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Conformity in "Mikado": Past and Present Comparisons

“The Mikado” was written by British playwright W.S. Gilbert and opened on March 14, 1885, in London. Gilbert suggests that “‘The Mikado" was never a story about Japan but about the failings of the British government.” Since the 1990s, some productions of the opera in the United States have drawn criticism for promoting stereotypes of East Asians. As an international student from China, I realize that Mikado was written in the past and is not compatible with the contemporary political and social situation in East Asian countries. 

For instance, there are lyrics about conformity in the section “Miya-Sama,'' such as when Mikado says “I’m the Emperor of Japan.” This shows his authority and power over his citizens, while Katisha responds by saying “Bow…Bow…” In this way, Mikado includes the political situation of Japan in the past, yet it is incompatible with the current Japanese politics. After Japan surrendered in 1945, ending World War II, Allied forces led by the United States occupied the nation, bringing with them drastic changes. Japan was disarmed, its empire dissolved, its form of government changed to a democracy, and its economy and education system reorganized and rebuilt. Years of reconstruction were required to recover from thousands of air raids, including the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. By the 1950s, as a former enemy became a Western ally, parts of American culture became part of the Japanese landscape. Finally, Japan began to find its economic footing as a manufacturer of consumer devices and electronics. 

Additionally, China does not fit the traditional stereotypes about East Asian politics portrayed in the music. Although the success for human rights and democracy had not yet been realized, there have always been people who attempted to change the hierarchy and fight for human rights and freedom. Western people could understand Chinese people better by understanding events such as the May Fourth movement in 1919 during the Republic of China (1912-1949), and the rising of private capitalists and entrepreneurs with public and collective enterprise in contemporary China (2022), especially Southern cities like Shanghai, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, and Hong Kong.

It is important to memorize history, educate people about facts and truths even though they might be ugly or sad, because only through knowing these histories can people learn from the lessons they provide. I think continuing to talk about stereotypes and then deconstructing them with facts can be effective in clearing up misunderstandings between different groups of people and helping to build friendship and cooperation between them. 

Qingyang Zhou
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