‘Mikado’ is denounced in US as racist. Next step, a ban?

‘Mikado’ is denounced in US as racist. Next step, a ban?


norman lebrecht

July 16, 2014

The Gilbert and Sullivan send-up of Europe’s late 19th century mania for Japanese culture has run into heavy waters in Seattle.

 Sharon Pian Chan, an op-ed editor of the Seattle Times, calls it ‘yellowface, in your face’.

Needless to say, she hasn’t seen the show. But her column is widely read and Sharon has taken to the airwaves to promote her view that Mikado should only be performed, if at all, by Asian Americans like herself.



Peter A Klein has written to the paper’s editor, as follows:

“The Mikado” is not about any real Japan, it’s a satire on 19th-Century British society, dressed up in a fictionalized exotic locale to “gild the philosophic pill,” as Gilbert put it in another of his operettas.

I do wish Ms. Chan would learn the difference between affectionate satire, fairy tales, clumsy ignorance and actual bigotry. Such discernment would be worthy of a person who helps guide the editorial voice of a great city’s newspaper. Banning, censoring or bowdlerizing art is a grim pastime. “Presentism”–the idea that all older works of art and literature must conform to today’s sensibilities and sensitivities or be subject to censorship–is a present-day curse. It would deprive us of great works of art like Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly” and “Turandot,” sparkling music, humor and wordplay like Gilbert and Sullivan’s, and even works that actually plead for inter-ethnic understanding, such as Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” or Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific.”

Such censorship can backfire. In 1907, Japanese Prince Fushimi visited Britain. The Lord Chamberlain banned performances of “The Mikado” in London to avoid offending the Prince. The Prince was offended, all right–he wanted very much to see the show, and was very upset that he could not. The Daily Mail dispatched a native Japanese newspaper critic to a provincial performance, far from the Prince. Mr. K. Sugimura wrote: “I came to Sheffield expecting to discover real insults to my countrymen. I find bright music and much fun, but I could not find the insults.”

His letter has not yet been published.

alternative send-up


  • Paul Pellay says:

    This is ludicrous and frankly beneath contempt. What’s next on her list, Sondheim’s “Pacific Overtures”?
    As for her view that “The Mikado” should only be performed by Asian Americans like herself: unless she mentions the historical precedent of “Porgy and Bess”, she would be wise to hold her counsel.

  • sdReader says:

    Sharon Pian Chan.

    That’s not a Japanese name.

    @ Seattle Times:

    Print Peter Klein’s letter!

  • Halldor says:

    At one point the Chorus sings the line “The Japanese equivalent of Here Here Here!”. When the D’Oyly Carte toured the show to Birmingham, Gilbert changed the script to allude to Nanki-Poo being banished “to Small Heath”.

    That’s how “Japanese” The Mikado is. The very first chorus openly pokes fun at western stereotypes of Japan before concluding “If that’s your idea you’re wrong”. Still, none so deaf as those who won’t hear…

    • Margaret Nicholls says:

      The Japanese equivalent of Here, here, here. I’ve never read such stupidity as this journalist has written about The Mikado. She obviously doesn’t know anything about G & S humour and satire..

  • Ko-Ko says:

    I’ve got a little list — I’ve got a little list

    Of a Seattle Times Journalist, who has never seen this show,

    And who never would be missed — who never would be missed!

  • GEll says:

    Oh brother. Then so must be West Side Story.

  • Ko-Ko says:

    She’ll have a heart attack if she hears about Turandot

  • Francis Wood says:

    I disagree with Sharon Pian Chan’s point of view but it is not unreasonably expressed and is worth reading carefully. Peter Klein has it right, I think, though his ridiculing tone is unfortunate.

    There is legitimate difference between the Japanese-American West coast experience, still resident in living memory and attitudes encountered in Japan itself .On that topic, an interesting NYT item here concerning a Mikado production there:


  • Margaret Nicholls says:

    I’d like to know what is going on in this journalist’s mind. I can understand that Showboat and Ragtime is only performed with real black people, but the whole principal of The Mikado is Gilbert’s look at how English people look at Japan, obviously the Victorians were not as fortunate as we are nowadays with ability and means of flying to far away places to see for ourselves. I have been to Japan three times and the Japanese I know would find The Mikado performed by British or Americans very humorous. I had the privilege of being dressed by Japanese ladies in the full kimono attire including all the bindings and undergarments, this would have been very rare for a Victorian lady, therefore they made their own pictures of what it’s like. The comedy operetta would not be funny if it were performed entirely by Asian performers. People should stop raising the race card unnecessarily, particularly when it is not justified.

  • Ken Meltzer says:

    I agree that “The Mikado,” and all forms of musical expression, should not be censored. But the truth is, “The Mikado” has been censored for years. Take a look at the original lyrics for Ko-Ko’s “I’ve got a little list.”

  • Richard Langlois says:

    Ms. Chan’s demand to ban or bowdlerize The Mikado can only lead one to the conclusion that she has either never seen a Gilbert & Sullivan production, or, if she has, managed to completely miss the point. The Mikado is no more a send up of Japanese culture than Pirates is a commentary on piracy, or Gondoliers a farce about Venitians. Culture at large would do much better without the overly-politically-correct derision of those who plainly haven’t got a foggy clue about the topic they’re commenting on.

  • William Shaw says:

    Only to be performed by Asian-Americans – amazing. Who is the true racist, I wonder? I’m tired of this world. Personally, I don’t care if your racial identity is a minority or majority one. That is because I don’t care about your racial identity. It’s a skin colour and means absolutely nothing to me. Nor should it to you. It’s nothing to be proud of, nothing to be ashamed of, and about as significant as your eye colour, hair colour, or how much navel fluff you collect. How dare this woman tell the world anything different!
    Imagine if there was a call for Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” to be performed only by ginger-haired pale people in kilts. The world would laugh.

    • Flockenstein says:

      Your comments come off like only a privileged racial-ethnic majority man’s could.

      Try some empathy and understand why people would be upset by “yellowface.” Step outside your veil and zone of power and privilege and try to grasp Ms. Pian’s argument.

      And as you must know, nowhere does Shakespeare specify “gingers” in Macbeth, but then you have actually read the play before, right? And you grasp the difference between the political and social oppression of racial and ethnic minorities in the United States, and the position of the Scots in the UK. Or don’t you?

      (BTW, most productions of Othello are thankfully no longer performed in blackface. Do you (not) understand why?)

      You’re tired of this world because oppressed people are now speaking back? Others are tired of the colonial-settler mindset dominating and imposing their will on everything.

  • Sharron says:

    I live in Seattle and have gone to several Seattle G&S productions. I’ve done 13 productions as a performer in other cities. This woman wrote an “editorial” based on no knowledge of the traditions of G&S- but based solely on the concept of victimhood that runs deep here. She only showed her own ignorance about Gilbert and Sullivan. It was particularly telling that she didn’t even know it has been staged differently many times. She didn’t even look it up! I hope she is not allowed to express her “editorial opinions” again since they are based on nothing but her own paranoia, misinformation and bias.

  • Bob Savage says:

    Having performed in The Mikado and a number of other G&S operas, I can only conclude that this woman is out to make a name for herself. Unfortunately she has completely missed the mark this time, and strictly speaking the performers should be white Brits; after all, that is who it was originally written for!!

  • Sam says:

    Even if you disagree entirely with Ms. Chan’s criticism and all that she wrote, I think that, at least since Prof. Josephine Lee published her book in 2010 (“The Japan of Pure Invention: Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado”), producers of The Mikado in the US ignore at their peril the possibility that their production will face this sort of criticism, or even protests and pickets, as happened with a California production. A big Austin TX production faced media criticism recently, as did a touring production (in Denver) by the country’s leading professional G&S company, the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players. The criticism of The Mikado as “yellowface” is mounting. So, I think that producers should be careful in their promotion and interactions with the press, to highlight the idea that the opera is a silly spoof of British institutions, hiding behind a Japanese screen; I think that the black wigs must be retired; Miya suma must not be sung in the “traditional” nasal tone; and there should probably be a curtain speech (if possible by an Asian-American academic), explaining the Victorian craze for Japonoiserie.

  • Paul Pellay says:

    Pamela Kelley Elend, business manager of the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society, has published an eloquent response to Ms. Chan’s odious and uninformed diatribe. Link below: