WASHINGTON — The Japanese American Citizens League is objecting to the use of yellowface and stereotypes in Gilbert & Sullivan’s comic opera “The Mikado,” currently playing at the Bagley Wright Theatre in Seattle.

Set in Japan, the play is being performed by an all non-Asian cast.

“The term ‘yellowface’ describes an inappropriate portrayal of an Asian character, similar to the practice of blackface,” the JACL said in a statement on Wednesday. “To be more specific, a combination of stereotypical makeup, dress, customs, and behaviors are used that inaccurately and offensively portray Asians.

“Although ‘The Mikado’ was written in the 19th century as a satire poking fun at the British fascination with Japan, the racist portrayal of Japanese people in this play is extremely disrespectful and misleading to those who are not familiar with Japanese culture. As such, the staging of this play furthers those demeaning stereotypes of Asian Americans in this day and age.

“There is nothing timely or clever about the use of these outdated stereotypes and ‘The Mikado’ should stop playing immediately.”

The musical is being debated in newspapers and online.

mikado posterIn the July 13 Seattle Times, editorial columnist Sharon Pian Chan noted that the opera — set in the fictional town of Titipu and featuring characters named Nanki Poo, Yum-Yum and Pish-Tush — was intended “to poke fun at Victorian society in England by setting it in a place nobody knew anything about.”

Today, she said, it “is a fossil from an era when America was as homogeneous as milk, planes did not depart daily for other continents and immigrants did not fuel the economy.”

Chan pointed out that “a theater production of ‘Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ should be shut down if the character of Jim, an African American, were played by a white actor with shoe polish smeared all over his face … ‘The Mikado’ is the same shtick, different race. A black wig and white face powder stand in for shoeshine. Bowing and shuffling replaces tap dancing. Fans flutter where banjos would be strummed.”

She added, “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.

“To learn about that history, check out ‘Hold These Truths,’ another play that will open this summer in Seattle. That play, produced by ACT Theatre, is inspired by University of Washington student Gordon Hirabayashi, who defied the internment order and went to prison instead. His case went to the U.S. Supreme Court.”

While the Gilbert & Sullivan Society of Seattle could have teamed up with a local Asian American theater group to reinterpret “The Mikado,” as was done in Minneapolis by Skylark Opera and Mu Performing Arts, the current production “is the wrong show — wrong for Seattle, wrong for this country and wrong for this century,” Chan said.

Cast member Dave Ross, a KIRO Radio host, defended the play in an interview on the “Tom & Curley Show,” excerpts of which were posted July 14 on MyNorthwest.com.

He is appearing in “The Mikado” for the sixth time, and this is the ninth time the society has performed the play since 1955.

“It’s completely out of left field, dare I say, because we’re doing British accents,” Ross said in response to Chan’s column. “The piece implies that we’re somehow doing a Japanese gibberish dialect sort of line. This is a British play, written for British actors speaking in fake British. So we are satirizing British people mercilessly, especially British bureaucrats in this piece. Tyrants take it on the chin in this piece. There’s a lot of execution talk going around, but the audiences mostly laugh.”

On the issue of blackface and yellowface, he said, “We have a history in this country that makes it inappropriate for us to do blackface. But there is not perception that the Japanese minority group in this country is somehow a failed minority group.”

Regarding the costumes and makeup, Ross, who plays Ko-Ko, said, “The whole idea is that I am the executioner. I carry this huge snickersnee. I dress in a kimono. We all dress in kimonos. I wear pink makeup, so that I stick out on stage. Then I use a brown eyebrow pencil. I use a little rouge on the cheeks to denote my taste for sake, and that’s pretty much it.”

Ross compared the play to young people who dress as Elvis in Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park. “It’s fun to dress as something you’re not.”

Numerous blog posts have argued that the Asian American critics are overreacting. The Greater Seattle Chapter of OCA (formerly Organization of Chinese Americans) issued a statement supporting Chan’s editorial and expressing dismay over “the producers’ and bloggers’ insensitivity and unwillingness to understand why many Asian Americans may be offended by ‘The Mikado.’ Instead, these defenders of ‘The Mikado’ seem to delight in offending Asians and Asian Americans, and minimizing/dismissing their concerns.

“In essence, they assert it’s far more important to look at what the play means to the British than how it perpetuates stereotypes of Japan and people of Japanese/Asian descent. For them, it is acceptable for the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society to use Japan as a comic trope to satirize the oddities of British manners. In other words, the dignity and feelings of Japanese (and other Asian people) are expendable for a theatrical laugh/‘entertainment’ … Many defenders also say the use of white actors in yellowface in ‘The Mikado’ has been ‘acceptable’ for 150 years, so why complain now?

“While we doubt that Asian Americans ever really liked having non-Asians put on white-powdered make-up, slant their eyes with tape to make them squint, create buck teeth, and bow excessively (although you can always find one or two Asian people who would disagree), we find it odd how, in 2014, 40 non-Asian cast members would want to continue this warped caricature of Asian people …

“By labeling those offended by ‘The Mikado’ as too ‘PC,’ the defenders suggest we should remain as we were to them back in the 19th century — invisible and irrelevant.

“For those who believe we are exaggerating the consequences of productions like ‘The Mikado,’ consider the many portrayals of yellowface in American entertainment from the demonic ‘Dr. Fu Manchu’ (1932) to the ‘Wise Ones’ episode of ‘How I Met Your Mother’ (2014). Note that among the most infamous caricatures was Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi in ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ (1961), who, unlike what we are hearing from the current cast of ‘The Mikado,’ expressed regret for his actions.

“Constant caricaturing has relevance. Thank you, Sharon Pian Chan, for standing up; for being visible and relevant.”

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  1. I saw the show but, either I am really stupid or the author saw something I didn’t, but the only thing I saw that could even come close to being a Japanese caricature was the pseudo Noh makeup (or maybe it was Kabuki(?)) on the character of Katisha. As far as any of the other characters being caricatures, they were, absolutely, of white society in the 19th century, for that matter white society today. The son trying to escape the father’s unreasonable will, the greedy politician who will take on any job as long as he gets the corresponding salary involved, the petty bureaucrat who takes on a position for which he has no knowledge or skill simply to save his own hide and so on.
    I thought theatre in America had become colour blind but it appears that is only if persons of colour are playing white characters. If you are going to demand strict PC from a theatre company it had better go both ways. It’s time Tokyo close down any production of Les Mis that does not have a cast of white Frenchmen or any production of Hamlet not made up strictly of Scandinavians. It’s a two way street.
    My company is planning a production of the Mikado and we plan on going ahead. We have had no objections from any of the 11 Asian members of our company and until someone shows us in writing what the exclusively Japanese caricatures are, we will go ahead as planned.

  2. Sorry, we thought it was a publicity handout. It has been removed.

  3. The photo you are using in this article is copyrighted by the Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society. Did you seek permission to use it and, perhaps, pay a fee, or did you simply steal it?