Plunging Long’s Madame Butterfly and Watanna’s “Japanese Nightingale”

Long, John Luther, Maureen Honey, Jean Lee Cole, and Onoto Watanna. Madame Butterfly and A Japanese Nightingale. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2002.

In the introduction written by Maureen Honey and Jean Lee Cole, they state that “Asian women in literature and film have most often been stereotyped as ‘dragon ladies’ or as ‘Butterflies’—they are either mysterious and malevolent seductress or silent, passive victims of the patriarchal demimonde, succumbing to disease, suicide, or homicide. Whether dragon lady or butterfly, biracial love affairs between Western men and Asian women in fiction almost always end unhappily, with violence, disease, and death befalling one or both main characters” (5).  Their immediate dismissal of these texts helps explain the subtitle to this collection as “Two Orientalist Texts.” For both of these texts, women are seen as epitomes of oriental culture, and their offspring reminiscent of the barbaric: “people of mixed race like Yuki at the turn of the century were considered aberrations” (7). While the relationship in Long’s short story may have been aberrant, for Eaton’s novel, the readers “did not appear to react negatively toward the marriage between Yuki and Bigelow, in part because Eaton so successfully created an identification between them and her white male character” (8).

Madame Butterfly

Sayre’s temptation of Pinkerton to take on an Asian wife is best summed up when he tells him that “There is no danger of you losing your head for…anyone. The danger would probably be entirely with—the other person” (30). When it comes to Japanese culture, Pinkterton does “not try to understand,” yet his wife, Madame Butterfly, not only understands American culture, but American law as well, as she proves when she states that for divorce, “he got take me at those large jails at that United States of America. Tha’ ‘s lot of trouble; hence he rather stay marry with me” (42). Her reliance on the American justice system and the courts is surprising to the Japanese, who see Americans as people who leave children “in a basket at some other person’s door…[and] then cared for by the municipality as waifs…They are an odious class by themselves, and can never rise above their first condition” (55). Her reliance on these American laws comes from her assumption that it “don’ madder where they live” (58). Butterfly is a social climber, an American, who relies on her husband not for love, but for the social contract of marriage. Pinkerton furthermore never promises her to bring her to America or take care of her, but her trust in the American justice system moves her to wait for him (67).

A Japanese Nightingale

Jack Bigelow, the protagonist of Otono Watanna’s novel, first meets his future lover as “a cheap girl of Tokyo, with the blue-grass eyes of the barbarian, the yellow skin of the lower Japanese, the hair of mixed color, black and red, the form of a Japanese courtesan, and the heart and nature of those honorably unreliable creatures, alien at this country, alien at your honorable country, augustly despicable—a half caste!” (89). Her mixed race is shared with her brother and Jack’s friend, Tao Burton, who “would not append his name to the long list of foreigners who for a short, happy, and convenient season cheerfully take unto themselves Japanese wives, and with the same cheerfulness desert them” (90). His mixed race as Japanese and white makes him unable to participate in the same exploitive structure that American whites have partaken in, yet he cannot belong with Japanese children, who “laughed at their hair and eyes, and called them ‘Kirishitans’” (142). .

Jack’s relationship with Yuki lacks the conscious exploitation of Pinkerton, and Jack instead carries a heavy anxiety for convincing Yuki to love him authentically, though he, “with masculine conceit, half believe[s] her” (94). He desires to believe fully in her consent to their love, asking time and again if she would “rather marry me than one of those other fellows” and Yuki hurts him “deeply by her reference to money” (105). Perhaps to elude disappointment, she mimics his American style, mimics “everything and everyone, from the warbling of the birds to the little man and maid who waited on them” (107). Her later insistence that “wife jus’ liddle bit different from servant” and his that she move closer to him—become intimate with him—leads him to complain that she’s “not living up to [her] end of the contract. You swore to honor and obey” (110). In an interesting reversal of Madame Butterfly, here it is the male, Jack, who invokes the power of the law in an attempt to control his lover, this time into a sexual act. It becomes obvious that, unlike Butterfly, she wants the marriage to be only temporary.

Yuki’s mixed race and her outlook on Americans is also stunningly reversed from Long’s piece, where Butterfly saw American culture as ideal, here Yuki calls Jack’s whiteness a sign that he is “jus’ barbarian” and adds “Barbarian mos’ nize of all. Also I am liddle bit barbarian. I god them same barbarous eyes an’ oogly hair—“ (123). Later she calls herself “the half-moon-half-sun offspring.” Jack, also, cannot see Japanese as barbarian or orientalized, especially when he witnesses the Japanese army parades, where he finds that “there was nothing Oriental in this brave display of the imperial army. There was nothing Oriental in this bustling, noisy crowd of foreigners, each trying to outdo the other in importance and precedence” (128). Near the end of the novel, Jack finally acknowledges her performance, that “she lies to pretend—that is all” and that “we’ve both been pretending and acting—I to myself, she to me; she trying to make me believe it was all read to her, at any rate these last two months; I trying to delude myself into believing in her, which was more than my conceit was good for, after all” (139). In the end, Watanna perhaps attempts to placate her audience, by putting the two characters back together, in a more authentic love setting.

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