Exclusive: Asians in uproar at German opera poster

Exclusive: Asians in uproar at German opera poster


norman lebrecht

February 08, 2020

The poster for a new German production of Madam Butterfly would not normally occasion much attention.

But the one in Braunschweig has proved so offensive that all Korean and Cinese musicians in the Braunschweig orchestra have signed and sent an official protest letter to the management, demanding its removal.

Can you see what’s so appalling?

The design incorporates the rising sun, symbolic of Japan’s brutal occupation of China and Korea in the 1940s.

Sara Kim, principal viola of Gewandhaus Orchestra, has written independently to Braunschweig Opera, asking for the poster to be taken down. They replied that the image is not meant to be triumphalist, and will be destroyed during the performance.

None of this has satisfied the Chinese and Koreans in the company.

They regard it as insensitive at best, at worst a racial insult.

The production team look very pleased with the poster. Braunschweig have promised to issue a statement ‘some time this week.’

That’s German for crisis management.

Not to mention the stage flooring.


  • SMH says:

    There appears to be no “sun” at the center, and the color scheme is quite different. IMO not quite the same as swastikas or burning crosses/noose, etc. Seems like an over reaction.

    • Sara Kim says:

      The poster is not the only concern. The (planned) stage scenery is very unambiguously the rising sun. You can check the posting of Staatstheater Braunschweig https://www.facebook.com/130659676968491/posts/3097006217000474/?d=n

      • norman lebrecht says:

        Thanks, Sara. I’ll incrporate it.

      • SMH says:

        Got it, that definitely changes the conversation. However, isn’t the context and usage within the production important? Can’t change history and censorship in artistic matters never works out properly.

    • Taek-Ryun says:

      Yes, the very tiny and passive changes are done. The poster shows the beams in red+ black instead of original colour, red + white. However it leaves exactly the same impression like the one from the Japanese imperial war flag.
      Anybody else can try to persuade the published Design is different. IMO the swastika is swastika in any different color!
      It is never too late to say sorry.

      • Town Clerk says:

        Most stage directors hired in Germany are so shallow that they don’t undertake even light research or examine their own initial ideas, and the Intendants who run the opera companies fail in their duty of artistic oversight, spending public money on ANY concept that looks new for a given work, and big money if the régisseur they have hired is a “name.” Meanwhile the politicians, or “culture ministers,” who in turn are supposed the oversee the spending, are usually ignorant, as we see in numerous Slipped Disc reports. This is true not just in midsize cities like Braunschweig but in the places where hundreds of millions of Euros are spent on opera yearly — Munich’s Bavarian State Opera being the busiest and richest, with dozens and dozens of ugly, uninformed, cliché-riddled, would-be-shocking, unfaithful, dramaturgically illogical, self-serving, designer-branded stagings.

        And of course Koreans and Chinese have reason to be outraged by the use of a flag that represents invasion and rape of their countries! Most Japanese are repelled by it too.

        Japan, by the way, repeatedly says sorry. It is the artists and adminstrators who rarely account.

        • Alexander Radziewski says:

          According to your statement their would be permanent uproar in the German opera companies because of such incidents. Even you know know that’s not the fact. So do you believe this crap you mentioned here?

      • SMH says:

        The design of the poster is a very common one in graphic design. Every stock photo company has them. It can’t be banned around the world. Context is important, censorship doesn’t work.


    • fflambeau says:

      What would you say to 3/4 of a swastika?

      This is still the Rising Sun and it’s a fascist symbol.

    • Emil says:

      Seems like I’d be careful before telling Koreans and Chinese they’re over-reacting over symbols recalling crimes against humanity performed against their countries and populations.

  • SteelyTom says:

    Not just the Rising Sun, but the imperial war flag.

  • B says:

    Was it really only Chinese and Korean musicians who sent the letter? No other nationalities?

  • sam says:

    But it all depends on what the mise-en-scene is.

    There certainly have been Wagner operas set in Nazi Germany; a Butterfly set in Imperial Japan is possible. I can see a production where Butterfly is not a geisha but actually a comfort woman. Offensive? Provocative? Artistic liberty?

    It’s only if the imperial flag were used totally out of context of the stage production, or out of pure ignorance, that it is problematic.

    • SY says:

      I guess that Wagner opera didn’t feature a huge swastika on the poster and on the stage floor.

    • Town Clerk says:

      No mise-en-scène, even one moved up to the 1930s, could take the action away from Nagasaki, where Cio-Cio-san could not possibly be a comfort woman.

      Try again, Sam!

      This June 2020 staging, the publicity for which also refers to “American carelessness,” will now have to change. Hooray. If only more ill-considered productions could be nipped in the bud before they are built out!


      • anon says:

        uhhh, Sam’s premise was if one could move the Ring from pre-Christian period mythological Valhalla to 1940 Berlin, one could certainly move Butterfly anywhere anytime

    • MWnyc says:

      Even if comfort women existed on Japan’s home islands (they didn’t), if Cio-Cio-San were one, there’s no way on earth someone of Prince Yamadori’s rank would want to marry her.

  • SY says:

    Cannot believe what I just saw. Horrible.

  • Mr. X says:

    And they changed “Ancora un passo…” to “Tora! Tora! Tora!”

    It’s outrageous

  • fflambeau says:

    I can see why.

    Someone in Germany (where anti-Nazi laws are common) should understand that the Rising Sun flag was THE symbol for Nazi Germany’s #1 ally, Imperial Japan.

    It was a world war, after all, and many scholars believe it started in Asia, not Europe.

  • George says:

    Is it not possible to stage Butterfly in Japan in the 1940s? What if the production portrays them as a brutal society?
    (Would that then be offensive to the Japanese?)
    I think one would need to know in which context the flag is used before judging.

  • Mustafa Kandan says:

    I obviously do not know this new production, but I have a feeling that Koreans and Chinese have overreacted. I doubt that it would be a production advocating Japanese triumphalism. Then these are sensitive topics. I remember even in Germany there was some booing after a production of Damnation of Faust on Nazi themes directed by one of the Monty Python guys. After all this time, there is still some rawness about events of that period in the 20th century.

  • Hmmm says:

    I can certainly understand the objections to the flag, but it is not quite the same as using a swastika since its history predates the era of Japanese militarism and atrocities, while the swastika is strictly associated with only the Nazis. The symbol has been used in Japan since the 17th century and was adopted by the Imperial Japanese Army at the end of the 19th century. The flag is currently flown by the Japanese Navy and a modified version by the Japanese ground forces. It is still used in Japan in as a symbol of good fortune. So it is not a forbidden symbol like the swastika, though obviously still problematic. I wonder how it will be used in the context of the opera. Or should that even be considered?

    It also speaks to some of the changes in Germany that the Korean and Chinese communities now have strong enough voices to register this protest. I wonder what the reaction is in Dusseldorf which has a large Japanese community, (about 8400 people), and in Nordrhein-Westfalen as a whole where there are over 14,000 Japanese, and where Japanese firms employ over 52,000 people. My guess is that even the Japanese would rather not have this symobl on display in Germany and the tension it causes.

    • V.Lind says:

      In point of fact the swastika is an ancient Asian symbol signifying spirituality, good fortune and the like. It has a long and happy history until the sign was co-opted by Hitler. It has an expansive cultural history, and is still in evidence in many parts of Asia, with no reference at all to Nazism and its horrors.

      There is a mining town in Northern Ontario named Swastika; some years ago it was approached about changing the name, but as the town long predates Hitler and Nazism, and the name was chosen as a symbol of luck and good fortune — both essential in mining! — the residents refused.

      • Hmmm says:

        True. What I meant to say is that the rising sun flag was used by Japan well before its aggressive imperial era, but that the swastika was never used by Germany except by the Nazis.

      • ThrownOutOfTheKremlinForSinging says:

        I think it depends on the chirality. I mean there’s a left-handed swastika and a right-handed one. One is Asian and the other is Third Reich, as I recall.

        • V.Lind says:

          Not so simple. Hindus and Jains use both, with different meanings. The swastika had been in use by other cultures, from Scandinavia to the Maya, before YKW got a hold of it and tainted it for everyone and forever.

  • Hmmm says:

    A couple years ago, the Japanese Navy pulled out of an international Naval review hosted by South Korea, after South Korea demanded it not fly the Rising Sun flag.


  • Patrick says:

    The scenography isn’t really the problem, if it is put into a context that addresses the imperialistic Japan and its war crimes.I think rather it’s the fact that Braunschweig will have posters all over the city with something resembling the rising sun flag on it. Taken into consideration that the theatre itself has Korean and Chinese nationals in the orchestra, chorus and other positions in the company, that would be highly insensitive. Even if the nazi swastika would be used as part of the scenography in a production, you wouldn’t use the swastika as the main logo for your poster and plaster it on every wall and billboard. That goes without saying. So should this.

  • Branimir says:

    I would really like to know more about the whole concept of this production. For the beginning how did the authors shift the focus from American imperialism – as it is in the original idea, libretto and even the music itself of M. Butterfly – to the Japanese imperialism? And not only how, but even more important WHY?

    • Leo slyder says:

      Why do you think they have shifted the focus from American imperialism. If haven’t any information about the concept, how can you make your claim. Based on what?

  • ThrownOutOfTheKremlinForSinging says:

    I wonder whether this MAGIC FLUTE is/was offensive too.


    • V.Lind says:

      Don’t see it. Colours matter. While the current German design is not identical to the Imperial Flag, it is close enough to immediately call it to mind. Your Met example is not even close.

      BTW the production there is credited to conductor Ken Levine. Any relation, do you suppose? Maybe someone from Sony posted this clip originally!

  • Brettermeier says:

    @NL: First: Thank you for writing “Braunschweig”, not “Brunswick”

    Regarding the Japanese war flag: Better than the pigs mask guys they had in Tosca.

    I really cannot imagine the poster being a problem. Every other meme uses this background…

    Symbols of fascism, of course, are always problematic, but would someone please explain to me why this is or could be regarded as a “racial insult”? Other than that, the Japanese aren’t the “bad guys” in that opera. Shouldn’t they be offended to be depicted as such(, too)?

    (Sorry, I’m German and probably insensitive. And from Braunschweig. 😀 )

  • Leo slyder says:

    I have read through the comments , most from Asian sounding background are offended without putting the stage design into any context . At anyrate we should respect artistic freedom , try to understand the use of this design , and stop censorship through blogs or because someone’s THINKS something may be inappropriate without looking at the whole.
    And by the way. The flag has been used sing 1880‘s and is still used today. SO WHAT.
    If Korean or Chinese, working in Germany, want to protest the flag, then they should take it up with the Japanese government. This entire discussion is a complete disgrace and maybe the German operas should reconsider hiring so many Asians in the future.

    • Sara Kim says:

      I can’t believe this comment. We Koreans did and do protest the Japanese Government, because they never apologized. Inform yourself before you write nasty comments. And because Germany did and continues apologize about what happened to the Jews, being so insensitive about this issue in Germany is unacceptable. You say artists should have freedom. We also have freedom to speak. Your comment about not hiring Asians really crossed the line. Shame on you.

      • Leo slyder says:

        Okay, my statement to hiring Asians was certainly „too much“ , sorry.
        However, your statement about the Germans ALWAYS apologizing has nothing whatsoever to do with the use of symbolics in art, theater, opera, movies or historical context. The stage design is part of a production and should be left in this context. You are focusing on one point without entering into a dialog about the goal of this portrayal of the flag. The opera references AMERICAN IMPERIALISM in Japan . At least that has been my understanding of the opera. That this is played out on the Japanese flag is a pretty solid idea and should be respected.

  • SK says:

    I wonder if Germans are truly sorry for their war crimes if they think it’s ok to use a symbol of Japan’s atrocities. If their parents got tortured, raped and killed under the flag, are they ok if other countries show such flag in their opera and shows?!