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.

President Herbert Hoover and the Great Depression, 1929-1933.

The economic boom of the 1920s, the result of a thirty-year industrial revolution, was destined to weaken the economy long-term. There were massive technological changes and the 1920s was a period of great innovation. Automatic switchboards, conveyor belts and the concrete mixer were just a few examples of the new products that were available to use and to purchase within the economy. The most successful venture was the of conventional use of electricity; it provided a cheaper and more efficient source of power for factories and also led to the production of new consumer goods such as the refrigerator and radios. However, these new techniques meant that goods could be produced more cheaply and on a much larger scale such as Henry Ford’s car industry after introducing the assembly line, however, this meant that as everyone who could afford a car had brought one, the consumer demand decreased and over-production became problematic. This lead to unsold goods, which in turn saw profits falling. With no profit, staff were made redundant and unemployment began to rise. A short-term cause of the Great Depression was credit. Even though it made circumstances easier for consumers to buy goods, many did not have enough money to pay back the banks what they owed. This meant that when the depression did hit in October of 1929, Americans would rush to the bank where they had deposited all of their life savings only to find that there was not enough money for them to make a withdrawal. From 1930-33, depositors lost $2.5 billion in savings from banks that closed or went bankrupt.

The National output had been cut by half and was now less than in 1915 meaning that ‘boom’ of the 1920s had been lost. Investors lost as much money in October 1929 as the USA had spent fighting in the First World War. If 1920s America was looking bleak before 1929, the Wall Street Crash ensured the last bit of hope that remained was crushed. Over the weekend of 26th and 27th October, stockbrokers who had sold their shares ‘on the margin’ had borrowed money from banks to fund the initial purchasing of said share and the banks were now demanding repayment of their money. To repay the banks, the brokers in turn had to ask their customers for repayments of debts and the only way in which customers could do so, was to sell shares at any price. Panic-stricken brokers and investors sold 16 million shares in one day. Stock prices slumped by $14,000,000 on 29th October. On Wall Street, between 29th October and 13th November, over $30 billion disappeared from the value of the American economy.

President Herbert Hoover, a Republican, believed that the government should not try to manage the economy, strongly highlighting Hoover’s ‘voluntarism’ efforts. He tried to persuade businesses to take action to deal with the economic crisis without the government passing laws to force them to act i.e. not to cut production or lay workers off. When the depression hit, 8 months after his inauguration, Hoover waited 2-3 years – once the American economy was in a dire condition – to finally set up funds and organisations to get the US back on its feet. He authorised $2 billion for the creation of the RFC, the Reconstruction Finance Corporation in January 1932 which was intended ‘to make temporary advances to establish industries, railways and financial institutions which cannot otherwise secure credit, and where such advances will stimulate employment’. Similarly the Glass-Steagall Act gave $750 million of government gold reserves as loans to private businesses. Hoover’s most notable attempt to regulate trade was the Smoot-Hawley Tariff in 1930. He increased the price on over 20,000 imported goods to record levels with an average of 40% on agricultural and industrial items. This led to most other nations applying the same tariffs on American goods meaning that US exports dropped by half ensuring the depression lasted longer and affected more businesses. The US depression had reached its peak as world trade was practically halted.

The next step in Hoover’s plan was to create the Federal Farm Board, which administered loans and aimed to stabilise prices and to promote the sales of agricultural products. By the end of its first year, the FFB had loaned in excess of $148 million. However, the government’s involvement did not produce many results in the agricultural or business industry and did not solve the problem of unemployment. Hoover established the Emergency Committee for Employment as one of his last attempts to combat the depression, but he gave the committee, limited resources ($47 million) and so on such a small-scale and small budget, it never really had a chance at making a difference. The last memorable demonstration from Hoover was insensitively dealing with the Bonus Army in June 1932. The veterans of the First World War, who were unemployed and as a result their families were hungry, began a march in Washington demanding the payment of a veterans’ bonus approved by Congress in 1924 but to be paid 20 years afterward. The money, in the sum of $3,500,000,000, would clearly provide the much-needed lifeline to the veterans and their families. Congress rejected the 20,000 veterans their proposal to pay the money immediately and in protest, thousands of ‘bonus marchers’ and their families built a home of tents at the nearest Hooverville in Anacosta Flats in Washington and threatened to stay there until the proposal was passed. However, Hoover approved a plan to evict them. One thousand armed soldiers, equipped with tear gas, tanks and machine guns, drove the veterans from the camp and burned it to the ground along with all of their possessions. After this incident, Hoover lost public faith.

Hoover was not successful in combating the depression. A reflection of this was the beginning of ‘Hoovervilles’; the popular name for a town of homeless men who lived in cardboard boxes. The term was coined by publicity chief of the Democratic National Committee, Charles Michaelson named after Hoover. These people lived in shacks, in the worst living conditions possible and had to beg for food. Democrat’s popularised related terms such as the ‘Hoover blanket’; old newspapers used as blankets and the ‘Hoover flag’; an empty pocket turned inside out. After these events, Hoover, who returned unopposed as a Republican candidate was prepared for a defeat as well as the rest of the party. Hoover’s term as President saw the descent of the nation further into depression. He was reluctant to take action until the situation was exceptionally poor and when he did, it was with reluctant implying that any organisation or fund that he set up was to barely get below the surface of the problem as he had no confidence. This would suggest that he was not totally dedicated to bringing the USA out of the depression; an attribute that the next elected president Franklin D. Roosevelt was passionate about. However, some historians argue that while Hoover was not successful, he should not be labelled as a ‘do-nothing’ president. The Reconstruction Finance Corporation for example, was adopted by Roosevelt in the New Deal and was successful because of the massive scale and funding that went into it.

When discussing unemployment and business, Hoover’s actions can be seen as ‘too little and too late’. His handling of unemployment was a disaster, and not to mention ineffective; while millions of Americans were starving and left homeless, Hoover refused to take extensive government measures in response. Instead he upheld his firm belief in laissez-faire; the minimum input on the governments’ behalf and voluntarism; businesses to take action alone in order to deal with the economic crisis without the passing of any laws forcing them to act. The deciding factor of Hoover’s defeat and unpopularity was the way in which he dealt with the Bonus Army (The Shame of Anacosta Flats). America did not see Hoover as a compassionate leader in touch with their needs, who would lead them out of the depression. Instead, they saw failure.

Hoover’s time in office led the USA to desire someone new and passionate. They demanded an intelligent and effective government to revive the failing economy; a president who would be active and representative of his people – far from the Republicans of the 1920s. Roosevelt was elected in 1932 and would later become one of the most successful and passionate presidents America had seen. Roosevelt promised the New Deal, which in effect was the RFC authorised by Hoover, but on a much larger and more ambitious scale; what America needed during their time of need. This would help the economy in a much more effective way, and as the President connected with the people in a more personal way, the public finally felt that a political figure understood the extent of the damage and was not going to give up.

Natural and Man-Made Environmental Disasters

As part of our Environmental History month on the blog, I am going to discuss the effects of man-made and natural disasters and the effect that these types of environments have on society. There have been many well-documented instances of both natural and man-made disasters and I intend to draw the attention to two from each category.

Natural Disasters:

Shaanxi Earthquake, China
In 1556, one of the most devastating earthquakes tore through Shaanxi in central China, killing nearly 1,000,000 people. This region of China has boiling summers and freezing winters, so to try to accommodate a home for both extremes, the Chinese started to burrow into the hillsides, a tradition which has been maintained for over 2,000 years. The soil is soft and can be tunnelled through, sometimes to depths of hundreds of metres in order to build yaodongs (caves). However, as the soil is so light, it means that it is highly unstable and can collapse easily; these structures would therefore not survive the earthquake of 1556. Estimates on the modern scale put the earthquake at around an 8.0 magnitude and everything within 1,300sqkm was destroyed, landslides were triggered on the hillsides and therefore the yaodongs were completely compressed. Accounts from the time described scenes of mountains and rivers changing places and roads being destroyed. In some places the ground rose up creating new hills, or sank abruptly creating new valleys. In today’s society, there are close to 40,000,000 people still living in these caves and it begs the question, if 1,000,000 died 450 years ago, how many would perish today if history was to repeat itself. This may not have been the biggest earthquake, but it was responsible for the deaths of the most people killed by an earthquake.

Mount Vesuvius, Italy
On an early August morning in 79AD, Mount Vesuvius erupted. An eyewitness account from Pliny the Younger was the only surviving written evidence of this eruption and since, many geologists and volcanologists have visited the buried towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum to study the sites. Vesuvius spewed toxic clouds of ash, gas and fumes to a height of 20.5 miles and released around a hundred times more thermal energy than the atomic bomb, killing an estimated 16,000 and leaving towns still today, perfectly preserved in their natural state since the eruption. The main cause of death was due to the hydrothermal pyroclastic flows; these were fast-moving currents of hot gas and rock which can reach up to 450mph and tend to flow down the volcano and across the ground if there is not sufficient heat to carry the plume upwards. There was no possible way for the majority of lives to have been saved without modern technology to detect unusual volcanic activity. Pliny the Younger reports that minor tremors in the region ‘were not particularly alarming because they are frequent in Campania’. However, there were a series of small earthquakes leading up to the supposed date of the eruption and locals may have noted the strengthening of the tremors, not the possible outcome. ‘It was daylight now elsewhere in the world, but there the darkness was darker and thicker than any night.’ (Pliny the Younger)

Man-Made Disasters:

Christopher Columbus, the New World
In the 1490s, Christopher Columbus was given financial support from Ferdinand II and Isabella I of Spain to go on a voyage to discover the East Indies. However, before he reached his destination, he came across the Americas – a land those in Europe had never before discovered (at least that had been documented), and so Columbus aptly named it the ‘New World’. His discovery of the Americas spans from 1492-1504, where he makes four voyages, the last in 1502 reaching the mainland.
Columbus said of the Indians: ‘So tractable, so peaceful are these people, that I swear to your Majesties there is no better nation on earth. They love their neighbours as themselves, and their discourse is ever sweet and gentle, and accompanied with a smile.’ However, although stating that they would make excellent slaves, the Caribbean natives were nearly exterminated by the extreme brutality of the colonists and the impact of diseases of which they had no resistance – the first epidemic of smallpox in Hispaniola (modern-day Haiti) in 1507 was said to have wiped out entire communities. This forced the Spanish to venture further into mainland America in search of slaves.

Conquistadors, Mexico
In 1519, the Conquistadors began the massacre of Southern and Meso-Americans. Cortes was elected Captain of the third expedition to the mainland – however, at the last-minute, orders were revoked for the potential colonisation of Mexico. Cortes ignored the orders and in an act of open mutiny, arrived in Mexico with around 500 men. Cortes ensured he had allies within the Aztec population and through these he learnt of the treasures of their people, but also the horrors. The act of ritual sacrifice, which became the defining feature of Mexican civilisation, came as a shock to Cortes and his men. A local rebellion triggered the extermination of the Aztec empire. However, before torturing and killing Montezuma (the Aztec emperor) and seizing Mexico City in 1521, Cortes made several attempts to convert him to Christianity, as if this could justify the entire conquest. Before 1519, the population was estimated to be around 12 million, however in 1600, there were only 1 million. The three main reasons were deliberate mass murder – scourging for treasures locals would not relinquish or rebellions that could not be quashed through anything but death. Death as a result of forced labour and malnourishment and as Todorov states, the natives were in ‘microbe shock’ by which the majority of the population were infected and died off.

These are only a few examples of both natural and man-made disasters. Today, men are still engaging in the most destructive of man-made disasters; war. Each day spent fighting against one another is another day changing the environment and the society that surrounds it. There is no disaster that can be classed as more destructive than the next, each in their own time had a massive effect on the environment, and therefore it makes it impossible to judge literally. However, humanely, man-made disasters are the worst, purposefully creating havoc and causing death is never the answer when trying to gain authority. To conclude, it is easy to sit and judge which disaster caused more destruction than another, however, I think it is more important to take from this a history lesson. If changes in the first century, even in the 1500s to the environment were anything to go by, imagine the damage that is being caused today.

The History of Cameras

The history of the camera is extensive, technical and, at times, obscure; for example there is no one particular person credited with the invention of the camera, it was more of a continual process of progress throughout history. Nevertheless notable names include Johann Heinrich Schulze, Joseph Niépce, Louis-Jacques Mandé Daguerre and George Eastman.

The camera obscura was known to be the first device that captured an image on-screen. It had been known to scholars as early as the 4th and 5th centuries around the time of Aristotle. However in 1021 AD, Idn al-Haytham was the first man to give a clear and correct description of the camera obscura and the diffraction of light, as well as being recognised as the father of modern optics.

After the analysis of the camera obscura, came the exploration of chemical components needed to create a photograph. In 1727, Johann Heinrich Schulze discovered that using silver nitrate could create a black and white image. The chemical reaction of the film to silver nitrate, meant that the covered parts remained white and that which was exposed, turned black. However, over time, everything turned black.

Joseph Niépce, like Schulze, was not involved directly with the invention of the camera, but of what a camera could produce – a photograph. Niépce was able to create a photographic image with camera obscura, but it required 8 hours of light exposure and only lasted a few hours. Niépce described the camera as an ‘artificial eye, which is nothing but a small box six inches square’ and this metaphor is still true today; the camera we know, allows a recreation of the image we see in front of us, artificially creating the human eye.

Over the next 100 years, the camera progressed through shorter development times, the development of the negative-positive process which allowed for multiple copies, the first photograph advertisement in 1843 and forty years later the first Kodak roll-film camera was produced and patented by George Eastman. The camera was developed with a lens and was sold with film in order to appeal to the mass market.

Inventions of new technology allowed the camera to be honed and perfected; this meant that the camera was an invention of its time; being improved upon when technology permitted. Edwin Land marketed the Polaroid camera in 1948; this was followed by the integration of instant colour film in the 60s. After colour, all that was left was to improve upon was the speed in which a camera took a photograph, the digital screen to view photographs, the quality of the picture and the size of the camera. I don’t want this to sound derogatory by using the phrase ‘all that was left’, but these developments, in comparison to the 1800s and the technological hindrances the inventors faced, seemed simple and just needed a team of creative people in order to progress. For instance, in 1985, Pixar were the first company to ever create an animated feature-length film, and they had to invent the digital imaging processor in order to create ‘Toy Story’.

In today’s society, cameras have become an indispensable accessory, whether individually or as part of a computer or phone. We take advantage of the ease in which we can use this technology and it is fascinating to see how much we have progressed from the 18th century, when the interest in capturing an image really started, to the 21st century, when we cannot think about life without capturing parts of it.