by Robert M. Payne
Cut, no. 40, March 1996, pp. 29-37
The institutional racism of the U.S. entertainment industry might appear obvious to most film scholars, but not to the general public. Although academics have spilled gallons of ink over Hollywood's conservative representation of race, it's still easier to find a newspaper or television commentator blasting the movies as the mouthpiece of a "liberal elite." With few critical studies of racial imagery reaching beyond the ivory tower, the burden to publicize the biases of the media frequently falls to the misrepresented communities themselves. And because of this, many have started their own media-watch groups.
One of these is the Media Action Network for Asian Americans (M.A.N.A.A.), based in Los Angeles. Founded in 1992 by Guy Aoki and George Toshio Johnston, this organization grew out of the awareness that little was being done to publicly criticize the circumscribed portrayals of Asian Americans and Asian nationals in mainstream media: Such recurring stereotypes as the Fu Manchu-style Asian villain or the Madame Butterfly-style Asian female love interest (always for a white hero) were going largely unchallenged. So, Aoki and Johnston put together an organization of concerned community volunteers who would discuss media issues and work to counterbalance any particularly objectionable productions that perpetuated these stereotypes. Aoki's sense of activism grew out of his involvement with the National Coalition for Redress and Reparations (N.C.R.R.), a grass-roots organization that successfully lobbied Congress to compensate the survivors of the Japanese American internment during World War II.
Since its founding, M.A.N.A.A.'s actions have included alerting media producers to the offensiveness of their material and requesting that it be changed. Most of M.A.N.A.A.' s work is done behind the scenes, but the organization will publicize its disputes with producers when it believes that its concerns aren't being taken seriously. M.A.N.A.A. continues to monitor the media and gathers calls from the community on its information hotline. Aoki and Johnston also raise awareness about the media through their weekly column, "Into the Next Stage," which is published by the Rafu Shimpo, a Japanese American community newspaper in Los Angeles.
But M.A.N.A.A.'s most conspicuous action was its 1993 protest against Philip Kaufman's thriller RISING SUN. This film was based on the controversial mystery novel of the same name by best-selling author Michael Crichton. The book used the police-procedural genre to frame a series of arguments against Japan's unscrupulous business practices in the U.S. Ostensibly trying to solve the murder of a white woman in the L.A. office building of a powerful Japanese corporation, the investigating detectives encounter, at every turn, tirades against Japan's predatory economic power. Crichton claimed to be most critical of U.S. corporations for selling out to "Japan Inc.," but many decried Rising Sun as racist.
Apparently, Twentieth Century Fox wasn't worried about alienating its Asian American audience. Despite the concerns voiced by many in the Asian American community, the studio still decided to convert this racially contentious novel into its major summer release of 1993, giving the production a massive $40-million budget. While it's difficult to imagine any Hollywood studio pouring the same kind of resources into a movie that might actively offend the African American market, Fox left the disturbing message that Asian Americans sensitive to the perceived racism of Crichton's novel could be written off.
The film RISING SUN begins with the (fictional) Nakamoto Corporation trying to buy out an L.A. defense contractor, a sale opposed by U.S. Senator John Morton (Ray Wise). The business negotiations are overseen by Nakamoto's U.S. lawyer, Bob Richmond (Kevin Anderson). When the corpse of call-girl Cheryl Lynn Austin (Tatjana Patitz) is discovered in the Nakamoto board room during a high-profile party, L.A.P.D. detectives Web Smith (Wesley Snipes) and Japanese-educated John Connor (Sean Connery) are called in to investigate. Connor educates Smith in Japanese customs, and their participation is resented by xenophobic cop Tom Graham (Harvey Keitel). Austin had been the mistress of Japanese playboy Eddie Sakamura (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), and a video from the Nakamoto security cameras shows Sakamura strangling Austin to death. Smith and Graham try to arrest Sakamura, but he appears to die in a car crash.
However, Connor suspects that the video from the security cameras has been tampered with. With the help of half-black, half-Japanese video expert Jingo Asakuma (Tia Carrere), Connor and Smith gradually piece the mystery together: On the night of her death, Austin had sex with Senator Morton in the Nakamoto board room, and near-strangulation was part of their sex play. After Morton left her unconscious, an unidentified man strangled Austin to death. Led to believe that he killed her, Morton was blackmailed into reversing his opposition to Nakamoto's buyout of the defense contractor. So, it's clear that Austin was murdered to further Nakamoto's business interests. Now, Sakamura, who did not die, reappears and gives Connor and Smith a videodisc showing the unidentified man killing Austin. But some Japanese thugs close in and kill Sakamura. Despite being pressured by their superiors to drop the case (insinuating that Nakamoto has some influence over the L.A.P.D.), Connor and Smith show the videodisc to the Nakamoto board, and a nervous Richmond runs from the room. But he's captured and killed by Sakamura's Japanese gangster friends. Later, Jingo (who turns out to be Connor's lover) tells Smith that Richmond might have just been taking the rap for someone higher up.
In turning Rising Sun into a movie, Kaufman complicated the racial issues. He shrewdly changed the book's white policeman narrator to a black cop and cast the role with African American star Snipes. The casting of boxoffice draw Sean Connery as Connor (whom Crichton intentionally patterned after the Scottish movie star) ensured that the film would reach a large audience. The character's (supposedly) deep understanding of Japanese culture was designed to foil the bigoted racial slurs of the detective played by Keitel.
Kaufman made a nod towards his Asian American viewers by changing the character of Eddie Sakamura from the novel's self-centered nerd to a virile playboy, who, in a fatal martial-arts brawl with some henchmen, sacrifices his life to save the heroes. The role of Sakamura was cast with Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, a Japanese American actor who brought a brawny, charismatic presence to the part. The movie muddied the racial waters even more by changing the murderer from a Japanese junior executive to Richmond, the white lawyer. However, in an apparent concession to Crichton's readers, the film's ambiguous ending also suggests that Richmond may not have been the killer after all.
Despite these changes, M.A.N.A.A. and other Asian American organizations, such as the Japanese American Citizens' League (J.A.C.L.) and the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence, were outraged by the film. They feared that its nefarious depiction of one Asian group could help spread resentment against all Asians, including Asian Americans. When RISING SUN opened on July 30, 1993, M.A.N.A.A. met the L.A. premiere with a picket line. It was the first nationwide protest by Asian Americans against a Hollywood film since the demonstrations against Michael Cimino's YEAR OF THE DRAGON back in 1985.
But M.A.N.A.A.'s march against RISING SUN drew criticism from Hollywood, from the press, and even from within the Asian American community. So, I spoke with Guy Aoki to address the issues raised by the protest.
What were some of M.A.N.A.A.'s activities before the RISING SUN controversy?
AOKI: One of our concerns was an episode of NIGHTLINE. Ted Koppel did a program about the [1992 Los Angeles] riots the week after they took place, and he only interviewed African American leaders. One of the issues he asked about was the conflict with Korean merchants, and all the leaders said detrimental things about Koreans. The show didn't ask any Korean Americans for any response. So, we wrote a letter to NIGHTLINE saying that the episode was not responsible journalism.
How did M.A.N.A.A. first become involved in RISING SUN?
Before the movie was made, the J.A.C.L. was already worried that it would have a negative impact on the Japanese American community. They met with Twentieth Century Fox on July 9, 1992. Ron Wakabayashi, who was head of the L.A. Human Relations Commission at that time, knew of my interest in media issues and asked if I wanted to join them for his next meeting with Fox. At the first meeting, Fox agreed to have ongoing dialogues with Ron and Dennis Hayashi of J.A.C.L., and they could bring other people into the meetings. So, they put my name down for the next meeting, which was supposed to be August 10. But the day before that, Fox sent a fax saying that I wasn't supposed to be at the meeting, because I was a working journalist, and they wanted the meetings to be secret.
Ron and Dennis insisted that I be in the meeting. But Fox said no. They went ahead and met with Strauss Zelnick [thenPresident of Fox] and Peter Kaufman [son of director Philip Kaufman and producer of RISING SUN]. The meeting was almost like a shouting match. Ron and Dennis were ready to walk out, but they ended up agreeing not to go to the press, as long as they felt that they were getting something mutually beneficial out of their talks with the studio.
Because of that, I was able to set up my own meeting with Fox for September 18 . They cancelled it that same morning and postponed it to October 8. You can see how much of a delay that was. So, on October 8, I finally met with Fox. By that point, I had a script, and I shared it with J.A.C.L.. Fox had been telling them that the movie wouldn't be the same thing as the book. They said they'd taken out the polities, and it was just going to he a murder mystery.
But I had the script, and I said, "I'm sorry, I don't see much of a difference. You took out the longwinded diatribes against the Japanese for practical purposes: you can't have an interesting film if every character you meet, like in the book, goes on for two pages about what they think of the Japanese. That would be a very boring film. But otherwise, the flavor of the book is intact: this is a very one-sided, paranoid thriller, saying that the Japanese are taking over the U.S. What's more, this is taking place in America. The Japanese are here; they're in Los Angeles, and they're using their economic influence to buy off Senators and other powerful people."
It's true that RISING SUN is about the Japanese and not Asian Americans. But what film has been about Asian Americans? Until very recently, none! And what movies about Asians have had an effect on Asian Americans? All of them! Whenever Asian faces are on the screen, we're always speaking with [foreign] accents; we're always immigrants from foreign countries. What's missing is showing Asian faces that are in the mainstream of America.
We were looking at RISING SUN from an Asian American point of view, not a Japanese-national point of view. So, we weren't faulting RISING SUN for being negative about Japanese nationals. We were concerned that the film's portrayal of the Japanese would play into all the evil stereotypes that had gone before and that this could have negative consequences for Americans who just happened to be Asian by descent.
There's precedent for this. Back in 1942, 120,000 Japanese Americans knew they were Americans at heart. They had nothing to do with bombing Pearl Harbor, but they were thrown into internment camps anyway. That self-knowledge of national identity didn't help them then, and to a large extent, I don't believe it helps us [Japanese Americans] enough today. I can be a fourth-generation American, yet some people see me and think I know how to speak Japanese just because of my appearance. It doesn't help if you know you're an American and not a Japanese citizen; it's how non-Asians perceive you that matters. And since not everyone has meaningful contact with Asian Americans, those perceptions are usually based on the impressions they get from the media.
Japanese Americans cannot win. If Japan does something negative, we take the fallout from it. When the Japanese do well economically, [other U.S. citizens] look at Japanese Americans as if we're somehow benefiting from this. But we cut our ties to Japan when our grandparents or great grandparents left in the early part of the century. Just because we look Japanese doesn't mean that we associate with Japan or agree with everything it does.
But even if we don't agree, we're closer, and it's easier for other Americans to take out their anger on us. As one of M.A.N.A.A.'s board members once said: If someone gets pissed off at something that's going on in Japan, they're not going to jump on a plane and fly to Japan and kick somebody; they'll kick somebody around here who looks Japanese. For instance, when the Japanese Prime Minister made those [derogatory] remarks about blacks and Puerto Ricans, somebody went to a Japanese American cemetery in East Los Angeles and kicked over some headstones.
Crichton says that he intended his novel to be a "wakeup call" to U.S. industry, that he's more critical of the United States than Japan. What's wrong with that?
If that was his intention, he failed miserably. If he was really trying to criticize the United States, the characters in the book could have made long diatribes against this country for what we're doing economically. What you had instead was every character going on for pages about how unfair Japanese business practices are. It put the blame entirely on the Japanese. I'm not trying to defend Japan, of course. I don't even understand enough about the trade stuff to go on a talk show and dissect it. But the book was a very one-sided view of what the Japanese are doing, saying that there's reason to not trust them and not like them. If he really wanted to write a "wakeup call" for us, Crichton could have planted more constructive ideas in that book about how we could go about changing our economy, as opposed to just blaming the Japanese.
Crichton claims that "political correctness" and charges of "Japan-bashing" and racism are merely instruments to prevent a discussion of Japan 's negative effect on the U. S. economy. How do you respond?
M.A.N.A.A. was concerned about how one-sided the story was, and how it was going to encourage resentment against people who are Japanese or look Japanese. We weren't focusing on the unfairness of Japan's business relationship with the U.S.. If you want to write a book specifically about that, I think that's fine. That's probably a valid viewpoint.
But Crichton put these issues in the context of a murder mystery, where a white woman, this all-American blonde from the Midwest, is strangled to death by a Japanese businessman. And the story is about how the Japanese use their supposed influence and predatory technological power to cover up the murder. Given the lack of balanced Asian images in the media, if you combine the murder with this notion that the Japanese are being unfair in business, it's bound to engender resentment against all Asian people. It was mixing those two elements together that was the problem. That's why Philip Kaufman changed the murderer [in the film] to a white man, because he thought an Asian murderer was a little bit too touchy. So, he realized that, too.
During the entire RISING SUN campaign, I never used the term "Japan-bashing," because it has the connotation that you can't criticize Japan. And that shuts down discussion. It's like when you say something is "racist," it's such a big word that you have to explain what you mean. So, don't say a movie is racist; say what's racist about it. Break it down so that people can conceive of what you're talking about more directly.
As far as this "political correctness" thing is concerned, M.A.N.A.A. is trying to sensitize people to what the mainstream just doesn't get yet. And people who use [the term] "political correctness" [against us] are basically people who want to defend doing things the same old way, coming from a white point of view that doesn't require them to learn anything beyond their limited orientation. So, for Crichton and the others to wave "political correctness" in our face is really insensitive, and I think it's an insult. They don't care to know how the communities they depict feel about these things. I wish we had a word that was the antithesis of "political correctness," so we could wave that in their face as freely as they wave "political correctness" in ours.
Why did you break your agreement with Fox not to talk to the media?
In the fall of 1992, we were still under agreement with Fox not to go public about our apprehensions. So, we waited until the following January, because that's when we heard that trailers [a.k.a. previews of coming attractions] were running in theatres. So, we said that we'd like to get a copy of the RISING SUN trailer. But Zelnick didn't want to put the trailers on videocassette; he'd only give us passes into the theatres. One of our board members was escorted into a theatre by the ushers to see this short trailer and then escorted out before the main feature began. She felt very insulted by the experience.
On January 22 , I wrote a letter to Zelnick, and I said, "We'd like to know when the movie's coming out, and we'd like to see a pre-screening of it." We thought it was a reasonable request. But he wrote back, saying there was no release date, even when, at that point, it was known that the film would be released in July. So, I believe he lied to us. And he denied us a screening.
So, we at M.A.N.A.A. asked ourselves:
Why did you want an advance screening?
So we knew what we might be fighting.
Not for the purpose of making changes to the film?
Ideally, that's what we were hoping for. We wanted to have some kind of input, some kind of dialogue with the studio on seeing if we could soften it at all. If Fox had agreed to show us a prescreening of RISING SUN, we obviously would have given them input as far as what [changes] we'd like to see. You know, you can see something in the script, but you don't exactly know how it's going to look on the screen. There is something that could be softened or magnified in the translation. So, for our own peace of mind, it would help us to see the film before its release. But any changes would be up to Fox. They could take our suggestions or leave them. In the end, if the film was negative to Asians — with or without changes — we would still speak out against it.
But we didn't think this movie could be saved. I passed the script around to different people in M.A.N.A.A., and they all agreed that just taking out a few scenes here and there couldn't change the overall anti-Asian tone. So, it would be more helpful for us to see the finished film and know exactly what we were fighting.
After Zelnick turned down our request, we went to the Media Image Coalition, an umbrella organization of different groups concerned about their images in the media, and we brought them and other community groups aboard our protest. And we sent Zelnick a list of demands:
First, we wanted a disclaimer put at the beginning of the film saying that the movie isn't meant to encourage resentment against anybody of Asian descent, and to recognize that hate crimes are a very important concern in this country. Secondly, when they make films featuring Asians in the future, we wanted Fox to have an Asian American consultant, someone who understands Asian issues from a community point of view. RISING SUN had Steve Clemons, who is white, from the Japan-America Society as its advisor on Japanese issues, but he didn't understand how these issues affect the Japanese American community. Our third demand was for Fox to hire more Asian Americans in decision-making roles at the studios, so that when a film like RISING SUN comes up for development, someone would be there to say, "Now, wait, we could have problems with this. Let's look at how we can do this without stepping on people's toes." We had 16 organizations sign on to our statement. We gave Zelnick the letter in March and gave him two weeks to get back to us.
Two weeks went by, and we got this letter from him saying that they always try to hire Asian Americans. He didn't feel the need to hire an Asian American consultant — he thought a white consultant was fine — and he wasn't going to put a disclaimer at the beginning of the movie because it's "self-evidently" a work of fiction. So, I got on the phone with Zelnick for the first time, 'cos I never talked to the guy before, to request an advance screening. He said, "Why the hell should I show you the picture?" And here's a direct quote:
I said, "Well, if this film is as harmless as you think it is, why wouldn't you show it to us?" But that didn't get me anywhere. Finally, I said,
Is that when you started your media campaign?
Yes, that was March 31. We began by talking to the L.A. Times. I also started the "RISING SUN Watch" in my Rafu Shimpo column, and M.A.N.A.A. let the public know how concerned we were about the movie. We said that we were still going to try to see a pre-screening somehow — sneak in, whatever — and we're going to see the film before any protest, 'cos we want to be responsible. But we said that if the film is as bad as we think it will be, we're going to protest. And we were already lining up people across the country to support us. We got on C.N.N. and E! [Entertainment Television] and other channels.
The campaign was successful because we defined the film. When RISING SUN had its press junket up in New York, Fox flew all the journalists up there and put them up in hotels to talk with these big stars. In all the interviews I saw on T.V., all the comments the stars made were in answer to our accusations. They didn't get a chance to talk about the usual things, like, "Oh, that Sean Connery, he's such a practical joker! Let me tell you what he did the first day on the set..." They weren't able to talk about that lightweight stuff; they had to spend all their time defending the film. So, I think we won the public relations battle: even though Fox spent millions to publicize RISING SUN and we didn't have a budget, we controlled the spin on the film.
How do you respond to these statements?
Cary wasn't in my meeting with Fox, so what he heard was second-hand. And we never told Fox that they couldn't make RISING SUN. We said to them from the very beginning that we understood their rights as filmmakers to their own creative visions. We were just giving them feedback. We have a right to our opinion, too, and we were exercising our First Amendment rights by telling Fox, at a crucial point in their moviemaking, that we had a problem with their film because of the potential volatility of the material. If we did feel they shouldn't make this film, we could have done more drastic things: we could have disrupted shooting; we could have done crazy stuff. We didn't do that.
As for Andrea, she was grasping at straws. She said that the protest was a slap in the face to the many Asian American actors and talents that they hired. And my response to that was, "If you guys support Asian American talent so much, why don't you use them in your movies where they're not speaking with accents, not always economic predators? Why don't you put them in mainstream roles? You can support them that way."
M.A.N.A.A. never criticizes any Asian American actor for taking any role in any film or television show that we don't like. We know the reality is that they're only offered roles that are bad or not-so-bad. What kind of a choice is that? That's why we target the people who have the power of giving them these roles: the writers, the producers, directors, and the studio heads who reflect their own ignorance of Asians and Asian Americans. So, Andrea gave a typical line that she would give to anybody about censorship, when, in fact, we were not censoring.
Were you able to see the film in advance?
Yes, we saw it the Monday night before it opened. There was a sneak preview in L.A. that night, and the leaders of just about every concerned group were there. M.A.N.A.A. got them passes, and we all saw it.
Were you impressed by any of the changes Philip Kaufman made to the story?
If anything, Kaufman made it worse. He made the ending more ambiguous, so you didn't know if the murderer was really white. He put in this epilogue, saying that the white "murderer" could have just been taking the fall for the Japanese. So, he added this air of uncertainty: Did they really catch the killer, or did the Japanese get away with murder? But everything else we had trouble with was already there in the January '92 draft of the script.
You objected most strongly to the racial epithets — "Jap" and "Nip" — used repeatedly in the film by the Harvey Keitel character. But others, even some Japanese Americans, didn't see the film as advocating his racist point of view.
By making the Harvey Keitel character this Archie Bunker/ loveable-bigot kind of guy...
What do you mean by that?
A guy who's prejudiced but who's funny. That makes it easier to accept the racist stuff he says. For instance, when Cary Tagawa is making out with these two white women, Keitel's character says, "[The Japanese] are plundering our natural resources," and the line gets a laugh. When you laugh at something like that, you take it in; you accept it. So, it made the bigoted stuff he was saying more palatable.
Others have seen the Sean Connery character as a positive blend of Western and Japanese cultures.
How is he a blend of Western and Japanese cultures? He speaks Japanese terribly. He never defends the Japanese at all. Sure, he says to Keitel, "Nobody forced us to [sell our companies to the Japanese]." But if this guy is such a Japanophile, why is it that he stands by when Harvey Keitel ['s character] makes these rude remarks about the Japanese? Why doesn't he say something like, "Hey, I'm getting a little fed up with this 'Jap' and 'Nip' stuff. Take it someplace else, pal." But he just goes along with it. One of our major contentions with Fox was that all of these racial slurs weren't being challenged. Can you imagine a Hollywood movie where a white guy hurls around racial epithets about blacks and gets away with it? I can't.
Obviously, M.A.N.A.A. encourages the studios to do nontraditional casting, where blacks, Asians, and Latinos play "white" roles that could really be played by actors of any race. We're just saying, when you place a black person into the context of this film, where there's resentment against the Japanese, it adds to the racial volatility. After what the Japanese Prime Minister said about black people, there was already resentment against the Japanese in the black community. So, when you add Wesley Snipes to the mix of people being done in by the Japanese, that stirs up the resentment even more.
Beautiful. Peter's promising us more of the same: "exciting" stereotypes. Showing Asians as part of mainstream America isn't "sanitizing"; it's true-to-life. Most Asian American actors don't speak with accents, and yet, they're almost always forced by Hollywood to play accented roles. RISING SUN could have had some balance by having a Japanese American cop help the detectives.
What about the coroner, played by Amerasian actress Amy Hill?
That part was fine for multi-ethnic casting. But the character came and went so fast, she didn't really help the audience tell the difference between the Japanese and Japanese Americans.
Some of RISING SUN's defenders say the film presented a good balance of Asian characters.
Among the Japanese businessmen? None of them took a stand against the Japanese company, except for Cary's character. He was the only one who was an atypical Japanese character, and in true GUNGA DIN fashion, he ended up sacrificing his life for Sean Connery and Wesley Snipes. Tia Carrere's character was merely used as another instrument of hate against the Japanese, saying how racist they are: rejecting her because she's half-black and because she "dared" to fall in love with a white man [Connor]. She basically renounces her Japanese heritage. All the other Japanese characters went along with the company. No one else stood up and said, "Gee, this stinks! I don't want to be a part of this company if it's going to be covering up a murder." No one did that. Everyone was a cog in the wheel — or worse. So, I think it's wishful thinking for anyone to say that RISING SUN had balanced and diverse Japanese characters.
It's true that Cary's character was positive: he was playing a playboy, so he was socially accepted on one level. And he was seen romancing white women, so you could call that a breakthrough. That would have been fine in another movie. This was a film where his being a playboy and his romancing white women were used against him, as being more examples of how the Japanese are corrupting America, especially white women. I hope Cary's role in RISING SUN is good for his career, 'cos I think he should be playing more leading male characters. Taken by itself, the role was positive. But within the context of RISING SUN, his role didn't help the film.
I was surprised by Tom Kagy. While some Asians were relieved that the film wasn't as bad as they thought it would be, Tom is the only Asian American I know who actually liked RISING SUN. Tom shares my concern for how Asian males are portrayed in the media: asexual and sinister and so on. I know this because I was the music editor for AsiAm [later Transpacific] for its first three months of publication in 1986, and we talked about these things, arid we agreed. I think what happened here is that Tom focused on Cary's character as being so positive that he was willing to overlook everything else. And we at M.A.N.A.A. weren't willing to overlook everything else.
How did M.A.N.A.A. 's protest against RISING SUN come together?
All the community leaders met after the screening Monday night, and we all discussed the film. In the end, we all agreed: we should go ahead with the protest. So, I feel we made a responsible decision. Obviously, you can't wait until the Monday night before the movie opens to say, "If it's bad, then we're going to rally the troops." We had to start rallying the troops early on, just in case.
Even though M.A.N.A.A. is an all-volunteer organization, we managed to rally concerned people across the country. We began fielding phone calls from every major T.V. station in L.A., as well as the newspapers and radio stations. We even got calls from the British and Japanese press. J.A.C.L. organized protests in New York and San Francisco, and some ad hoc groups formed to protest the film in Chicago, Seattle, even in Minneapolis. We were in touch with all these groups.
RISING SUN opened on Friday, July 30. That morning, we held a press conference at the [Japanese American Cultural and Community Center in L.A.'s Little Tokyo]. It was like a dream come true! Over the last few months, M.A.N.A.A. members, like Philip Chung and Joyce Mitamura, had formed alliances with many non-Asian groups, and many of them were there to back me up at the press conference. They included Nosotros, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, and the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. Of course, N.C.R.R. and J.A.C.L. were there, too. We didn't call for a boycott of the film, but we did announce that we would be picketing the theatre showing RISING SUN in Westwood [an L.A. suburb] and distributing educational literature.
We found out two days earlier that Fox had changed the theatre showing the film in Westwood. But it was a good change, because the new theatre gave us more room for our picket line. We passed out questionnaires asking the audience if they thought words like "Jap" and "Nip" were acceptable and if they ever saw an Asian male portrayed romantically in the movies. There are so few [Hollywood] films with Asian male romantic leads that nobody could think of any. By the end of our two-day protest, about 140 people had joined our picket line. We didn't try to stop anyone from seeing RISING SUN. We just wanted to educate the audience, and if they still wanted to see the movie, that was fine: they could make up their own minds. I feel very good that we took the high road in protesting RISING SUN.
And thanks to all our work, the press showed up. Most of the local news coverage focused on the Westwood protest, but ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT showed the New York and San Francisco rallies as well. It did a good job in capturing the solidarity of our demonstration and in spreading our concerns across the country. Then, there was the local station that referred to us as "Japanese" [rather than as Asian Americans]. There's one in every crowd. But in the end, I think we got our message across.
You protested the film because you were worried that it might provoke anti-Asian violence. Can you mention any hate crimes that were directly provoked by the film?
Then, couldn't it be said that you blew the issue out of proportion?
Before RISING SUN, you had all these newscast and print stories about the Japanese taking over American industry. Now, you had a movie, the first big Hollywood movie, that showed it on the screen and gave these stories validity. We felt that if people were constantly inundated with stories about how unfair the Japanese are, this would just increase resentment in the back of people's minds. I'm not necessarily saying that, as soon as someone sees RISING SUN and gets something to eat, they're going to go out and kick an Asian. But resentment doesn't have to act itself out immediately; it can do so somewhere down the road, because it becomes a part of people's subconscious. So, the fact that I can't point to someone being accosted because of the film doesn't poke holes in our argument.
Doesn't the arrival of Asian American-themed films like DRAGON: THE BRUCE LEE STORY and THE JOY LUCK CLUB, and T. V. shows like VANISHING SON and ALL-AMERICAN GIRL, say that you're assigning too much importance to just one movie?
No, it's going to take a lot more than just a couple of movies and a couple of shows. What I find is that we Asian Americans are still looked upon as foreigners. Except for ALL-AMERICAN GIRL, all those other projects are pretty much based upon Asians in foreign countries or immigrants who are still being assimilated. Granted, there were the daughters in THE JOY LUCK CLUB, but most of that movie was about people from China. We still don't see Asians being shown as [characters] who don't have accents, who are just doctors, just lawyers, marriage counselors, whatever. To offset this perception of Asian "foreignness," you have to show Asian Americans as very mainstream. So, I think these other projects are nice, but I still haven't seen the breakthrough. No, we can't say, "Things are getting better now, so movies like RISING SUN are okay."
Do you think the protest had an impact on Hollywood?
I think it did in the sense that it showed we have to be taken seriously, because I heard that the reason why Fox set up and cancelled our meetings is because they thought, if they just put us off, we'd eventually go away.
Also, the impact we made was demonstrated two weeks after RISING SUN came out, when the L.A. Times did a poll about how Asians are covered in the media. Their poll asked how much T.V. news coverage of Asians is positive, negative, or fair. And only 17% said it was negative. But when they got to how Asians are portrayed in film, 72% said "distorted." So, how can there be that much of a disparity between how we're covered in news and our images in the movies? I think it's because of the protest.
We're now trying to have a more proactive impact on Hollywood: we're meeting directly with studios like Warner Brothers and Tri-Star. That way, we can infuse them with a sensitivity that will be understood from the top down. So, hopefully, we won't always have to be reacting to films after they come out.
After meeting with Warner Brothers about FALLING DOWN, which had that mean-spirited scene with the Korean grocer, they produced a public service video to make up for the racial divisiveness of the film. The video was sent around to movie theatres to show before the feature film. And they agreed to listen to our concerns about their filmmaking projects in the future.
We're also part of this new Commission on Fairness in the Media that Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition has started. And we're still part of the Media Image Coalition. So, there's a movement out there pushing for more balanced images in the media. And M.A.N.A.A.'s a part of that. We're shaking things up.
A Note on Terminology
While some object to using the term "American" exclusively to describe the people of the United States-preferring "U.S. citizen" instead, "Asian American" presents a special case.
Until the end of World War II, racist laws in the United States prevented most Asian immigrants from becoming citizens. In reaction to this, most Asian American communities count the immigrant generation as the first "American" generation. Consequently, many Asian immigrants, both living and dead, are considered as "Americans" even though they were never naturalized as citizens. Therefore, in this article, the term "American," though limited to the United States, isn't always synonymous with "U.S. citizen."********
Special thanks to the Rafu Shimpo for the use of its news photos and to H.D. for her invaluable archival work.
1. Quoted in Glenn Suravech, "RISING SUN Actor Speaks His Mind," Rafu Shimpo, July 29, 1993, p.1.
2. Aoki's statement isn't entirely accurate. To the contrary, Hollywood has been known to make films about Asian Americans. For example, Robert Florey' s DAUGHTER OF SHANGHAI (Paramount, 1937), starring Anna May Wong, and Henry Koster's FLOWER DRUM SONG (Universal, 1961), based on Rodgers and Hammerstein's Broadway musical, featured Asian American protagonists. However, the exceptions are so few, they hardly qualify Aoki's point.
3. On September 23, 1986, then-Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone was quoted as saying: "...In the United States, because there are a considerable number of blacks, Puerto Ricans, and Mexicans, the [intellectual] level is lower." The remark provoked such anger from the U.S. Congress that Nakasone was compelled to issue a formal apology on September 26. See "Nakasone Offends U.S. Minorities," Facts on File, 46, no. 2393, October 3, 1986, p. 737.
4. Michael Crichton, "America Bound and Gagged: 'Political Correctness' and Censorship of the U.S-Japan Relationship," World Affairs Journal: A Compendium (Los Angeles: Los Angeles World Affairs Council, 1993), p. 49.
5. Michael Crichton, Rising Sun (New York: Knopf, 1992), p. 64.
6. David Ehrenstein, "War Business," Sight and Sound, 3, No. 10 (October 1993), p. 12.
7. Crichton, "America Bound and Gagged," pp. 53-54.
8. Jane Galbraith, "Group Takes RISING SUN Protest Public," Los Angeles Times, April 7, 1993, p. F-I.
9. Quoted in Suravech, "RISING SUN Actor," p. 1.
10. Quoted in "Studio Responds to Objections," Hokubei Mainichi (San Francisco), August 3, 1993, p. 1.
11. Quoted in J.K. Yamamoto, "Eye of the Storm," Rafu Shimpo, August 14, 1993, p. 1.
13. Quoted in J.K. Yamamoto, "Tagawa Stresses Positive Aspects of SUN Role," Hokubei Mainichi, September 9, 1993, p. 1.
14. T. Kagy, "Between the Lines," Transpacific (September t993), p. 94.
15. Several news reports have likened Japan's business acquisitions to the country's military invasions during World War II. See Jon Funabiki, "'Asian Invasion' Clichés Recall Wartime Propaganda," Extra!, 5, no. 5 (July-August 1992), pp. 13-14.
For more information about the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, write to P.O. Box 11105, Burbank, California 91510, or call their hotline,