Embodying Japan: Cultures of Sport, Beauty, and Medicine 2017

​Madame Butterfly and the Westernization of Sexuality Discourses

          In the 1890s Japan was a nation of contrasting morals and values where new Western ideas of sexuality and family structure conflicted with the traditional Japanese way of life. After 1854 when the Convention of Kanagawa was signed under force of threat, and the Ansei Treaties were signed in 1858, Japan became exposed to Western cultural norms. Soon missionaries tried to spread the concepts of heteronormativity, patriarchal households, and that domestic harmony was one's duty to God. In John Luther Long's short story Madame Butterfly, set in the 1890s in Nagasaki, Japan, he tells the story of a young Japanese woman, Cho-Cho-San, who has a "Japanese wedding" with Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton from the US. Madame Butterfly is symbolic of the tragedy of Japan accepting Western, Christian ideals of marriage, sexuality, and domesticity.  

            Before her marriage to US Navy Officer Pinkerton Cho-Cho-San worked in the sex industry as a way to make her living. Living in the port city of Nagasaki she was exposed to foreign ideas of what sex is supposed to be like for a woman. In the Tokugawa Period is was important to make sure that woman had sexual pleasure, but that notion slowly began to change after Christians spread the message that women are only there to produce a child for their husband.Part of American domesticity involves chastity and women being morally pure. Even against the advice of her friends to get a divorce and return to work Madame Butterfly continues to indulge herself in this idealized Christian marriage and refrains herself from having sex after Pinkerton leaves and marries another woman in the United States.  What is really devastating is that she allows this to happen and lets her false since of security of Pinkerton's Christian views on sex prevent her from returning to work in the sex industry.Pinkerton's freedom to call off the divorce under the Ansei treaties still doesn't let Cho-Cho-San see the severity of her situation as her conversion to Christianity prevents her from seeing reality and a filing for a divorce. Since she is considered to be inferior to white women by Pinkerton he does not feel it appropriate to adhere to Western, Christian stands of marriage and sexuality and he leaves her for another woman while Cho-Cho-San still remains faithful to him long after he has left. The excess of power and brute forced used by Christian Missionaries and other Westerners in Japan caused a sense of anxiety and pressure to conform to a set of virtues preached by the West that they did not always follow themselves. Their inability to see the equality between the culture of the East and the culture of the West created a deep-seated sense of inferiority held by the Japanese people as seen by Cho-Cho-San’s unwavering commitment to Christian ideals of marriage, sexuality, and domesticity. 

        In the short story Cho-Cho-San is the representation of domesticity in Japan brought by the United States and shows how domesticity has such detrimental affects on women. While the West uses the false claim that domesticity is improving women’s lives to justify their colonial territories, in reality the preaching of Christian values is disrespect to Japanese culture and has negative affects on women. Madame Butterfly’s attempted suicide is just as much a result of Pinkerton’s indifference to her as it is her domestication by converting to Christianity.  The US tries to “civilize” other nonwhite people to legitimize their use of brute force to gain wealth from their colonies. This is manifested in Cho-Cho-San as her ultimate downfall is her refusal to give up her new domestic role in society instead of moving on with her life. During the Meiji Period many changes to the social structure of Japan are embodied in Madame Butterfly with the conversion to the nuclear family, excess heteronormativity, and less fluid gender roles.

Long , John L. Madame Butterfly . New York City, NY: The Century Company , 1898. Print.

This page has paths:

This page has tags: