How Historically Accurate Is "The Mikado"?

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The maidens Yum-Yum, Pitti-Sing, and Peep-Bo from the 1885 original cast of "The Mikado". Hulton Archive / Getty Images

On March 14, 1885, a new comic opera by Gilbert and Sullivan premiered at the Savoy Theater in London.  Called The Mikado, the operetta was set in far-off Japan, and ran for an impressive 672 shows.  How historically or culturally accurate is The Mikado?  Why do modern performances that use the traditional staging stir up so much controversy today, more than 130 years after the show premiered?

In 1885, Japan was in the midst of the Meiji Era, just 17 years after the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate.

 The Japanese had been isolated from most foreign countries for centuries, and Europe was just beginning to get a glimpse of Japan's sophisticated culture and its beautiful artistic aesthetic.  Gilbert and Sullivan took advantage of the fascination that British audiences felt for Japan, as well as their relative ignorance of the country, to set The Mikado in that exotic realm without being constrained by reality.

Thus, Japan as portrayed in The Mikado bears very little resemblance to Meiji Japan.  The original sets and costumes are a mish-mash of Japanese and Chinese styles.  The characters' names are vaguely Asian-sounding baby talk, such as Yum-Yum, Pitti-Sing, and Pish-Tush.  Even the crown prince of Japan is called "Nanki-Poo," which is a childish nickname for a handkerchief in Victorian England.  To give the show a more authentic feel, Gilbert and Sullivan hired actual Japanese women from a traveling exhibit on Japan to teach the British actresses how to do a traditional dance.

 

The plot, however, is decidedly inauthentic.  A key point of dramatic tension, for example, is the engagement between the crown prince of Japan and an elderly woman; since the succession is of paramount importance, no imperial family would marry off their eldest son to an old lady incapable of bearing an heir.

 Flirting has also been outlawed in The Mikado's Japan, and is punishable by death.  While Tokugawa and Meiji Japan had various, sometimes rather unusual laws, a ban on flirting was never one of them.

Perhaps the most egregious example of cultural inaccuracy is the assertion that "suicide is a capital offense."  This is, of course, a silly joke - 'Don't kill yourself, or we'll kill you' - but it flies in the face of Japanese attitudes toward suicide.  Under the bushido code of samurai conduct, which held cultural sway even after the Meiji Restoration of 1868, suicide was actually the correct course to take rather than enduring shame or dishonor.  High-ranking convicts were expected to kill themselves, not by the ridiculous method of self-decapitation mentioned in The Mikado, but by the formal process of seppuku.  

So, why did Arthur Sullivan write a libretto that was set in Japan, yet bore so little resemblance to that country?  In fact, The Mikado is a satire of Victorian England, set in a distant land to make it more palatable.  His idea that flirting is a capital offense, for example, is a play on two aspects of contemporary British culture: Victorian sexual taboos, and the arbitrary use of capital punishment for minor offenses (an abuse that had only been reformed over the previous century).

 For example, before 1832, picking pockets or killing a game bird on a nobleman's manor were both crimes punishable by hanging.  A child between the ages of seven and fourteen could be hanged for "strong evidence of malice."  By 1885, only murder, treason, espionage, arson, and piracy were still capital offenses, but the public well remembered the harshness of recent legal codes.

Victorian sexual taboos forbade the mention in polite society of any word that might have a sexual connotation.  Women's dresses covered them from throat to foot, and the display of an ankle was considered shockingly improper.  If a man wanted to admire a woman's necklace, she had to remove it and hand it to him - it would be inexcusable for him to lean in and look at it.  In such an environment, a law against flirting makes sense.

Thus, The Mikado depicts the British Empire, not the Empire of Japan.

This was all good fun in 1885, but today, it can present real problems for theater companies that use the traditional sets and costumes in revivals of The Mikado.  The goofy, fake-Asian names and mannerisms can come across as quite offensive to members of a modern audience.  Particularly when casts are made up of non-Asian actors, a traditional setting can be seen as "yellowface."  Commentator Jeff Yang suggests changing "Yum-yum" and "Ko-ko" to realistic Japanese names such as Yume and Kaku.  He also recommends multi-ethnic casts, and the use of other countries and times for the setting.  (I'm not sure why directors would change the names to authentic Japanese ones, and then change the setting to France or a colony on Mars, but his point is well-taken.)

The Mikado is an historically accurate document, in the sense that it reflects Victorian British humor and culture.  However, the satire of Britain is lost on modern audiences, who are distracted by their discomfort over the broad Asian caricatures. To remain relevant and palatable, productions today need to be updated.