The Teahouse of the August Moon and American Perceptions of Okinawa

The Teahouse of the August Moon satirises both American and Japanese culture, drawing upon stereotypes and using them to form the foundations of the film. For example, American actor Marlon Brando plays the leading role of the Okinawan Sakini, and throughout the film he is the point of reference for the audience and the other characters. He draws attention to the differences in culture between the Americans and Okinawans in such a way that it should not be interpreted as offensive – there are just as many stereotypes about one culture as there are for the next. This piece will set out to reveal the American perceptions of Okinawa through the eyes of the main characters in this film. It will draw upon the idea of Okinawa as an outpost and the officers that are on duty; the stereotypical nature of Okinawans and the possible explanation for their want of a teahouse, not a school; the primitive nature of Okinawan life; the colonial assumptions of US reform efforts and the reception that the film received.

The film tells the story of an US Military Captain sent to Tobiki by a stubborn Colonel in Okinawa in order to build a school and teach the village democracy. Sakini, the Japanese-English interpreter narrates the film and acts as the bridge between the Okinawans and the American Occupiers, promising to give the village what they want, not what the Americans think they ought to have. Stereotypes are drawn upon in the form of a rowdy, loud mouthed American Colonel, the calm, child-like Okinawans and a geisha whom the Captain initially believes to be a prostitute – a common misconception made by Europeans and Americans alike. The moral of the film, looking beyond the stereotype, is one of acceptance – the American Captain has accepted that the Okinawans know what they want for themselves, more so than the Americans do, and the Okinawans have accepted that while the Americans are occupying their land, they may as well try make something out of it.

We are first introduced to Sakini, the interpreter, at the beginning of the film where he begins the tale of the teahouse. Immediately, Okinawan perceptions are addressed and contrasted with those of America and the result is rather entertaining. He reveals that certain things acceptable in one country are not in another, i.e. in Okinawa, they do not have locks on their doors as it could be perceived to be bad manners not to trust their neighbour, however, the lock and key business is a big industry in America and therefore concludes that bad manners equal good business. We see this throughout the film, epitomised by Captain Fisby. Fisby is too similar to the Okinawans to be able to ever have a considerable amount of control over them; he is too polite therefore, he is not a good businessman. Purdy however is the complete opposite of Fisby and the exemplary American Colonel stereotype – he thinks he is right, even if he is proven wrong. For example, a scene in the film sees Sakini explain that Tobiki is at the top of Okinawa, Purdy believes it to be at the bottom and retrieves a map to boisterously prove his point. Sakini glances at the map and immediately points out that it is upside down; Purdy then blames the army for not making a proper map, refusing to believe his logic is flawed.

The author of the book The Teahouse of the August Moon, Vern Sneider, was a member of the US military team that landed in Okinawa in 1945 and he became leader of the village of Tobaru (changed to Tobiki in the novel). It would appear that Sneider is taking advantage of his first hand experience within the occupied territory and trivialising common stereotypes in order to try to neutralise feelings towards both cultures. Published in 1951, only six years after the end of the war and the beginning of the Occupation, the feelings that were characterised in the film were still very much felt amongst Okinawans and Americans. Historian Andrew Gordon goes further and states that ‘in creating a public memory, mainstream historians likewise produced a homogenous version of a Japanese past that left out those on the margins (women, atom bomb victims, Burakumin, Okinawans), who in turn were prompted to write their own separate histories.’[1] For this reason, ‘as a satire and comedy, The Teahouse of the August Moon, like many memoirs and articles written by Occupationers, served to soften and minimise the cold, hard fact of Occupation.’[2] This leads back to the colonial attitudes of the American occupiers. They (Colonel Purdy) failed to see past the stereotypical Japanese society, and instead dryly emphasises them.

One stereotype drawn upon due to the colonial assumptions made by the US military, and in fact the majority of western civilisation, is that the Geisha are prostitutes. Geisha originated from oiran in the Edo period when prostitution was legal. However, after the Meiji Restoration, the government decided that there should be a divide between Geishas and prostitutes, as the former was not to be sullied by associating with the latter. Furthermore, confusion was heightened when ‘geisha girls’ were known to be engaging in prostitution, dressing like a Geisha and having sexual relations with the allied forces in Occupied Japan – the westerners could not tell the difference between the imitated and the real, henceforth, their modern misrepresentation. In the film, Captain Fisby is all too familiar with this misrepresentation, and assumes that the Geisha, Lotus Blossom, is trying to engage in sexual activity, when all she wanted to do was to help him put on his kimono. Sakini at this point corrects Fisby’s notion of prostitution and explains the Geisha in a simple, yet effective way; ‘Poor man like to feel rich, rich man like to feel wise. Sad man like to feel happy, so all go to Geisha house, and tell troubles to Geisha girl’[3]. She is there to entertain, to sing, recite verse, play a musical instrument and dance – to help the man forget his troubles.

Naoko Shibusawa states that The Teahouse of the August Moon ‘satirized the Occupation and presented a more ambiguous view about who should be in charge and who should be teaching whom, it depicts the Okinawans as childlike, hard-working people who squabble about trifling matters, trivialize the meaning of democracy, and care most about creating a teahouse for their amusement’. The Okinawans are presented as a simple folk, arguing about matters that to any other would seem trivial, for example, Lotus Blossom is unwelcome in the village as the other female inhabitants feel like she is competition and will get more attention than they do. Fisby agrees to let Lotus Blossom teach the other women to be Geisha’s and to do so, it would only seem fair that they had a teahouse to be able to celebrate and practice their lessons. Fisby reluctantly concedes and the idea of a school and teaching democracy is forgotten, after all, in a town where the majority of the population is adults, why is there a need for a school? However, ironically, the Okinawans have no need for democracy because the US army is occupying their lands, undemocratically giving out orders. When there is need for democracy, their primitive and traditional ways lead them in the right direction.

The primitive nature that the Okinawans adopt in the film, reflect the animalistic methods used by Colonel Purdy. It could have been that as the same attributes were shared between both population and Colonel, that he was the only man for the job. Other factors to consider are that as Okinawa was seen as an outpost far from the mainland and the capital Tokyo where there were not enough officers, Purdy is possibly too stupid to be given a post anywhere else in Japan.

To conclude, the film was a success and was nominated for six Golden Globe awards. It set out to be a satirical comedy focusing on the perceptions of Americans and Okinawans of each other and I believe it achieved its aims. There have been critics who have fought against this satire, for example Bosley Crowther suggests that ‘as the American captain who gets completely enmeshed in the seductive toils of a Okinawan village when he tries to subdue it to the useful and the good, throws himself into this enjoyment with such grinning and grotesque gusto that one gets the uneasy feeling that his captain is mildly mad.’[4] It would appear that Crowther takes the side of the steadfast Colonel in that Okinawans need to be taught democracy and as they lost the war, they need to listen to those who won. How can it be that America deem another societies ways inept because they do not need democracy or technology to live, just culture and street-wise survival instinct.


[1] Andrew Gordon, Postwar Japan as History (Los Angeles, 1993), 462.

[2] Naoko Shibusawa, America’s Geisha Ally: Reimagining the Japanese Enemy (Harvard University Press, 2010), 262.

[3] The Teahouse of the August Moon, Daniel Mann, MGM, (1956).

[4] B. Crowther, ‘The Teahouse of the August Moon’, The New York Times, 30th November 1956.

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