Yellowface Is Such A Drag

24 02 2015

Orientalism, Drag, and White Supremacy at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco

By Majime Sugiru

Remember this?

2011:  ‘We’re a culture, not a costume’

CNN (2011): Campaign by students at Ohio State University to prevent cultures from being translated into stereotypical costumes (click for story).

CNN (2011): Campaign by students at Ohio University to prevent cultures from being translated into stereotypical costumes for Halloween (click for story).

Or how about these, in 2012, 2013, 2014?

2012:  Victoria’s Secret’s racist Sexy Little Geisha

Racialicious: Victoria's Secret Does It Again: When Racism Meets Fashion (2012)

Racialicious (2012): Victoria’s Secret Does It Again: When Racism Meets Fashion

2013:  Katy Perry in Yellowface

LA Times (2013) Katy Perry performs onstage at the 2013 American Music Awards held at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on November 24, 2013 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Michael Tran/FilmMagic)

LA Times (2013): Katy Perry performs in Yellowface at the 2013 American Music Awards. (Photo by Michael Tran/FilmMagic)

2014:   Air France’s racist geisha ads

Colorlines (2014): Twitter Mocks Air France's Racist Geisha Ads

Colorlines (2014): Twitter Mocks Air France’s Racist Geisha Ads

2014:  CBS sitcom “How I Met Your Mother” in Yellowface

Time (2014): Dear, ‘How I Met Your Mother': ‘Asian’ Is Not a Costume

Time (2014): Dear, ‘How I Met Your Mother’: ‘Asian’ Is Not a Costume

Time (2014): Dear, ‘How I Met Your Mother': ‘Asian’ Is Not a Costume

CBS TV’s “How I Met Your Mother” in Yellowface

And now, for 2015?
We give you the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco: photos taken at their “bold and bawdy” Courtesans, Cooks, Samurai, and Servants opening last Thursday, Feb. 19.

(Pixelated to protect the innocent).


It is as if the queerness of drag is somehow imagined to give ethnic drag a pass on racism.
 The exhibition is titled SEDUCTION and showcases art from the John C. Weber Collection.  The Asian Art Museum’s marketing department has outdone itself in hard-selling a show consisting primarily of premodern woodblock prints, scrolls, paintings, and kimonos as a “hotbed of hedonism and transgression,” as shown in this screen grab of the AAM’s website (taken on 10/31/14):

“Dive into this hotbed of hedonism . . .”

By contrast, when the very same John C. Weber Collection toured the Museum of Fine Arts Boston and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, it was titled simply “Arts of Japan” and encompassed a broad range of work that avoided altogether the AAM’s hypersexualized fetishization of the Asian female body, as shown in these screen grabs linked to their respective exhibition websites.

“Arts of Japan” at Museum of Fine Arts Boston: what, no courtesan?!

Weber Collection in Minneapolis: no mo’ “kimono my house”?

How does “Arts of Japan” get transfigured into SEDUCTION when it comes to the AAM?

The Asian Art Museum has a track record of Orientalist sensationalism, seen below, for example, in a similar contrast between the exhibition of the Hosokawa Collection in Japan, versus its reductively Orientalist conception at the AAM in 2009.

In Japan, this family collection of a former prime minister was respectfully titled, “The Lineage of Culture—The Hosokawa Family Eisei Bunko Collection”

The Lineage of Culture press release, Tokyo National Museum (pdf download)

The Lineage of Culture press release, Tokyo National Museum (pdf download)


Hosokawa Family Eisei Bunko Collection at the Okayama Prefectural Museum of Art

By contrast, here is the poster from AAM’s Vader-like take on the very same collection.

Lord It's the Samurai

Click the pic for our spoof:  Lord It’s the Samurai!

What we see emerging from these stark contrasts to museums in Boston, Minneapolis, Tokyo, and Okayama—and trust us, the list goes on—is a pattern of institutional behavior that sets the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco apart from its peers as exceptional.  Exceptional for a pathology of cultural violence, if you will, in its propensity to appropriate visual cultures of Asia for the production of what can be characterized as a sensationalist and essentializing racial discourse with real social consequences for the populations it is publicly funded to serve and (mis)represent (see p. 47 in this report, for examples of how museums “deny full citizenship to minorities“).

Different Year, Same Fetish — or The Return of the Repressed

The yellowface drag of the SEDUCTION opening takes us back more than a decade, to revisit the geisha fever of 2004.

Literally a white man's fantasy—written, directed, produced by white men—featuring Chinese actors as Japanese geisha.

Literally an Oscar-winning white man’s fantasy—written, directed, produced by white men—featuring Chinese actors as Japanese geisha—because all orientals look alike, or as Edward Said might have put it, “a collapsing of difference within a category of absolute difference.”

The Asian Art Museum cashed in on Hollywood’s white man’s fantasy with a blockbuster exhibition of its own.

Just like Hollywood: not only is she not a real geisha, she's not even Japanese.

Just like Hollywood: not only is she not a real geisha, she’s not even Japanese.

Whereas Hollywood cinema is the stuff of fantasy, this city-owned, taxpayer-bailed out civic museum, located in a metropolitan area home to one of the largest Asian populations in the US, is endowed with the unparalleled public trust and respect that come with its status as a putative site of knowledge production.

What kind of racial knowledge is the AAM producing in 2015 when they fetishize “Arts of Japan” as the “bold and bawdy” “hotbed of hedonism” of SEDUCTION?

It would seem to not only violate the civic museum’s charter of stewardship—to serve the cultural health and welfare of its communities—but also belie the eloquent words of the AAM’s own director, quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle in 2004 in reference to their GEISHA exhibition, “The basic reason for the show was to debunk the myth that geishas are prostitutes.

The AAM's Orientalist fantasy writ large. GEISHA: Perpetuating the Fetish.

The AAM’s Orientalist fantasy writ large. GEISHA: Perpetuating the Fetish.

That’s the thing about Orientalism:  it’s not just that it’s made up of white lies, or that yellowface is not just a harmless glitch in the illusion of post-racial multi-cultural color-blind harmony in diversity, but it is indeed integral to and constitutive of a socially, culturally, and economically structured way of life called white supremacy.

Andrea Smith’s Three Pillars of White Supremacy (2010).

It is only natural to think that a museum that refers to itself as “The Asian” would historically be an Asian-run organization, but on the contrary—and unlike, say, the Mexican Museum—what’s one thing that the AAM’s Chief Curator, head of Communications & Business Development, head of Education & Public Programs, Curator of Japanese Art, event programmer, burlesque and belly dancers, and performers in yellowface (strikeout on 3/14/15, cf. Nick’s comment below) all have in common?Politics of Cultural AppropriationHow do Asian visual cultures “get owned” as the property of whiteness?

How does racial privilege structure Western museal discourse on “Asia” in ways that parallel the colonial genealogy of area studies in what has been termed the “missionary positionality” of US-Japan bilateral narcissism?

How does that raced missionary positionality inform the AAM’s gendered production of Asia as hotbed of hedonism in SEDUCTION, and whose hedonistic urge is the AAM really projecting?

Why is the Asian so white?




8 responses

26 02 2015
Frances Cachapero


26 02 2015

“. . . you don’t have to come dressed as a traditional Japanese hooker. But it will probably be a popular costume choice!”

Indeed. In the same blog article, one of the museum’s performers (Midori) makes an incredible attempt to draw a connection between SEDUCTION and a critique of the ongoing gentrification and displacement of artists from San Francisco.

14 03 2015

I fully understand and support your criticism of the Asian Art Museum as an entity. Many of the things you have listed here are fair and valid. The hyper sexualization of the Asian female body for the white male gaze is extensively pervasive in American culture and is deeply repressive of identity.

But as one of the people in these photos that you are criticizing, I’d like to say that I and another of the performers you have shamed are Japanese, are trained in classical Japanese theatre, and the clothing we are wearing is part of that training. You have conflated “looking like a geisha” with both Yoshiwara courtesans (which would have been called ‘keisei’ in a general sense since ‘geisha’ didn’t exist for a few more centuries) and with the standard dress for Japanese dance (nihon buyo). To insist that a girl from Kobe (my colleague), who has done her face in white is promoting yellowface and an Orientalist view of the other while engaging in her own cultural praxis (which is why we were invited) is disingenuous. To use familiar discourse, it’s reductionist to assume that anyone with white on their faces or silk on their bodies is appropriating a culture to which they do not belong and have no knowledge of.

14 03 2015

Thank you for your thoughtful response. It raises for me important questions of authenticity, identity, meaning as a function of context, and the politics of visibility and recognition.

If you are aware of the problematics of the institution and the pervasive hypersexualization of the Asian body, and know something about the nature of this opening event in that regard beforehand (and it would be hard not to, since from the very beginning it signaled its ‘bold & bawdy’ intentions), what does it mean to choose to participate in classically trained cultural practice in this context?

To what extent does the authenticity of classical dress or make-up retain the meaning it would have in the context of performance in a classical theater setting in Japan, versus becoming reduced to signifiers of the oriental exotic in a setting that intentionally conflates the bold bawdiness of various forms of drag in the promotion of “Arts of Japan” as “SEDUCTION”?

To what extent do museum guests coming to a party featuring special $14 sake drinks, a photobooth with kitschy orientalist dress-up accessories, and #TheFloatingWorld cutouts really parse the difference between ‘keisei’ and ‘geisha’ and ‘nihon buyo’? When the larger context of the event is all set up to promote a playing of dress-up with the premodern visual culture of the immutable other, then how does your own classical training and attention to detail get appropriated to function in a larger performance of orientalism, regardless of however much importance you might ascribe to distinguishing nihon buyo from keisei?

In that sense, when the appropriation that is going on is much larger than you or your ‘girl from Kobe,’ does it matter how authentic one considers one’s classical practice, or for that matter, one’s Japanese identity? Or worse, how does that claimed authenticity potentially “add value” to the orientalism perpetrated by the museum?

15 03 2015

On the subject of “why the Asian is so white,” you might want to consider that Japanese have been using white makeup to whiten their faces since at least the 10th century, if not quite a bit earlier, long long before any contact with Europeans. Just because whiteness features prominently, and damagingly, in colonialist and racist discourses and Asian-American issues of the 19-20th centuries, does not mean that all whiteness is racial whitenesd, or that these particular discourses of Asian-American identity, discrimination, appropriation today have anything at all to do with why geisha, courtesans, and kabuki actors historically painted themselves white – and why those practicing or referencing those traditions today continue to do so.

In short, Asian Studies is not the same as Asian American Studies, and while it is clear that you are rather well-read and have a powerful grasp of the Theory of that field, I would encourage you to do some reading on the former.

15 03 2015


Thank you for enriching the conversation on whiteness. I agree that the separation between Asian Studies and Asian American Studies—owing in part to political genealogies quite opposed to each other (at the risk of oversimplifying, in limited my understanding: US hegemonic Cold War interests [per Harry Harootunian and Naoki Sakai] versus Third World student movement, respectively)—is problematic in terms of knowledge production, and as you are probably aware, some efforts are being made in academia towards a convergence.

Speaking of which, next month I will be presenting at the “Global Asias 3” conference at Penn State, which coincides with the launch of a new journal, Verge, which brings into relation the disciplines of Asian and Asian American Studies.

More information here:

15 03 2015

Congrats on getting to present; sounds like a great conference. I wish I could be there. I’ve heard about this journal – definitely hoping to submit to it when I have something appropriate to the themes.

15 03 2015

In ruminating on how the critical comments posted in this thread make claims to authority through claims of superior ‘knowledge’ of premodern cultural ‘authenticity’ (an obsession with what Homi Bhabha termed “the fixity of the natives”), it occurs to us that perhaps the problem is less any shortcomings in our own study of Asian Studies than it is a problem of the field of US-based Asian Studies itself (aka Area Studies), in the colonial structure of its Cold War genealogy, in the fraught politics of the ‘knowledge’ and scholars it has produced—and the parallel ways that museal discourse has mirrored this field of ‘knowledge’ production.

As Rey Chow writes in “The Age of the World Target”, pp.39-41:

*From Atomic Bombs to Area Studies*

“As its name suggests, area studies as a mode of knowledge production is, strictly speaking, military in its origins. […] In H. D. Harootunian’s words, ‘The systematic formation of area studies, principally in major universities was . . . a massive attempt to relocate the enemy in the new configuration of the Cold War.’ […] As areas to be studied, these regions took on the significance of target fields—fields of information retrieval and dissemination that were necessary for the perpetuation of the United States’ political and ideological hegemony.

“In the final part of his classic Orientalism, Said describes area studies as a continuation of the old European Orientalism with a different pedagogical emphasis […]

“A largely administrative enterprise, closely tied to policy, the new American Orientalism took over from the old Orientalism attitudes of cultural hostility, among which is, as Said writes, the dogma that ‘the Orient is at bottom something either to be feared (the Yellow Peril, the Mongol hordes, the brown dominions) or to be controlled (by pacification, research and development, outright occupation whenever possible).’ […]

“In other words, despite the claims about the apolitical and disinterested nature of the pursuits of higher learning, activities undertaken under the rubric of area studies, such as language training, historiography, anthropology, economics, political science, and so forth, are fully inscribed in the politics and ideology of war. To that extent, the disciplining, research, and development of so-called academic information are part and parcel of a *strategic* logic. And yet, if the production of knowledge […] in fact shares the same scientific and military premises as war […] is it a surprise that it is doomed to fail in its avowed attempts to ‘know’ the other cultures? Can ‘knowledge’ that is derived from the same kinds of bases as war put an end to the violence of warfare or is such knowledge not simply warfare’s accomplice, destined to destroy rather than preserve the forms of lives at which it aims its focus?”

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