Academy Awards, Racism and Sayonara: Creating the White Pacific

Miyoshi Umeki’s character pouring warm bath water onto her onscreen partner played by Red Buttons.

Many people don’t know (and perhaps don’t care), that a Japanese woman became the first actor of East Asian descent to win an Academy Award.  Her name was Umeki Miyoshi 梅木 美代志, or better known as: Miyoshi Umeki ミヨシ・ウメキ  (May 1929-August 2007).

This is also, sadly, the ONLY Academy award won by a person of Asian descent, as of today.

Miyoshi Umeki began her working life as a jazz singer in postwar Japan, singing in cabarets and bars.  A talent scout convinced her to move to the U.S. to widen her career. Her career has been laced with numerous Tony Awards and Golden Globe Awards.  She starred as supporting actress in a television series in the U.S. called The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, which my mother and I enjoyed immensely while living in Albuquerque, New Mexico and Hawaii.

Miyoshi Umeki

Her 1957 Academy Award was for Best Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture in the movie Sayonara.  This movie was directed by Josh Logan and produced by William Getz, adapted into a movie from James Michener’s acclaimed novel of the same name.

Red Buttons, who played her husband in the film, also won for best actor that year.  The movie was a huge success.  It was most likely due to the climate of 1950s America and Japan, after the Korean War and the official Occupation of Japan.  James A. Michener could write his splendid novel of American Occupation soldiers falling in love with Japanese women during the Occupation, and it could be adapted for film in order to de-mystify and normalize the contact between postwar Japan and the United States, because America was receiving war brides and the issue of mixed race children was a cultural issue during these wars successively from the 1940s through the 1950s, and eventually to the Vietnam War’s direct American involvement finishing in the 1970s.

In the book, the ending is not a happy one–which is more realistic in my thinking.  But the movie, to please American happy-ending fetishes,  brings Marlon Brando‘s character–Major Gruver, who is the son of a U.S. Army General, back to Japan to be with his Japanese lover to bring her to America.  Unlike most movies in Hollywood, however, this movie dealt squarely with racism and prejudice.  While movie critics and analysts today, critique the movie from either a whitening point of view, where everything and everyone is Americanized, whitened,  or seen from middle class standards of today, people like most of my mother’s friends, my mother, my father and father’s friends, as well as those like myself who lived through this era, remember and think of this movie as the only living representation of the Occupation of Japan in Hollywood, and our lives through which we live today.  It is not gone. For anyone to honor our lives, these times and situations cannot be displaced.

Movie Poster for “Sayonara.”

In the movie: Major Gruver (Marlon Brando) is in Japan, shipped back from the Korean War, to then meet his best friend there, Airman Joe Kelly–played by Red Buttons.  At first, Major Gruver is prejudiced against Asians and agrees with his superiors in keeping his fellow American soldier away from any relationships with Asian women.  But soon, he changes his heart, when he sees the Takarazuka-like performances and is instantly drawn to the revered Hana-Ogi, played by Miiko Taka.   Takarazuka, is a Japanese tradition that is the somewhat of a counter-part to the Kabuki theater.  In modern Kabuki the female, male, and transgendered roles are played by men and boys (this was not the case in its original forms earlier).  The group which featured all-female casts playing all gender roles was the Takarazuka troupes.

Major Gruver (Marlon Brando) changes as his prejudice against Asians transforms when he meets his friend Joe Kelly’s (Red Button) wife, then falling in love himself, with Hana-Ogi.  It is easy how the relations between Japanese–the former enemy, had to be changed for the U.S. to begin doing business with and relying on Japanese land mass to allow the United States Cold War strategies.  The control of Interracial sexual and romantic relationships, then, becomes crucial in this transition.  As these relations form, however, it often gets mistaken for a disappearance of racism into erotic love.

It is, more accurately, a transferring of racism through romantic and sexualized love.  The racially hated becomes the racially desired.  There are many who do not want to participate even today, in this transition.  In either case, it is a maintenance of race and racism.

There are those who “tolerate” Asians but really would prefer “those” Asians to be gone from “here”  or dead. Others, now, view Asians as competition.  The competition for white women by Asian men, or between women of color for Black and White men in the postwar period, both in Japan and the U.S.–was intense and often violent. Racism did not go away.  It was just transformed (view my previous posting–which displays an excerpt from John Dower’s statement on this transition of racism from one form to another).  Desiring the other does not mean some kind of pure love, or understanding or respect of relations of power. These all converge in desire. Much of Ann Stoler‘s works, for instance, works with this topic.  This allows institutions and laws to form in different ways in order to maintain a nation’s dominant status culture in the populous.

The lead Japanese female actor, Miiko Taka, who plays Marlon Brando’s lover Hana-Ogi, was born in Seattle, and was recruited to play this role.  In the video below, she introduces the trailer for the movie in 1957. Miiko Taka’s mother immigrated to the United States in the postwar.

The movie broke several boundaries. One of them is the first on-screen kiss on the mouth, between a leading white star and an Asian. The movie also gives a glimpse of white racism toward blacks as well.  The movie also prioritizes the war between the white people themselves and in military culture, where the more liberal people who say that “I don’t care what color you are” are pitted against those who think of Asians as vermin, as insects, the forever enemy, degradable–which was the normal propaganda spread through American culture through Time Magazine, cartoons, the movies, and all media of the time. These transitions from overt basic attitudes are all shown in the movie quite well, and its “pastoral” forms, both internal and external, including anti-American sentiments of the Japanese.

In the movie, the two main characters, talk about the fear of “what kind of children will we have?”  Then the answer, in all too typical fashion, is that “we’ll have a mix of white children and yellow children.” There’s no problem (supposedly).  Interracial relationships were dangerous during these times.  Often this brought direct violence to Japanese women and American servicemen who were seen together. It was done bureaucratically and through exclusion on the military bases.  Japanese and Korean women could not come to the U.S.with their American partners. Military culture most often discouraged and had violent prejudiced flyers reminding people of “treacherous Oriental women” so soldiers would stop.  Of course it didn’t work.  What it did do was reinforce.

For those alive today in the U.S. or in Japan, it is hard to fathom but this was very true, especially when the character of Hana-Ogi, who has a life completely mapped out for her in the All-female entertainment troupe.  If she marries, it would be with whom the bosses choose for her. For Black servicemen in the early 1950s, the white-yellow arrangement had further dimensions triangulated between white-yellow-black, Japan, the Cold War, Occupation, and the United States.

The idea of a personal love leading to marriage was unthinkable for someone in her job and position.  Major Gruver, seems to be free to make up his own mind, while changing from being anti-Japanese to falling in love and making it come true.  The American dream is personified for him, in this character.  It is another way that 1950s American promoted the new life, the growing economy, and its new stance in the global hierarchy as new leader. Manifest Destiny.  Individualism begins to reign  supreme over connections with others, traditions, history. Although it is hard, it is ultimately about individual initiative and “good” people.  It is the ultimate neo-liberal story reflected in patriarchal military power (and globalization).

I always hope that I can watch this movie with friends, to discuss the many ideas and comments that come up.  Invariably there is the reactive stance of things being stereotypical, and always responding with the danger of anti-sterotyping stances making invisible all things different.  Different times, different places, different cultures, different worldviews, behaviors, subconscious thinking and images.  The Occupation period was not the same as it is today, and it cannot be judged from today’s position.  But we can always critique and think of the issues that come up from the present–how things continue, how things change.

In the movie, for instance, some people complain of the cross-Asian “costumes” of the Asian women and other issues.  People forget that in Japan, as in all nations,  other cultures have been continuously incorporated into its own.  The theater and entertainment scenes in the movie show a wide variety of Chinese-Japanese and European and U.S. American styles.  If one does not know, one assumes all kinds of things. Forms of Chinese fashion mixed with Japanese and European are common forms of crossing in traditional-modern entertainment.  Chinese “things” are foreign to the Japanese and vice-versa. Asian-ness cannot be collapsed between nations, cultures, communities, histories. Who says something is one thing or another, as cultures have mixed with each other since the dawn of humans being able to walk, to travel?  Containment of national and racial identities and cultures is also a technique of colonizing, of ghetto-izing cultures and races, then dividing and conquering psychologically, territorially, militarily, and/or socio-economically. Through this division, everything is homogenized. Hegemony.

It is also interesting that the director for the film, Josh Logan, objected to Marlon Brando’s wish to adopt a non-specific southern-U.S. accent/dialect for his role as an officer.  This is interesting on two points.  First is the director wanting the officer to be the homogenized “white” and proper serviceman so all that watch and hear the movie could relate better and therefore not think of whiteness other than as one thing.  Also, no one would actually “think” about it precisely because they are speaking in the dominant norm. Then Marlon Brando, perhaps decided to adopt this accent also as first, a way to portray this man as somehow different from the other white men.

Secondly, we must understand that it was extremely, extremely rare for a white man with a Southern U.S. accent of any kind, to rise in the ranks.  That accent is certainly a notion of class and southern U.S. Americans and anything that smacked of it, in those days, were seen as less educated, stupid, naive, unsophisticated and incapable of commanding. Till this day, the southern U.S. accent represents much of the same and is often ridiculed by those without Southern US accents.  It becomes a desire to move away from it if one is born into that.

Miiko Taka

Both Miiko Taka and Miyoshi Umeki, being Asian actors living in the United States, have had difficulty finding work. After all, the Academy industry is controlled almost entirely, to the present day, by older white men.  Before she passed away in 2007, Miyoshi Umeki never wanted to speak about her working days.  I suspect because it was mostly painful, even as she did find work and was successful.  On shows such as What’s My Line, or guesting on live song shows, she was told to wear a kimono, even though both Japanese people in Japan and Japanese-Americans, did not wear kimonos normally, except for rare occasions.  The Orientalizing of Japanese and other Asian women, is intense.  Miyoshi Umeki’s singing voice is wonderful and she was a good jazz singer.  But none of the producers and directors wanted to mention any of that or for her to showcase it much.  She must show up in her kimono and speak demurely and cutely, to satisfy. Women may be those things, but also quite its opposite when the time calls for it.  Again, reducing people to simple and final conclusions is the issue here.

Why should being demure, cute, or soft-spoken or subservient be always a form of degradation and therefore scorned upon in the rush to be “non-stereotypical.”  Diversity and strength and care show up in different ways in our world. Often, stereotyping just renders a certain set of notions, grafted onto races and cultures and nations, as something unwanted. Being kind in the face of humiliation is a great strength. Rendering it singularly what a Japanese woman must do to be “Japanese” is another story that must be fought.  There is diversity. Deal with it.

And what of Ricardo Montalban, a Mexican actor (later becoming Mexican-American via citizenship), who plays a mixed Japanese  man in the movie?  There were many Japanese and mixed-Japanese, as well as Asian actors looking for work.  But they use Ricardo. This speaks more to Hollywood’s structure of racism more than anything.

Also, as a matter of survival, some of these ways of behaving are taken on by Asian actors (and all non-white people in a context of white-people supremacy structures). But it can take its toll.  One only has to listen to Margaret Cho, and other Asian entertainers of all types, to understand the prejudicial force of racializing and racism. Even as the presence of African-Americans and Latin-Americans in the U.S. have grown in the media and entertainment industries, even those groups easily look down upon and entitle themselves to Anti-Asian stereotyping and prejudice, bullying, exclusion, violence.  Of course when we speak of sexuality and gender and socio-economic class, we begin to see the issues at stake and what we must do for social justice and democratization of society (not political democracy, but the ability to negotiate across difference).  One needs to think of female African-American actors in the United States, for instance, who wear wigs and straighten their hair today.  None of them usually dare go to an acting job or interview with their natural hair.

Because things are silent does not mean there is peace or that it does not exist. Most often, silence is a proof of forces that keep it silent.  Silence is, often, an expression itself.  It is fraught with meaning.  Words may be spoken but it may fall on deaf ears. So what do we make of resistance and empowerment?

This posting is in honor of all Asian-American actors, Japanese postwar and pre-war trailblazers in America, and for the forces of the Academy to begin democratizing the academy while not changing its role in society as a mirror of the film industry’s highest good, not just for the good of some.

And this posting is also to honor the movie Sayonara, its producers, writers, directors, the entire staff and actors, to James Michener’s somewhat propagandist role in Asia-U.S. peacemaking after the Asia-Pacific/Korean War periods.  This is also to note that the war continues in different ways, as U.S. militarism is alive in secular American and Asian cultural values, in elements of hierarchy and memory, color and entitlement, invisibility and visibility, empowerment and humiliation, violence and the rupture of violence, security and sustainability.

The White Pacific is not a supremacy about one people ruling over others, or one nation, but how elites across the racial and national differences participate in color hierarchies which intensify normalized notions of intelligence, acceptance, normality, and can be allowed to live and die according to that hierarchy.  Dominant Japanese elites, who look down on and control others in their land after the occupation, now collude in the control and condescension of other Asian nations and work with the United States in certain supremacies that go unchecked.  This kind of hegemony runs across many cultures and races.  Power links and links of oppressions.  The White Pacific is a neo-colonial phenomenon.  It shows in the movie business.  Self-esteem problems, the pulling of funds, the straightening of hair, the eye surgeries to make eyes round, accepting failure, self-loathing, violence, hatred, jealousy, vengeance and everyday routines are collapsing more and more into the same and called “identities.”  The White Pacific forms the other colors.

It must also be noted that from the US/Allied Occupation of Japan from 1945 through the 1980s, the US government had a secret, yet strong hand in controlling Japanese leadership through Japan’s One-Party rule system and that James Michener, author of several novels of the Pacific and the author of Sayonara, worked for the US State Department. One can surmise that his role and life as ‘author’ was not only about creativity. His role was vital in ‘Americanizing’ Japan, making Japanese, and more broadly ‘Asian’ people more palatable to Americans, along with others in various capacities after World War II and the Korean War.

“Sayonara”  has a very special place in my life, and did for my mother. The story is as accurate in many ways as a history/life can get.  It is not just a movie.  It is a segment of history that is alive today, telling us things, wishing for something in the present that we must all share in and think about.

The White Pacific has consequences, things that it does not think about because it is normalized.

Please view the trailer and other videos below.

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