Japan & America: A Close Look at Cultural Exchange
Students will enjoy starting the class with an open discussion of the Met performance. What did they like? What didn’t they? Did anything surprise them? What would they like to see or hear again? What would they have done differently? This discussion will offer students an opportunity to review the notes on their My Highs & Lows sheet, as well as their thoughts about the use of props in the Met production—in short, to see themselves as Madama Butterfly experts.
The national/cultural characteristics of Madama Butterfly are complicated: an Italian opera about Americans in Japan. But Puccini, Illica, and Giacosa based their opera on two American works about “Madame Butterfly”—a short story and a one-act play. At the heart of the opera is a longstanding interplay between Japanese and U.S. cultures.
Students may benefit from a review of Japanese/American relations since Madama Butterfly’s premiere. On April 6, 1904—fewer than two months after the premiere—The New York Times reported that Japan’s number-one export customer was the U.S.A. By 1941, Japan saw the U.S. as its rival. On December 7 of that year, Japan bombed the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, in Hawaii. (Students may not realize that although the territory was owned by the U.S., Hawaii was not yet a state in 1941.) By the end of World War II, the United States had bombed Japan extensively, culminating in the atomic bombing first of Hiroshima, then of Nagasaki— ironically, the setting of Madama Butterfly.
In the years after the war, Japan and the U.S. again became trading partners and allies. During the 1960s and 1970s, Americans developed a strong taste for Japanese goods, first electronics and camera equipment, then automobiles. By the 1980s, Japanese food was increasingly common in the U.S., from inexpensive ramen noodles to gourmet sushi.
Today, Japanese products and influences can be found everywhere: in music, clothing, furniture, graphic design, TV, bookstores and libraries. To zero in on changes since the days of Madama Butterfly, students can create a graphic representation of Japanese culture in U.S. life. Have them collect images from magazines and websites to create a collage illustrating U.S./Japanese cultural interchange.
Some classes may be interested in taking the investigation a step farther: how is it that Japan and America have moved so much closer to one another, culturally speaking? Students can research changes in transportation and communication, technology, politics and lifestyle. As a culminating activity, students can apply their observations about Japanese and U.S. cultural interchange to Madama Butterfly. If Puccini, Illica and Giacosa were alive in a world of Pokemon, The Matrix, Lost in Translation, and Howl’s Moving Castle, how might their opera be different? How might Madama Butterfly be brought up to date, reflecting what Americans now know and feel about Japan—and vice versa?