Cultural Appropriation or Swiftian Satire? Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado

“The Mikado.” Illustrated London News, 4 Apr. 1885

| by Masaki Morisawa, Senior Product Manager, Library Reference, Tokyo |

Last year, an American high school student’s twitter account flamed up when she posted prom pictures of herself wearing a cheongsam, or Chinese dress. Some Asian Americans accused her, who is not of Chinese descent, of cultural appropriation. “My culture is NOT your [expletive] prom dress,” wrote one particularly upset commenter. Others, including many Asians living in Asia, defended her actions and dismissed such criticism as irrelevant.

While “cultural appropriation” is a fairly recent term, similar debates have arisen in the past where the borrowing of “exotic” elements from foreign cultures have been criticised as offensive or disrespectful. One such example is Gilbert and Sullivan’s opera The Mikado, a work that is often hailed as the duo’s masterpiece, yet at times has stirred controversy due to its use of Japanese costume and settings. In this post I would like to take a look at the history of Mikado performances and the controversies surrounding them.

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The Japanese Jugglers Who Took the West by Storm

"The Japanese Jugglers." Illustrated London News, 23 Feb. 1867, p. 176. The Illustrated London News Historical Archive, 1842-2003

│By Masaki Morisawa, Senior Product Manager, Gale Japan│

One of the great things about Gale Primary Sources is the serendipity – the unexpected discoveries you make when you were looking for one thing, and stumble on something totally different yet fascinating. While I was searching for material to use in my blog post about the Paris International Exposition of 1867, I made a quirky discovery. That blog post was about Tokugawa Akitake, the teenage half-brother of the Shogun of Japan, who came to Paris with his retinue in 1867 in order to exhibit at the Exposition and mingle with various European sovereigns. I was typing broad keywords into Gale Primary Sources, such as “Japanese” and “Paris,” with a date limiter of 1867. Sure enough, the cross-search platform returned newspaper articles that were obviously related to my topic, such as:

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