The treaty between Japan and the United States in 1854 opened Japanese ports and put an end to the island empire’s two hundred years of isolation. A wave of enthusiasm for all things Japanese swept over Europe and the United States. Italian composer Giacomo Puccini fell in love with the story of the teahouse girl Cio-Cio San and her love for an American officer—as told by playwright David Belasco, who has his main character commit hara-kiri at the play’s close. Madame Butterfly was soon celebrated as a myth of encounter between Japan and the West. This myth continues to enjoy success on Broadway today: “Miss Saigon” transports the encounter to the age of the Vietnam War.
This collectible music box with a figurine of a Japanese woman was made in China but purchased at an Asian shop in Berlin. It brings what is probably the most stubborn cliché about Japan into local living rooms. As an ideal, the geisha wearing traditional dress—which even as a plastic figure exudes a subtle eroticism with its exaggerated doll-like features—continues to influence Western perceptions of the Land of the Rising Sun.
China, ca. 2007
“Hara-kiri Schoolgirls” is typical of the images by Japanese multimedia artist Makoto Aida, who has created numerous series portraying mutilated young women as consumer goods. This image is intentionally shocking: according to the artist, it combines beauty and violence in order to challenge deeply rooted ideas about Japanese beauty and bring to light elements of the grotesque.
Makoto AIDA (geb. 1965)
Print on transparency film, acrylic
Courtesy of the artist and Mizuma Art Gallery