Yelp and Yellowface: Nikkei Protests and The Mikado in 2014

From the 2014 Metro Theatre Vancouver production of The Mikado.Licensed CC-BY-NC.
From the 2014 Metro Theatre Vancouver production of The Mikado.
Licensed CC-BY-NC.
To yelp or to yellowface?

Years ago I met Japanese American actor Ken Narasaki through mutual friends on social media, after his stage adaptation of Seattle author John Okada’s novel No-No Boy. When Sharon Chan’s editorial in The Seattle Times was published, Ken posted his response on the Society’s Yelp business page. Ken told me that he was following the lead of actor Greg Watanabe, who also posted a response on the Society’s page.

Both Ken’s and Greg’s responses were removed due to “violation of terms of service.” My own response was published on the Society’s main page one day, taken down and buried on the “not recommended” page the next day, but now appears on the main page again. I am not positive that it will stay.

In the interest of keeping their dissident voices alive and heard, I asked the actors to send me their reviews from Yelp. I have added my own, in case Yelp’s algorithm decides to delete my review.

-Tamiko Nimura

[Greg Watanabe is actor based in Los Angeles who’s appeared off-Broadway and regionally, including at Seattle Rep and ACT.]

To the producers and director of The Mikado:

I am writing to you concerning your current production of The Mikado.

The fact The Mikado is fundamentally flawed with its racist Asian caricatures might be understandable because of the racist, colonialist attitudes of the time and place of its creation, but what culpability do you, the producers and director, have for presenting those racist Asian caricatures and racist, colonialist attitudes, now, in this place (Seattle)?

Even if one were to set aside the racist Asian caricatures for a moment, one is still left with the decision to not cast any Asian actors.  This is dumbfounding.  Why would you exacerbate the racist Asian caricatures in a play rife with racist, colonialist attitudes, by having white actors portray Asian characters in yellow face?

Is the reasoning that the yellow face mitigates the racist Asian caricatures and racist, colonialist attitudes?

I think you simply are ignorant of the history of racist Asian caricatures in the U.S. and particularly on the west coast.  Racist, Anti-Asian nativist movements produced a large volume of virulent propaganda: articles, political cartoons, songs.  And, of course, there were the terrible, racist, offensive portrayals of Asian characters in movies…by actors in yellow face.

All of this whipped up anti-Asian sentiment across several decades leading to anti-Asian violence, anti-Asian legislation like the Asian Exclusion Act, an unconstitutional abrogation of civil liberties like the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II.

It’s particularly ironic this production of The Mikado  is mounted in Seattle, because it’s the first place Japanese Americans were removed when they were imprisoned in concentration camps (Bainbridge Island) and it’s the place where Gordon Hirabayashi went to school and began his long struggle toward winning civil liberties for all Americans.

You are either ignorant of these things, or simply don’t care.

It’s disheartening to me the you cannot imagine or empathize with people like me, a Japanese American, whose family was incarcerated during the war; who see yellow face as racist mockery.  Who see racist Asian caricatures and associate it with anti-Asian violence, discrimination,  social injustice, and pain and suffering.

I’ve seen no comment about any of these things from people who defend this play and production.

I’ve only read dismissive things like, “it’s fun”, “get over it”, “lots of art is racist”,  “lots of people have been discriminated against”, “it’s satire (you don’t get it)”, and on and on.

I hope that you take advantage of this opportunity to try and understand the depth of the anger, and shame, and pain I feel when I see things like this.

And how those feelings are amplified when my thoughts and opinions are dismissed and invalidated.

And I know that I am far, far from alone in this.

Greg Watanabe

[Ken Narasaki is an actor/writer known for his adaptation of No-No Boy, his award-winning plays Innocent When You Dream, Ghosts and Baggage, and the musical The Mikado Project (co-written with Doris Baizley). He was born in Seattle.]

I get so tired of the argument that Gilbert and Sullivan wrote this as a satire of their own Victorian England. What do audiences see when they see a production like this? They see white people mincing around, squinting their eyes, and one of the actors in the photo is bucking out his teeth. THAT is what the audience sees.

If you are one of those Asians who’ve had the bad luck of seeing The Mikado performed in yellowface, you probably know that sick feeling in the pit of your stomach or perhaps the simmering rage that I imagine most African Americans feel when they see white people doing blackface: White people making fun of you and other people laughing merrily along.

Except people almost never do blackface anymore, because most of them know how demeaning, insulting, and disgustingly racist that practice is. I wonder why white people don’t seem to understand, despite many protests over the years, that most Asians feel the same way about yellowface. It’s insulting, demeaning, almost always grossly stereotypical, and it makes a lot of us sick to our stomach. An all-white production of Asian characters is almost always racist and offensive and those defenders of this production who refuse to listen are racist bullies who need to hear this: Yellowface is offensive and its days should be long past, especially in a major metropolitan city like Seattle. Asians who are upset by yellowface don’t need a history lesson from the Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society – I believe the defenders of the practice could stand a history lesson from Asian Americans.

[Tamiko Nimura is a staff writer at the Seattle Star. She also contributes regularly to Seattle’s International Examiner and Discover Nikkei, the web project of the Japanese American National Museum.]

I am extremely disappointed and frustrated that the Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society chose to retain its Orientalist take on The Mikado in its 2014 production. I don’t know that the Society could have avoided a mostly white cast but I wish they had taken more responsibility and thought behind their ultimate artistic choices to put on, in effect, a yellowface cast.

There have been many interpretations of The Mikado around the world, including ones with Victorian attire put on by companies like the English National Opera in 1987 and 2012. If the satirical target of the play is indeed high Victorian society, then the caricatured Japanese trappings (“authentic”? not trying to be authentic?) are not necessary.

As an eight-year old Japanese American girl who watched The Mikado many years ago, I didn’t get the satirical element and no one (including the producers) explained that to me. I haven’t seen any indication that the Seattle G&S Society is making that point clear to its audiences. All I saw, and thus all I remember, was taped eyelids, and kimonos, and an auditorium of people laughing at people who were supposed to be Japanese, but were unlike any Japanese people that I knew. However, just as lovers of The Mikado cherish their attachments to the play, the humiliation associated with my experience is hard to erase.

As an educator, I’m also extremely disappointed that the Society chose to react to critique with an irate response letter rather than hosting discussion forums or talkbacks.  Talkbacks are not a new practice, either. Ultimately, what this production has taught me is that the Society is not interested in “family” entertainment for my Asian American family or friends — in a Pacific Northwest community where Asian Americans are a significant part of the population — and it never will be.

I had hoped that theater was one community space where we could all agree to meet and feel respected and included. It’s devastating to be proven wrong in this case.

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