The Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society’s production of comic-opera “The Mikado” has caused controversy due to the nature of the show and the production’s use of White actors to play Japanese characters. LA-based community organizer Sean Miura (@seanmiura) reflects on his experience with the “The Mikado” and the society’s response to the backlash.
I hold a special place in my heart for the people of Seattle.
Seattle is not where I grew up, but Seattle was the closest I had to an Asian American community with the International District, Uwajimaya food court lunches, and the salmon my uncle Tike would catch fresh in the mornings. My mom drove me, 10 years old at the time, from our home in Vancouver to see David Henry Hwang’s “Golden Child” at the Seattle Reparatory Theater, the first time I saw Asian Americans telling our own stories live.
I saw The Mikado a couple years later.
Actors from the Seattle’s Gilbert & Sullivan Society revival of “The Mikado”, on-stage this month. Photo credit: Greg Wood / Getty Images.
My memory of the local production is fuzzy, but I remember not enjoying it. At that point, though not yet a teenager, I had grown accustomed to stereotypes and racism. When you look like I do it comes with the territory. But I remember feeling uneasy with the makeup, the hair, and those infamous names. I knew enough Japanese to understand that these names – Titipu, Yum-Yum, and Pish-Tosh among others — could not be actual Japanese names. But somehow this all still took place in Japan?
It would be years before I fully understood and was able to parse out why this production (not just the production, but the play itself) didn’t sit properly. As I built my vocabulary and saw more and more work like “The Mikado”, I was able to trace connections between what happened on-stage with larger systems of oppression that have fed off of cultural misrepresentation. The camps did not happen overnight. The camps did not end overnight.
“The Mikado” is a classic Gilbert & Sullivan opera which, true to much of their work, comments on Victorian British society. This particular piece uses Japanese iconography (only a few decades earlier the American military pulled Japan out of its self-imposed solitude by force, leading to a resurgence of Orientalism in Europe concurrent with newly global access to Japanese art) as a way to hide criticism of British institutions. At that time Japan was seen as exotic and almost imaginary, a trope that still survives today. A crude parallel would be the way JK Rowling utilizes the fictional world of her Harry Potter series to critique real life, contemporary government and social structures today.
The inherent problem approaches. Rowling creates a fantastical alternative universe to house her criticism, whereas G&S usurp a real place and repurpose it as fantasy. Rowlings’ tactic allows her to create an imaginary culture that fits and augments the agenda of her writing, whereas G&S’ use of an actual setting forces themselves to either conform to existing structures and derive forced metaphor, or to essentially commit literary colonization through subjugation of a people’s culture and country to suit their own end.
In a nutshell, Hogwarts can be a metaphor because it is an imaginary place. Japan is not an imaginary place.
Hogwarts is not a real place. You can tell because there, sometimes, it snows on the inside.
So when a play such as “The Mikado” is presented in America, not only are we forced to confront its antiquated/colonial approach to satire but we’re also forced to confront the history of East Asian people in America who have had to deal with its aftermath. On an academic level we can understand what Gilbert & Sullivan were attempting and we can understand why it worked and we can rationalize why its racial tropes were not unsettling to Victorian British society. But, as with most art, the piece evokes an emotional response along with the intellectual. In a different country and over a century and a half after the time of Gilbert & Sullivan, we can’t strip productions of “The Mikado” from the context in which they are presented or from the humans who live within and contribute to that context.
I am not a metaphor. My cultural heritage, the practices I was raised with, and my name come from generations and generations of connection to the ground our people have stood on, whether in Seattle, Los Angeles, Fukushima, or Fukuoka. Lampooning White aristocracy by using Japan as a vessel does not justify contributing to the constant belittlement of my ancestors, my family, and myself. It causes collateral damage.
I have not seen the Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society performance of “The Mikado” so I cannot comment on the actual show, but I am extremely disappointed in the responses offered by the company. However, I have grown accustomed, if not more resistant to, stereotypes, racism, and the voices that will reinforce them to preserve the status quo.
When you look like we do it comes with the territory. There is much more work to be done.
____ This has been a guest-post by Sean Miura (@seanmiura). Sean is an LA-based community activist and organizer, curator of the long-running community art seriesTuesday Night Project, and the former Mr. Hyphen of 2013.
“All of that, though, pales to the one-two punch of Islamophobia and xenophobia perpetrated by Breitbart News, which excitedly reported last week on the discovery of a “Muslim prayer rug found near the border in Arizona.” The “prayer rug” turned out to be an old Adidas soccer jersey, but the story nonetheless got a Drudge link and rattled around the conservative blogosphere as proof that dangerous Muslims were sneaking into America through Mexico.”—The conservative media is starting to go completely insane. (via salon)
The Washington Post predicts the Republicans will win big this fall.
The right-leaning Washington Post’s 2014 election experts are now predicting that Republicans have an 86 percentchance of taking over the U.S. Senate. The New York Timesputs it at 58 percent. Other top pollsters agree with the Times, saying the GOP’s odds of a Senate majority are strong but slimmer. Only Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball strongly disagrees, saying that many Democratic incumbents will not be beaten.
What would it look like if Republicans controlled Congress under President Obama? In the short term, there is no evidence that they would govern with restraint. The specter of veto wars from one end of Pennsylvania Avenue to the other looms large. In the long term, the makeup of the U.S. Supreme Court hangs in the balance. And today’s younger voters, who helped elect Obama, will keep seeing a government that can’t solve problems, which pollsters aresaying has pushed some millennials to embrace Libertarian values.
The results could be even worse for the country than Rupert Murdoch’s latest corporate takeover attempt, in which his Fox News media empire is seeking to buy Time Warner, Inc. If successful, that merger could mean that right-wing propaganda would creep into much of the media content fed to Americans. That’s discouraging enough. But a government held hostage by Republicans ideologues only benefits the GOP. Too many of today’s Republicans have run for office pledging to obstruct government and to cut public services.
Let’s start with the federal budget.
The latest plan put forth by Rep. Paul Ryan, the House budget architect, distilled “every form of right-wing lunacy,” Democratic Florida Rep. Alan Grayson said in April. Ryan released his 100-page budget bill at 7pm on a Friday and Democrats had to file their amendments by noon the following Monday, Greyson noted, calling it a typical strong-arm tactic. Today, those proposals go nowhere in a Democratic Senate. But what would the GOP do if it could?
“It’s all in there,” Grayson wrote in a Huffington Postcolumn:
“Tax cuts for the rich, the so-called ‘job creators.’ Tax cuts for multinational corporations, the other so-called ‘job creators.’ (Why don’t we ever call them by their real name, job exporters?) Cuts in middle-class tax benefits, like deduction for pension benefits and IRAs, to pay for this (Robin Hood in reverse). Cuts in Medicaid and food stamps, because, you know, the Republicans want to make millions of sick, hungry people more self-reliant. A legal requirement to force the president to cut Social Security benefits and/or raise Social Security taxes, to make Obama do the Republicans’ dirty work for them. Big jumps in student loan interest rates. And massive increases in military expenditures.”
There’s more devilish details. Right now, Medicaid—state-run healthcare for the poor—pays below-market reimbursements. Under Obamacare, many blue states used additional federal funds to extend Medicaid coverage to millions of uninsured people. Ryan’s plan, however, seeks to cut $732 billion in future Medicaid spending. That would hit children, elderly and disabled people the hardest, wrote Bruce Leslie of First Focus Campaign for Children. Similarly, you could expect a GOP-controlled Congress to pass bills ordering federal agencies they don’t like to issue new rules that would stymie specific programs, such as how Obamacare works at Health and Human Services, or gutting new power plant emission standards at EPA.
You could also expect Republican vendettas to try to block Democratic governors from tackling problems that have been frozen in Congress. As the Timesreported Thursday, the House’s new Majority Leader, California Rep. Kevin McCarthy, pledged to block funds for California Gov. Jerry Brown’s biggest response to climate change: a high-speed rail link between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Other examples were cited, suggesting that extreme stances by the GOP leadership could become law.
What else might Americans see? The House GOP has enough votes to start the impeachment process, as some members seek, but there aren’t enough Republicans in the Senate—two-thirds are needed—to remove Obama. In contrast, a GOP Senate could launch investigations into the deaths of four diplomats in Libya, as a way to keep attacking Obama and Hillary Clinton’s 2016 aspirations. Republicans could empower a special prosecutor to look into what they claim is an IRS scandal over denying Tea Party groups the legal status of tax-free charities—a cause celebreat GOP-friendly Fox News.
A GOP Senate would likely do everything to thwart Obama’s next Supreme Court nominee, if one of its aging justices retire or die in 2015 or 2016. The public has seen who Republicans like on the Court. Republican presidential appointees, especially Chief Justice John Roberts, have issued rulings that have resulted in the Court being labeled the most pro-corporate Court in 70 years. Senate Republican anger over Obama appointing federal judges—after Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid changed the filibuster rule to thwart GOP obsructionism on federal judgeships—would emerge.
Obama, for his part, would likely become the vetoer-in-chief, rejecting bill after bill from the GOP-run Congress. In the recent past, House Republicans have tried to break up major legislation—such as immigration reform— into smaller bills to pass what they like and kill what they don’t. We could expect similar uncompromising tactics, like Republicans sending Obama spending bills restoring cuts from the so-called sequester for the Pentagon, and then separating bills cutting funds for agencies they don’t like.
From the outside looking in, the GOP would claim that Obama and the Democrats have become the party of vetos and saying no. People who don’t pay close attention would see a federal government tied up in terrible knots. Republicans would like that, saying they are fulfilling campaign pledges to stop spending. And young people who want to believe in government as a problem-solving force would become increasingly skeptical, and keep drifting in Libertarian directions, which pollsters say is already happening.
But that doesn’t mean Democrats should not be worried. If Democrats keep their Senate majority, it will likely be by one or two seats. Meanwhile, Americans who care about effective federal government and a fair-minded judiciary should take notice. If you think things are tied up in Washington now, they can get a lot worse.