The Mikado: Controversies
Despite controversies over The Mikado’s cultural insensitivities and racist stereotypes, the opera has remained a staple of international theater culture and numerous adaptations exist. For the purposes of this exhibit, the focus will be placed on the adaptations performed throughout the United States, but it is important to note that countless other adaptations have been performed globally.
Although some modified The Mikado performances appear to be no more significant than a playwright exercising artistic license (for example the modernized The Mikado Inc. poster that features contemporary attire and a helicopter), the majority of alterations are made in direct response to the racist themes, set dressing, naming, and stereotypes within the opera. In recent years, The Mikado has received harsh backlash from the Asian-American community, with multiple productions shutting down or banning the performance.
Complaints of The Mikado include the fanciful, inaccurate Japanese setting, stereotypical costuming and made-up “Japanese” names. Historically, performances have casted White actors in yellowface, with the exception of all-Black adaptations and the more recent The Mikado:Reclaimed. Whether meant to be cute, or more likely silly, the names in The Mikado are not based on any authentic Japanese names. Instead, the names play into the long-standing derogation of Asian names through the casual racism of mispronunciation.
Following a 2014 production of The Mikado at the Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society, Seattle Times’ Sharon Pian Chan wrote, “The caricature of Japanese people as strange and barbarous was used to justify the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II...'The Mikado' opens old wounds and resurrects pejorative stereotypes." Even though she was not the only person to voice legitimate concerns and frustrations with the Seattle company’s rendition of the notoriously offensive opera, producer Mike Storie, refused to issue an apology. Instead, Storie responded in a defensive manner, hinging on the fact that no “true” yellowface makeup was used and that only non-Asian actors had auditioned, so there had been no alternative options casting wise.
Unfortunately, Mike Storie’s response to criticism on The Mikado is not an unusual occurrence. The Mikado has integrated itself into the world of American theater for over a century and continues to be performed across the United States in spite of harsh public denunciation. It seems that many producers, like Storie, are aware of the offensive nature of The Mikado, yet refuse to acknowledge its relevance.
As for why The Mikado productions have survived for over a century: the fetishization of Japanese culture presented in The Mikado is a type of benevolent racism, or superficially positive prejudice. Harmful stereotypes and cultural appropriation is veiled under the guise of appreciation while non-Japanese people profit off of The Mikado’s racist depictions. This surface level fetishization does nothing to combat the hostilities still facing Asian-Americans.