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Sunday, Dec. 6, 2009

COUNTERPOINT

Politically incorrect maybe, but also some trenchant home truths


The world used to be one hell of a racist place. All you need do is go back a few decades to find public pronouncements that today would land you a punch on the schnozz, if not a stint in the slammer.

That was long before we had the sublime comforts of political correctness to protect the shameless white majority from incriminating itself by referring to members of other races in blatantly pejorative terms. Not that this world of ours has cleaned up its act. Perhaps it has simply put a benign and tolerant mask over it, and the face behind the mask is just as ugly as the one we were wont to show without a skerrick of introspection.

Adolf Hitler, among many other millions of garden-party variety fascists, made outright racism pretty unacceptable. Everyone saw where it leads: to persecution and murder. But racism has its soft-spoke relatives. Stereotyping (or, to use today's term, profiling) is its brother; caricature, its sister.

Perhaps no stereotypical high-profile caricature existed in the United States like the one of that journalistic wit — a Japanese, no less — whom Mark Twain called dear, sweet, frank, wise, funny, delightful and lovable. Golly, nobody ever called me even one of those things, not in print at any rate.

The journalistic wit praised by Twain to such high heavens was, without a doubt, the most well-known Japanese individual in the United States until Fu Manchu came along and toppled him off the cherry-blossom throne.

Now, I can hear afficianado readers of The Japan Times say, "Hold your horses. Fu Manchu was Chinese." Ah, yes. But let's not put too fine a point on this. One thing about racism: It doesn't distinguish; it lumps.

So, to Americans, Hashimura Togo was not only a mere Japanese; he was a symbol of the yellow (the way it was described then) East. No matter that he never really existed in the flesh, but rather was the creation of a writer. After all, Fu Manchu, roughly his contemporary, was also a figment of an author's overly-fertilized imagination.

And no matter, either, that Hashimura Togo, being composed of two surnames, is a rather unlikely name for a real Japanese human, which, in any case, he wasn't. The readers loved what he had to say, until that is, his caricatured face, complete with thick glasses, mustache and incipient buck teeth morphed into that of wartime leader Hideki Tojo's, and Americans showed that the head of the coin of quaint praise is the tail of vicious malice.

Togo was created as a vehicle for the humorous musings of New-York born Wallace Irwin (1875-1959), who began serializing his articles in the popular magazine Collier's in 1907 and continued to publish them in a number of publications, most notably Good Housekeeping. The latter was a fitting medium for these "Letters of a Japanese Schoolboy," because Togo, the schoolboy whose persona Irwin used, worked as a houseboy in middle-class homes, where Good Housekeeping was the gentlewoman's coffee-table rag.

When Irwin first gave life to Togo, through whose accented voice he spoke of the issues of the day, he apparently expected people to believe that Togo was a real-life human. It didn't take long, however, for the public to see through the guise. They loved Irwin-Togo none the less, even to the point of imitating his tortured accent on a host of social occasions.

This was a time when you could write happily about black people who rolled their eyes, shuffling about with a hunk of watermelon in their mitts, or Jewish people with big noses who got rich off the backs of poor, unsuspecting Gentiles. Togo, to the readers, was just a funny servile Japanese. When the Japanese started getting less funny and less servile, the public dropped him from their affections like a hot sweet potato.

In one of Togo's schoolboy letters, he asks, "Why do bank-houses burst? That is more easy to answer than those questions about Wall St. jumping of stocks. Banks burst because there is nothing inside and pressure from outside causes cave in of walls."

Well, out of the mouths of Oriental schoolboys. One reason why Irwin's Togo was so popular was that he put his finger on some home truths, things that were easier to expose with a colorful accent.

Why did Irwin make Togo a houseboy? Bear in mind how hard it was for Japanese immigrants in America to enter lucrative professions. Japanese could not become citizens; and by the time the notorious Johnson-Reed Act was passed in 1924, Asian immigration was severely restricted. No wonder that Togo, America's most closely watched houseboy, spoke of the Japanese returning to Japan . . .

"They will go Japan. They will go Satsuma. They will settle themselves on Corea and less disgusting parts of China. Pretty soonly all will be depart from California. Then who to general housework, table-wait, manufacture salomon in cannery, fruit-pick, employment bureau and other useful exersises for good of populus?"

Togo comments ingeniously on the politicians of the day, such as U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt, William Jennings Bryan and many others. In one "letter," published in the New York Times in 1909, he wonders how he will get along while on vacation, where he can't buy his newspaper . . .

"How am I sure that Hon. World is acting right when I am away? What amusing murders has been shot off & crimes in and out of Congress?"

Where is Hashimura Togo now that we really need him, that's what I want to know.

Togo even made it onto the silver screen. In 1917, "The Honorable Friend" was shot, with romantic superstar Sessue Hayakawa playing Togo. This film strays from the original letters, and its theme is the Americanization of the hapless schoolboy. In the end, Togo sacrifices himself for the honor of the white woman who has hired him. The caricature of the gentle-soul Oriental man happy to die for white woman is complete.

By the time the film was made, the character of Hashimura Togo had been going strong for a decade. But had the film been made in 1927 or 1937, the guileless schoolboy would have no doubt been depicted as a cunning and deceiving rogue.

In the Oct. 8, 1923 issue of Time magazine, Togo's creator, Irwin, is described as being "short, stoutish, always smiling through his glasses and snapping his eyes as he talks in little grunting periods." Could he have made Togo in his own image?

There has recently been renewed interest in Japan in Togo, thanks to the superb book by Yoshiko Uzawa, "Hashimura Togo," published last year by Tokyo University Shuppankai, and the play of the same title by Yoji Sakate, now on tour to Sendai, Morioka, Nagoya, Fukuoka and Itami. The Tokyo season closed last week. Contemporary Japanese may well be intrigued by Togo as a model of American racial stereotyping.

But stereotype or not, Togo had some trenchant things to say, especially about the shenanigans going on in the world of stocks and bonds . . .

"Some gentlemen is called 'broker,' " the famous Japanese schoolboy-houseboy said. "What does he break to get such names?"

Well, despite his faults, maybe Hashimura Togo is frank, wise and lovable after all. Sometimes you can be correct without being politically correct.



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