travis Quezon

      Hi Les, the popularity of “The Mikado” is not in question. The discussion of the way the caricatures are used is also not new (http://web.stcloudstate.edu/scogdill/mikado/racism.html). There’s tremendous room for discussion on the history, artistry, and social impact of this and any work of art and that should continue. I think that in this particular instance (regarding the 2014 production of The Mikado in Seattle), it would be helpful for people to try to understand why some Japanese Americans and Asian Pacific Islanders in the United States are feeling offended by The Mikado. I think it’s also helpful for everyone with any interest in this to actually see a performance of the play and learn more about its history. We also have to look at why people are more concerned with denying any association with racism than empathizing with those who express hurt.

  • Catherine

    Where is the author’s name displayed for this article? Thank you.

    • http://www.iexaminer.org Travis Quezon

      Hi Catherine, this article is an editorial written by the International Examiner’s editorial board. It appeared in the print edition as an editorial above our masthead.

  • anthporter

    Nowhere in any of the discussions has it been stated that Ms. Chan has not seen the production in question and is painting them with a racist brush based on her own interpretation. In the interview you mention with Dave Ross, she states that she has not seen the production. She is making a case of racism based on the possibility of offense and not any actual proof of racism.

    Let’s get it straight and not malign a group based on hear-say. Sounds a little bit to me like what was done to Japanese-Americans during WWII.

    • http://www.iexaminer.org Travis Quezon

      “Sounds a little bit to me like what was done to Japanese-Americans during WWII.”

      Please explain how this is like the forced removal and incarceration of 117,000 people of Japanese descent, two-thirds of whom were native-born citizens of the United States. Entire communities were destroyed, Japanese-Americans were humiliated and denigrated, homes and property were taken from them due to government action.

      Did the U.S. government shut down The Mikado or incarcerate its actors and remove their property?

      The U.S. government was able to unjustly incarcerate Japanese Americans during WWII because Japanese Americans were not seen as or treated like equal human beings. Please try to understand that when Japanese Americans and Asian culture are made to appear as caricatures and parody rather than real human beings, there will be Asian Americans out there who take offense.

      There are Asian Americans who have seen the show and appreciate The Mikado as a work of art and as a social commentary. There are also many Asian Americans who have seen the show and are offended by it. This conversation about the way these “Japanese”-inspired characters are portrayed on stage in “The Mikado” has been going on for over a century and did not start with Ms. Chan’s column.