Infatuation with Eastern Culture
Regardless of The Mikado’s “Eastern” setting, the underlying themes of the opera only make sense as a critique to the overwhelmingly prudish British culture during the Victorian era. Gilbert and Sullivan were unable to make such a blatant criticism of British culture, so they staged the opera as happening in a foreign land. This came at a time when infatuation with eastern culture was spreading throughout England. Japanism/Japonisme (referred to as “orientalism” or “Japan taste”) described the fetishization of Japanese aesthetics and culture that rapidly spread across Western countries during the second half of the 19th century.
Japan had historically been an isolated country prior to the 19th century. In 1853, an American fleet, captained by Commodore Matthew C. Perry, opened negotiations between Japan and the United States. Even though this was not the most amicable of transactions, trade route access was established. With these new market and communication opportunities came a widespread interest in what European and American society considered “exotic” culture.
Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado at its core is a fantasy. The opera is loosely, and inadequately based on veritable Japanese culture and aesthetics. It was produced at the height of the Victorian era’s “Japan craze” and the Western belief that Japanese culture held moral and cultural superiority to all things Western. The idea that Japan was exemplary of design qualities and middle class life was spread across Europe with British society being an exceptional culprit of the fetishization of Japan.
In order to sell The Mikado, Gilbert and Sullivan had to rely on some small level of authenticity. However, the addition of one Japanese military song, “Miya sama”, does not outshine the fact that the opera’s other songs rely on English-style folk music, ballads, military marches, and sea shanties. And the odes to common Japanese fabrics and Japanese-style kimonos do not overshadow the multitude of cultural and racial inaccuracies.
The Mikado’s setting also served as an excuse to use fanciful and colorful costumes. Multiple versions of the hit comic opera have been performed at World Fairs due to its decades long popularity. Just as Japanese gardens have survived years after their exposés at World Fairs (the Japanese tea garden in Golden Gate Park is the oldest Japanese garden in the United States), The Mikado has continuously contributed to public conceptions of Japanese aesthetics, despite its extremely loose connection to authentic Japanese culture.
Between 1885 and 1887 an exhibit in Knightsbridge, London named The Japanese Village hired Japanese men and women to reenact a “typical” Japanese community. The exhibit was essentially a zoo where Japanese culture was reduced to English perceptions of Japanese behaviors and aesthetics. W.S. Gilbert visited the English exhibit as part of his research for The Mikado, basing his characters and setting off of this limited interaction with a fabricated Japanese community.