The Long Problem of Yellowface

Or What I Mean by “Don’t Put on Awful ‘Geisha’ Make-up”

My most popular post, “Why I Won’t Tell You Where to Buy Yukata Anymore”, happens to be a controversial one.  It’s also easily misunderstood.  Two comments have misread one particular phrase that I added as an after-thought: “I can’t prevent anyone from wearing a yukata, but if you do, please don’t put on awful ‘geisha’ make-up (that’s the equivalent of blackface)”.  Note the quotations around “geisha”.  What I’m talking about is a form of yellowface.  Although I admit to being erroneous in equating it with blackface, as the history of oppression differs between Asians and blacks (and it is by no means equal), yellowface is still hurts Asians today.

Racebending has a great article on the history of yellowface in film.  Unfortunately the photos don’t appear, but Buzzfeed recently release a video that features some of the examples, along with reactions from East Asians. It pretty much sums up how the sight of yellowface makes us feel.

While we can all agree that Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany‘s is terrible and Mickey Rooney has apologized for the role, the film remains a classic.  Furthermore, other instances of yellowface have been overlooked in actors’ careers and in some cases, have been awarded with Oscars.  The lack of discussion erases the struggles of Asians.

Even if the characters are not malicious stereotypes, the damage is still present.  First, not every Asian has upward slanted eyes, heavy monolids, and high cheekbones.  To lump us all into one group, one image makes us two-dimensional caricatures rather than fully developed characters who aren’t defined by physical traits.  Secondly, every non-Asian in make-up deprives an Asian actor of a job and decreases the amount of proper representation.  How many people remember the silent film star Sessue Hayakawa?  He actually was able to experience success in Hollywood and star opposite white actresses, but then anti-Japanese sentiments and the Motion Picture Production Code, which forbade the depiction of interracial relationships, caused his career to decline.  Even at the height of his popularity, he still struggled to be the romantic lead, something his white counterparts never experienced.
 photo fflw03q9odd7ddq_zps2rdc7aqx.jpg
Spoiler alert: Sessue Hayakawa doesn’t get the white girl. Also, it’s worth noting that he portrayed other races in his early career, but two wrongs do not make a right (hear that Cloud Atlas defenders?) and it definitely did not benefit him in the future. Photo from Mirelle Balin – Femme Fatale.

Hayakawa’s struggles reveal why movies like Sayonara and more recently Cloud Atlas should also be accountable despite having Asian actresses.  Neither cast Asian men in any of their roles, perpetuating the idea that real Asian men do not have the passion or machismo that it takes to be romantic leads (having an Asian male does not countreal world actions speak louder than words on a script) .  The inclusion of Asian actresses at the expense of their male counterparts highlights are another problem: fetishization.  Stereotypes have cast Asian women as either a Madame Butterfly or a Dragon Lady, and despite being polar opposites, they both serve as sexual objects.

This is where the bad “geisha” make-up comes in.  Even if it is an inspired make-up job rather than blatant yellowface, it still has the same harmful effects.  Madonna and Kylie Minogue have utilized it to re-invent themselves, which is often musical industry code for making themselves edgier and sexier.  Their fetishization of geisha is reinforced by their modified kimonos and suggestive imagery.  Minogue even goes so far as calling that segment “Naughty Manga Girl”.
 photo Kylie-Minogues-new-geisha-look-6013092_zpsnzxtdela.jpg From The Daily Telegraph

More recently, Katy Perry has come under fire for her randomly Orientalist performance at the AMAs.  Although she doesn’t do the make-up, her back-up dancers are made to appear more “Asian”.  This is another example of non-Asians taking away Asian roles.  In all these cases, the singers are using the image of a geisha for personal gain.

There’s also the implication that geisha are ubiquitous when the make-up is taken out of context.  That is what I was getting at in my original post.  It does not belong with an informal yukata, nor automatically express an “appreciation” for Japanese culture.  Instead, it promotes misunderstanding and disregards the years of training that geisha go through.  It also often looks more like what one would see in Chinese opera, which again lumps Asians together as this large foreign group rather than individual traditions.

I’m not saying non-Japanese people can never wear geisha make-up.  Liza Dalby was invited to become a geisha (note that she did not insist herself).  Visitors in Kyoto can purchase a service that allows them to dress up as maiko and take photos.  This directly benefits Japanese businesses.  Cosplaying a character who is a geisha may be a little contentious, but if you keep your natural features with the make-up, you’ll piss off fewer Asians who endured a lifetime of being mocked for their eye shape or called a geisha when they’re in a different traditional outfit.  Just think about whether you are contributing to negative stereotypes and remember that movies continue to feature yellowface and companies still sell “Asian eyelids”.

Listening to: “Busy Doing Nothing” by Crystal Kay

Japanese ghosts

I was reading an old AJET newsletter, and an article about different types of Japanese ghosts piqued my interest. It inspired me to do some more digging and share what I had learned… just in time for Halloween!

First let’s clarify the terminology.

  • 霊魂 (reikon) = spirit – This is what leaves your body when you die.
  • 幽霊 (yūrei) = “faint spirit”, ghost – When the reikon hangs around in between our world and the afterlife as a result of a traumatic death or lack of proper burial, it becomes a yuurei.
  • 化け物 (bakemono) = monster – The word literally translates as “thing that changes” so it can apply to all sorts of supernatural creatures.
  • 妖怪 (yōkai) = “bewitching apparition” – Like bakemono, it’s an umbrella term for supernatural beings.
  • 鬼 (oni) = demon or ogre

Thanks to movies like The Ring and The Grudge, the image conjured up by the mention of a yūrei is that of a woman in a white kimono with long hair and limp hands.  It’s much older than those movies though.  Starting from the Edo Period, the Japanese buried the deceased in white kimonos.  Women’s hair would be let down, hence the long hair.  The motif of limp hand and no feet came from ukiyo-e prints, which inspired Kabuki actors.

 photo 1764997_orig_zps19ec7bbd.jpgFrom EJPcreations.

The ghosts from the aforementioned films belong to a group called onryō.  Below are five types of ghosts you may encounter in Japan:

  1. 怨霊 (onryō) – vengeful spirits of abused or neglected lovers, mainly women. Unlike the movies, they rarely do harm to the ones who have wronged them, perhaps because the feeling of love is stronger than anger.
  2. 御霊 (goryō) – martyrs from the ruling class out for revenge. They destroy crops and create natural disasters. The higher their status was in life, the more powerful they are.
  3. 産女 (ubume) – ghosts of women who died in childbirth. The love for their child keeps them from moving on, and they sometimes try to give presents, which turn to dead leaves.
  4. 座敷童 (zashiki-warashi) – child ghosts with bobbed hair and red faces. They play pranks and are said to bring good fortune to homeowners coexist with them.
  5. 船幽霊 (funayūrei) – spirits of those who died at sea. They approach ships and ask for a bucket or ladle, which they proceed to use to dump water into the vessel.

I also came across an interested trait that others Japanese ghosts exhibit: a penchant for hanging in the bathroom. That might be the worst place to encounter an apparition, especially the ones described below.

  • Hanako – the Japanese version of Bloody Mary, a girl who died a violent death and can be summoned by games kids play.
     photo hanako_zpsd8c231df.png From Misao Wiki.
  • Aka Manto – a handsome, masked ghost who asks unsuspecting victims if they want to wear a red cape. If they say “yes”, he rips off the skin on their back.
  • Reiko Kashima – the legless spirit of a woman who died a violent death on the train tracks. She grills you, and if you answer wrong, you lose your legs. Also, you’re a target the minute you learn about her.

Oops. Well, let’s just hope that Kashima-san doesn’t travel overseas, and remember that her legs are at the Meishin Expressway. Happy Halloween!

EJPcreations – “A more indepth look at Japanese ghosts”
Japan Talk – “6 Types of Japanese Ghost” by John Spacey
Tofugu – “Super Japanese Ghouls ‘n Ghosts” by John
Topless Robot – “6 Types of Japanese Ghosts That Hang Out in Toilets” by Anne Matthews

Listening to: “Enamel” by SID

Misogyny in Japan – an ALT’s perspective

When I heard about the incredibly sexist remarks that some members of The Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly made towards Ayaka Shiomura, I had a feeling of déjà vu. Almost a year ago, I had read about the women in the Texas Legislature dealing with similar harassment. It was a sobering reminder that underneath Japan’s polite exterior lies the sinister misogyny that plague all of society today.

The news report and a series of posts from This Japanese Life about sexual harassment in Japan got me thinking about the misogyny I encountered as an ALT. Back then I was very oblivious to a lot of problems in society, namely the microaggressions and rape culture. Even though I called myself a feminist, I saw nothing wrong in the victim blaming rhetoric of the JET Handbook that This Japanese Life pointed out. My friends had dealt with worse, but I’ve come to realize that I had some pretty unpleasant encounters.

The creepiest was a guy named Hiro who had accidentally dialed my landline and decided he wanted to chat up this gaijin on the other line. I politely insisted that I didn’t know enough Japanese to tutor him in English. He asked for my cellphone number and then called me a liar when I gave out a random string of numbers. I finally just hung up on him and would do so anytime he called. When I asked an older male friend for help, he just told me to refuse the guy on the basis that I did not know Japanese. He didn’t really understand the anxiety I was feeling. I’ve never really talked about this because I felt stupid for not being more blunt, but you never know how a person is going to take that either.

I do think, however, that there is too much of a focus on being courteous and maintaining wa (social harmony). Following traditions is important when you’re a foreigner, but when the customs reinforce misogyny and you find yourself in physical or emotional danger, you have to fight. It’s something I wish they told us more in our JET orientations.

When it came to smaller things like the way I sat (cross-legged, which is how the men sit), I was very unapologetic about my tomboyish ways. My co-workers knew that I crossplayed and liked motorcycles, and I’ve always kind of wondered if that spared me from being told to help serve tea to male teachers. Of course, it could just be another incident where they had overlooked the gaijin. I also wonder what would have happened if I acted upon my desire to join the soccer club, which only consisted of boys.

Speaking of sports, my junior high school did have a girl on the baseball team. My fellow ALT was concerned about how she was treated, which I didn’t understand until it occurred to me that there could be a lot of bullying. As a far as I knew, she did well in the club. Likewise I had a tomboy sixth grader who stated that she wanted to be a farmer. It was refreshing to hear considering how strongly established gender roles were at such a young age.

The lesson about occupation names was one of the few chances I could instill a bit of feminism into my students. I would always point out that there were female firefighters and male nurses (“doctor” and “nurse” were especially confusing terms). It’s not that small-town Japan doesn’t have female firefighters or doctors, but it’s less common and there’s the flipside of pointing out that there’s nothing shameful in being a male nurse or pastry chef.

I don’t have solutions on how to deal with harassment or sexism, but I do know that the small opportunities like slipping in lessons to combat gender stereotypes will help make a difference. Even though we had to maintain wa, we can still combat misogyny in little ways. I remember a fellow ALT who advised us to insist that we are from a different cultural background in sticking up for ourselves, and sometimes establishing that difference is the key. Trying to figure out when to turn the other cheek or to speak out is not easy. However, we can’t let misogyny in Japan or anywhere else (because sexism Japan is really bad… but America is pretty awful too) bring us down. There’s light at the end of the tunnel, and if we focus on that and push the ones we can influence in that direction, the world would be a better place.

Listening to: “Seishun no Matataki” by Ringo Sheena

Why I won’t tell you where to buy yukata anymore

My most popular post is “Where to buy yukata”?  Nowadays, instead of pride, I feel guilty.  As I’ve gotten more socially aware, I have realized that it is no longer my place to supply this information.  Since I am not Japanese, I am contributing to cultural appropriation, and that is not something I want to do.  I apologize to any individuals of Japanese descent for offending them.

Cultural appropriation is hard to define.  It’s often explained as borrowing or stealing of elements from one cultural by another, usually dominant one, but that ignores cultural exchange, which is not a bad thing.  As The Long Way home points out in this great article (a must read), “cultures aren’t tangible things that can only be possessed by one person.”  The issue with cultural appropriation is then the removal of culture out of the context that surrounds it.   You can’t just wear a yukata because you think it’s pretty.  That ignores the history of oppression faced by Japanese people and all the times they were forced to adopt a Western style of dress or get rid of any Japanese items.   It ignores the fact that Japanese kids get bullied for dressing different, that Japanese women are still fetishized (Gwen Stefani’s Harajuku Girls and “Asian Girlz” anyone?), and that there are people who think that the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami was some sort of divine retribution for Pearl Harbor or the fishermen killing dolphins (I knew a woman who believed in the latter).

Yes, it’s not fair that people have spoiled the opportunity for others to appreciate Japanese culture through clothing.  It’s also unfair that white men are the stars of samurai movies in the West and that Chinese actresses were cast in Memoirs of a Geisha.  Furthermore, there are other ways to appreciate a culture: learning a language, hosting an exchange student, attending a local festival, purchasing music and movies from that culture,  or (if you’re in Japan) taking classes in wearing kimono.  I’m NOT saying that you can’t wear a yukata or a kimono, but you have to really dig deep and think about why you’re doing it and you’re going to have to prepare for the stink faces that sometimes are a gut reaction (I give it to non-Chinese people who wear qipao outside of volunteering situations even if they are my friends).

There’s not a clear line between when a non-Japanese person can and cannot wear a yukata or a kimono.  Different Japanese people have differing opinions about it.  However, there are obvious things that you should not do, and I hope you can learn from the mistakes I made with yukatas and kimonos.

The first outfit was a costume based on an image of Nana Osaki in a robe (last photo in Nana 1st Illustration here).  It’s acceptable to wear kimonos and yukatas if you’re cosplaying a character at a convention, but you have to do it right.  Confusing a robe for a yukata/kimono is not doing it right.  Furthermore, my roommate picked out a brocade with a “very Chinese” (a Japanese co-worker’s term) design.  I should’ve said something, but I didn’t and I wound up making things worse by tying the obi in the front like Nana did with the robe.  Major fail.

The middle picture would not have been so bad if I hadn’t decided to stick a wig on it.  The JETs were invited to wear yukatas to our farewell party; that’s a perfectly good time to wear one.  Due to my problems with self-image and attention, I decided that I would stick a pink cosplay wig.  This Tumblr post describes why wearing cosplay outside of a convention is problematic.  I basically took an honor and selfishly stomped all over it.

If I had not learned my lesson, I again committed a horrific act of bastardizing a yukata via steampunk.  There’s a difference between making an outfit with components inspired by traditional Japanese clothing (like “kimono” sleeves or wa-lolita) and altering the original garment itself.  While there are Japanese steampunks who do alter yukatas or accessorize it in an atypical way (as non-Japanese steampunks who have the knowledge and the proper motivations to do the same), it is not my place to do so.

How about when it is okay to wear a yukata or kimono?  A safe bet is whenever you are invited to by Japanese people.  The photo below on the left was taken when our ALT music group was invited to perform and given the opportunity to rent kimonos and be dressed by a professional.  On the right, I’m being dressed by a Japanese friend from Sister Cities during our charity concert.  It was originally my idea to wear my yukata in order to attract attention towards our efforts to raise money for earthquake and tsunami survivors, as well as to celebrate the kindness of my co-workers in Miyagi who gave me the yukata.  My friend approved, and she’s actually asked to borrow it to let a Caucasian girl wear it to help promote our organization and its exchange program.
kimono photo 090621_14100001_zps515c8a10.jpg  photo 76f99f35-f8d7-4a6b-9e7f-369c61f91b93_zpseb754e6c.jpg

These are my opinions, and I’m still adjusting them with new information I receive.  I don’t have an answer to whether you can wear a yukata to a matsuri, like my “Where to Buy Yukata?” post encouraged.  The Tumblr post I had previously linked makes a good case for why it’s not a good idea.  I can’t prevent anyone from wearing a yukata, but if you do, please don’t put on awful “geisha” make-up (EDIT: I misphrased my original comparison to blackface. What I mean to say is that this is a form of yellowface when you are going off of stereotypes) and purchase it from a Japanese seller.  The least we can do is to support the original culture’s economy instead of buying non-Japanese kimonos and yukatas.  If you want another perspective, a good site is This is Not Japan.

Listening to: “Ibitsu” by the GazettE

2012 Japan-America Grassroots Summit

The photos have been sorted through, uploaded, and watermarked, which means I can finally make this long overdue post.  Before I do, I must announce to those who haven’t heard that Purple SKY will no longer be updated.  I’m currently looking for writing opportunities, and that may affect the content of this blog in the future.  I’ll keep everyone posted.  Now onto our regular schedule programming.

From August 28 to September 3, North Texas hosted a delegation of over 150 Japanese visitors for the 2012 Japan-America Grassroots Summit.  I’ve already written about the inspiration behind the Summit, the friendship between John Manjiro Nakahama and Captain William H. Whitfield.  The John Manjiro Whitfield Commemorative Center for International Exchange and the Japan-America Society of Dallas/Fort Worth worked together with fifteen cities to give the visitors an unforgettable experience.

I wasn’t able to participate in the first day’s activities due to work, but the Summit got off to a great start with Japan-America Friendship Night at the Texas Rangers vs. Tampa Bay Rays game.   Rangers pitcher Yu Darvish, along with the rest of the team and gloops International, Inc., helped sponsor the Ishinomaki Little Senior team.  They were one of the three youth groups from Tohoku visiting through the TOMODACHI Initiative.  I’ve never really been a fan of baseball, but I definitely support the Rangers for  their kindness.

Wednesday night was the Opening Ceremony at Billy Bob’s in Fort Worth.  A lot of big names were present, including many of the DFW mayors, a former ambassador to Japan, the Consul-General of Japan in Houston, and descendants of Commodore Matthew C. Perry (pictured below), Manjiro, and Captain Whitfield.  The Kesennuma youth group made a very touching presentation about surviving the tsunami.  Then the mood was lifted with barbecue and line dance lessons.
Opening Ceremony11 Opening Ceremony15

I found it odd that the food wasn’t labeled and had to instruct a couple of people on the purpose of gravy.  After overhearing one of the guests mistaking a jalapeño for some eggplant-like vegetable, I tried to do a bit of damage control.  Another thing I overheard was the bartender not understanding a boy asking for “cola”.  Somebody should have told them that in Texas, “coke” can mean a lot of different things.

The visitors spent a little more time in Fort Worth before splitting up to the various host cities the next day.  I helped welcome Southlake’s ten-member delegation at city hall before accompanying them on a tour of the DPS. There was a retired fire chief in the group so it was interesting to hear from him what was different about American firefighters and fire stations.
Thursday13 Thursday17

That evening, the city held a reception where two of the visitors performed a traditional Japanese dance.  Since I knew one of the dancers (I met her while I was a JET and my family was hosting her), I wound up getting recruited to assist them in teaching everyone.  I was nervous, but I had some kids from one of the host families by my side and even the mayor wound up jumping in.

There was an after party at a Southlake Sister Cities member’s house.  They attempted to do karaoke, but it didn’t really work.  One of the visitors, an old monk who had been soaking up every minute of the Summit, did sing the Japanese version of “Tennessee Waltz” a capella.  The guy knew how to live life to the fullest.

Friday began with an optional tour of Central Market.  We had lunch at a Chinese restaurant that also served ramen.  I have to admit that I wasn’t a fan of this idea because while I personally don’t like Tex-Mex, it is a huge part of Texas.  Our visitors seemed to want a taste of home, but I don’t think anyone was really impressed by the meal.  I took the rest of the day off since I had no interest in going across the metroplex to attend a high school football game even if it was the first game at a new $60 million stadium.

On Saturday, we met up with a couple other host families for a big American breakfast.  Then all the Southlake hosts and guests drove two hours to Morgan Creek Ranch in Corsicana.  The owner of the ranch opened the place up for our group and the one in Irving.  Although I wasn’t thrilled about the drive and the heat, I had a good time.  There were all sort of the things you could learn and do, like horseback riding, ATVing, lassoing, or feeding the animals.
Saturday12 Saturday27

The ranch hands also put together a cutting demonstration (cutting is an equestrian event based on the ability to separate a cow away from the herd… hey, I wound up learning things about “Texas culture”).  By the end of the day, I was wishing we could’ve hung around longer to try out more things, but we had to get ready for our last day with the guests.

The Closing Ceremony was held at the Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas.  I liked how the setting provided a foil to the Opening Ceremony, as Dallas is more urban and Fort Worth is reminiscent of the Old West.  In addition to a bunch of speeches, there were performances by the SMU Belle Tones and the Gyozan-ryu Mitobe Shishi-Odori Preservation Group.
Closing Ceremony08

Members of the delegation from Shimane also took the stage to introduce their prefecture, which would host the 2013 Grassroots Summit.  After a completely unnecessary introduction of the Dallas Arts District (guests and host families alike were falling asleep), we got to explore some of the nearby museums.  Something also worth noting was that the visitors’ hotel was across the street from AnimeFest so a couple of people expressed both surprise and amusement at the sight of cosplayers walking around.

The Japan-America Grassroots Summit was a fantastic experience.  It did come at a bad point in time for me so I regret not being as sociable.  I found out that I’m better at talking to people younger than me probably due to my experiences as a JET.  In any case, everybody had a good time. I definitely recommend volunteering for the Summit if it ever is in your neck of the woods.

For the rest of the photos, click here.

Listening to: “Blues Drive Monster” by The Pillows


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 80 other followers