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On Japanophilia: Collecting, Authenticity, and Making Identity

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Japanophilia, or the obsession with things Japanese and the idea of Japan, has a long history. Although the term implies a rather unhealthy passion, Japanophiles have by no means been marginal figures, but rather some of the key players in the history of Euro -American encounters with Japan. In the spring of 2007, I taught a seminar at Occidental College that explored the history of Japanophilia, starting with the arrival of Europeans in Japan in the 16th century, and ending with contemporary manifestations of Japanophilia in Los Angeles. Three of the most important goals of the class were 1) to recognize the key role that appropriations of Japan have played in the development of Euro-American culture; 2) to examine the relationship between Western Japanophilia and Japanese nationalism; and 3) to critically look at our own Japanophilia, as students and scholars of Japan, by problematizing the relationship between obsession, power, and identity.

We began the class by reading the anthropologist James Clifford’s essay “On Collecting Art and Culture.” Clifford argues that creating a collection necessarily involves various forms of displacement as artifacts are moved from one cultural and social system to another. An artwork that had ritual and totemic power in its original context becomes an object of aesthetic appreciation or a marker of an “inferior civilization” in the new context of an art gallery or an ethnographic museum. He also notes that individual collectors act to demarcate self and other—in other words they act to define themselves in part by defining who they are not— when they collect objects of any sort. We decided as a class that Clifford’s reading was useful for studying Japanophilia, because the practices of the Japanophile can be understood as a kind of collecting. Many Japanophiles in the past and the present were, in fact, collectors. But even acts such as studying Aikdo or Zen, obsessing about the perfect sushi bar, or trying to watch every Japanese anime available in Los Angeles represent intentional choices that help to “mark off a subjective domain,” in Clifford’s words. Our interest in Japan becomes a part of our identity.

This idea was useful because it helped us to think about the problem of authenticity in the study of Japanophilia. Again and again we encountered collectors of Japanese things who seemed to reek of Orientalism and dilettantism. One good example was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s son Charles Longfellow, a rich, privileged, and alienated American who lived in Japan in the late 19th century as a kind of conqueror, buying art on the cheap at a moment when Japanese institutions were vulnerable to Western predation, and exploiting poor Japanese women who became objects of his own fantasies about power. Our early discussions of Longfellow focused on how little he seemed to understand about Japan—the pictures of his “Japan Room” (reproduced in Christine Guth’s beautiful study, Longfellow’s Tattoos), showed that he juxtaposed Chinese, Japanese, and Indian artifacts with little concern for provenance. So perhaps, we thought, our intuitive sense that something was wrong with Longfellow as a Japanophile emerged from his lack of accurate knowledge. Later, however, we studied early Japanese American communities who also sometimes had fragmentary knowledge about Japan. They were interested in Japanese traditional arts and cultural practices in part because such culture helped them to form and maintain a spirit of community in the face of white American racism and xenophobia. The gardens designed by Japanese Americans were, like Longfellow’s “Japan Room,” sometimes filled with plants not originally from Japan and frequently quite different from the traditional gardens found in Kyoto. Measured against Japanese national conceptions of Japanese culture, they were “inauthentic.” But as tools of community formation and protection, they were invaluable. So we came to understand that Orientalist collectors like Longfellow and Japanese Americans such as the gardeners and designers who added so much to the landscape of Southern California were all engaged in a process of collection. The point of such collecting was not, despite frequent claims to the contrary, the authentic reproduction of Japanese culture, but rather the production of a distinct sense of self. What differentiated the two groups was their respective positions and the ways in which they used power.

These issues arose in many discussions we had over the course of the semester and became particularly important in our attempts, as a class, to make sense of a controversy that occurred on our campus. The Theater Department at Occidental College had chosen The Mikado for their spring musical theater production. Gilbert and Sullivan of course finished this piece in 1885, at the height of British imperialism in Asia and nine years before the abrogation of the Unequal Treaties which limited Japan to a dependent, semi-colonial status. Fans have long claimed that the comic operetta playfully uses stereotypes about Japan to lampoon the excesses of the British government. However, the racist and imperialist historical context of the original production of the play, added to the fact that 19th-century European artists frequently appropriated art from Japan with little acknowledgment of the source, have made The Mikado a sometimes controversial piece. News that Oxy was producing the play spread among students who were not involved but who felt the college was often insensitive and discriminatory. The decision of the Theater Department fomented feelings of anger and resentment. Some students proposed a boycott while others went so far as to advocate an actual protest on opening night. Students in the seminar had differing reactions. Some felt that the director, designers, and student actors were aware of the problems inherent in the play and were trying to deal with them, and that the students who were angry were going to judge those involved in the play no matter what. Others argued that the play had an offensive libretto and was unmistakably Orientalist and racist in both intentions and effects.

The faculty in the Theater Department wanted to meet with students, to address public concerns, and to find ways to highlight the problematic context and content of the play without halting the production. As a result, the members of my class met with the director and cast, and two students produced posters about the play’s Orientalism and Japanophilia which were prominently displayed in the lobby of the theater throughout the production. Many students also participated in question-and-answer sessions after two performances. In the end, the controversy became an important “learning moment” for the Theater Department and for the members of my seminar. I would like to quote extensively from the comments of one student with a background in both theater and Asian Studies, Rosalie Miletich, who researched the play and also went to see a performance by Lodestone Theater of a new work called The Mikado Project.

    The premise of The Mikado Project is that a small, low-budget theater company of all Asian-American actors is obligated to perform The Mikado for the sake of a grant, and so attempt to rewrite a deconstructed modern version of the musical. The show is pertinent because it addresses questions of minstrelsy and appropriation: as the writer, Doris Baizley, said, ‘With an all Asian-American cast, there’s no fear of yellowface, but there is fear of imperialist, racist, and sexist messages, and for good reason.’ The play was written in response to the complaints and arguments of Asian-American actors concerned with political correctness. It is difficult finding work as an Asian-American actor, especially when agents pitch roles that perpetuate stereotypes; faced with roles as prostitutes and delivery boys, actors may see a role in The Mikado as an opportunity towards political correctness. However, several cast members gave accounts of uncomfortable experiences in performances of The Mikado where most of the actors were in yellowface. There were several resonant aspects between the two performances [Lodestone’s and Oxy’s]: camera-phones and Blackberries were used in several numbers, and the character of Katisha was revised to be more respectful toward older women as sexual beings. The musical director argued that the beauty of the original score has been the reason for its continued popularity; however, the stereotypes that are written into the libretto are perpetuated alongside the beautiful music. It was Gilbert and Sullivan’s intention to be as authentic as possible, but their vision was filtered by theories of racial dominance popular at the time. The Mikado Project essentially rejects The Mikado as a piece impossible to separate from messages of imperialist, racist, and sexist domination, no matter how deconstructed or modern the interpretation.

So, to return to the ideas of James Clifford mentioned above, we might think of The Mikado as a kind of collection that is very much a product of its time. Like the beautiful but politically problematic collections of classical, Asian, and Middle Eastern art at the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, this piece emerges from the profoundly unequal power relations that defined Euro-American actions in Asia in the late nineteenth century, but also endures as an artistic product with its own musical and literary merits. It lays bare the inequities of colonialism, at some level, but also has the potential to reproduce or reinforce them.

I would like to conclude with my own personal reaction to The Mikado and the learning opportunity it afforded. Anyone who loves what we usually call “Western” music and literature will have encountered racial stereotypes, and controversy about them, in art that is beautiful and inspiring. The Merchant of Venice, Turandot, Aida, The King and I, and Porgy and Bess all come to mind. However, unlike these pieces, The Mikado did not seem to me to have enough redeeming artistic value to merit performance, even with the attempts to change the locale and deconstruct the stereotypes built into the libretto. Surely better comic operettas have been written in the intervening 120 years? Surely Asian American writers, in particular, have produced plays that highlight the abuse of power by governments without perpetuating harmful and hurtful stereotypes? The Mikado’s faux-Japanese musical ditties, preposterous names, absurd character behavior, and kimono-, street-fashion-, and anime-inspired costumes and makeup all seemed to me to participate in, rather than criticize, the long history of Euro-American dominance and exploitation of East Asia and Asian Americans. Perhaps what is necessary is not a boycott of such works but increased attention to the significant role that Asia and Asians have played in Euro-American culture. We need to revise our own understanding of the history of this unequal global exchange to highlight how appropriation, misapprehension, and even stereotype have contributed to cultural production. Euro- American artists have long been inspired by “the East” and have borrowed and in some cases stolen from Asian traditions to create work that was understood to be new products of “Western civilization.” Vincent Van Gogh, for example, was an ardent Japanophile and collector of Japanese things and ideas who explicitly and implicitly copied Japanese art in his own work. Broader knowledge and acknowledgement of such Japanophilia and Orientalism might make production of The Mikado a less bitter pill to swallow.

© 2007 Morgan Pitelka

About the Author

Morgan Pitelka is Associate Professor of Asian Studies at Occidental College. He has published Japanese Tea Culture: Art, History, and Practice   (Routledge, 2003), Handmade Culture: Raku Potters, Patrons, and Tea Practitioners (University of Hawaii Press, 2005), and What's the Use of Art? Asian Visual and Material Culture in Context (University of Hawaii Press, 2007).

Updated June 2007

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