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James Berardino

Canon Formation 2B: Orientalism

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Orientalism can be best defined as an ill-conceived notion that befalls the ignorant and misconstrues their perception of most, if not all, people belonging to a race or ethnic group that is different than their own. It does so in a manner that perpetuates the perception of individuals from different races, cultures or ethnicities as grotesque, frightening or somehow inferior in the eyes of individuals who have already completely assimilated themselves culturally into the pre-existing social strata of the region in which they inhabit. In other words, orientalism is a social “virus” that is often perpetuated, or “spread”, by fear of the unknown; a virus which insidiously promotes discrimination and segregation based off differences in both culture and appearance, flourishes amongst the ignorant and is prevalent throughout both America’s distant and recent history, as well as in the archives of world history. A parent to ignorance and the culprit to the divisive vices of racial prejudice of all creeds, a lack of sufficient education, along with blatant disregard for one’s global community, is the underlying reason why Orientalism is a recurring theme in history that has yet to be abolished entirely. However, there exist scholars and filmmakers, such as Le Espiritu, Sucheng Chan, Wakako Yamauchi, etcetera, who give hope to the fight against such ignorance by using their work to inform and educate the public in order to challenge such stereotypes and atrocious ways of thinking. In order to effectively and efficiently push against orientalism in today’s age of information, and secure a future for future generations in which no one racially profiles one another, discriminates against anyone else based on racial profiling, or constructs social barriers that belittle and segregate others, it is necessary to build that future on a strong foundation, education. People around the world need to begin to educate themselves about the countless other ethnic groups, cultures, dialects and histories of countries that inhabit this Earth along with their own. These subjects are key to learn about in order to become a more culturally aware and tolerant person, as well as to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past that could’ve been avoided otherwise. In addition to education, it is imperative that people of all colors and creeds from around the globe begin to adopt a more secular perspective of the world around them while staying true to themselves and their roots. Once such a perspective is adopted, one can obtain newfound concern and consideration for the everyday occurrences and tragedies across the globe and can officially call themselves a responsible citizen to both their global and local communities. One of the more prominent ways in which orientalism can misconstrue one’s perception of a different ethnic group is by immediately highlighting, or exaggerating, the differences in physical attributes and characteristics between oneself and a member of a different ethnic group, if any, and using those differences to generalize, or define, the entire ethnic group. These differences are then often embellished upon in an attempt to victimize and belittle people of different ethnicities or cultures. Such treatment can, often times, rob an entire race of their pride and sense of cultural identity, ultimately causing them to deny themselves and their ancestry. For example, propaganda generated during World War II following the attack on Pearl Harbor often depicted the Japanese with sinister eyes intent on ruthlessly killing Americans. These images dehumanized the Japanese and led to years of cultural and racial hatred. These portrayals created assumptions that the Japanese people are incapable of having separate personalities, beliefs, ideas or any sort of individuality of their own whatsoever which caused them to, in some cases, deny their cultural identity by introducing themselves to new people as Chinese-Americans, rather than Japanese-Americans. Even the Western media is guilty of Orientalism by misrepresenting members of foreign ethnic groups in images, photographs and news stories. During World War II, according to Jean Yu-Wen Shen Wu and Min Song in their essay, “Asian American Studies Reader: Introduction”, images of Asian-Americans were often insultingly distorted in an attempt to rationalize the mistreatment of these people in the United States. Although misrepresentations such as these were, at times, outrageously inaccurate and could be easily dispelled upon a first encounter with any Asian-American, they were used to build on the fear that people had in response to the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. Unfortunately, this created severe social barriers between Americans and Asian Americans that persisted for many years. Orientalism allows perceptions about particular races or ethnicities to run amok in society, creating short-term and long-term negative consequences for all parties involved, whether it be the oppressed or the oppressor. The first notable short-term effect that the victim is likely to experience after being exposed to such complete and utter discrimination is mistreatment which could be in the form of either verbal or physical abuse. This may also lead to attempts to segregate or isolate these individuals from society. If, for any reason, tensions heighten between ethnic groups, as it did when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, then verbal and physical abuse of individuals from victimized ethnic groups are likely to spike in both frequency and malevolence without warning. Oftentimes, this increase in verbal and physical abuse is tolerated by society, as it was during World War II. This hostility can also be used to justify the revocation of the human rights of individuals from a different race or ethnic group, as it was when Japanese-Americans were sentenced to internment camps for detainment, or to federal prison for questioning, until the tension had been quelled to a certain degree. These human rights violations depict the plight of Yuri Kochiyama’s family when the American government came to her home and detained her along with her brother and mother, just after the death of her father, as discussed by Yuri Kochiyama in her book, “Passing It On – A Memoir”. Her father had been released slightly over a month after being incarcerated and died the day after his release due to the lack of medical attention during his incarceration. This memoir is a painful reminder of how prejudice can be used to justify the mistreatment of people based on their race or ethnicity, even in a country that prides itself as a melting pot. Although the harsh mistreatment and segregation of individuals from a different race or ethnic group can be considered long-term ailments, such actions can be abruptly implemented in the short-run without warning. Such wrongdoings are witnessed around the globe on a frequent basis. For example, tension towards Muslim-Americans has grown rapidly in the United States following 9/11. Prejudice and hatred against Arab Americans and Muslims escalated quickly and many continue to be detained in airports for questioning because of their ethnicity. As difficult as the mistreatment and internment of individuals is, the writings of Asian Americans remind us how certain effects and consequences only take effect after the victim has suffered past their breaking point. The loss of self that so often occurs to those who have had their spirits broken, typically during, or proceeding, long periods of time spent in internment camps, is painfully recounted in some of the stories of the literary canon. These actions breed distrust and ill feelings between both citizens of different races and ethnic groups that create strife and conflict within our societies. Such divides could result in the implementation of sanctions or military involvement between countries and, as a result, negatively affect quality of life for citizens for generations. A stellar example of a worst case scenario that exemplifies such consequences lies in the Americans spike in discrimination towards Japanese-Americans immediately following Pearl Harbor, as previously depicted by the example of Yuri Kochiyama’s family’s detainment proceeding her father’s incarceration. However, Yen Le Espiritu describes the conflict in greater detail in his essay, “Changing Lives: World War II and the Postwar Years” in which he portrays that directly following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Japanese-Americans began to be taken into custody left and right by security agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Things went from bad to worse for the incarcerated Japanese-Americans when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which essentially stripped all Japanese American citizens of their civil rights and authorized the “evacuation” of 120,000 Japanese into concentration camps. The literary works of Asian American writers give us a deeper understanding of how these actions affected the Japanese people. The balance of power among Japanese families shifted in the concentration camps, the undisputed authority that the Issei man once held over his wife and children had waned and his purpose in life went from breadwinner and decision maker to having no rights, no home and no control over his own life. As a result, after three years in the internment camps, most Issei men had fallen victim to a crippling depression. Richard Schaefer’s, “Chinese Americans and Japanese Americans” goes on to discuss Japanese American life upon being released from the internment camps after three long years. The road ahead of them was an arduous one. Schaefer writes, “The immediate postwar climate was not pro-Japanese American. Whites terrorized returning evacuees in attacks similar to those against Blacks a generation earlier. Labor unions called for work stoppages when Japanese Americans reported for work. Fortunately, the most blatant expression of anti-Japanese feeling disappeared rather quickly. Japan stopped being a threat as the atomic bomb blasts destroyed Nagasaki and Hiroshima. For the many evacuees who lost relatives and friends in the bombings, however, it must have been a high price to pay for marginal acceptance.” This account reminds us of the impact of the war on Japanese Americans on both an economic and a human level. Some of the stories of Asian Americans during this time inspire all of us and demonstrate how resilience and passion can help people overcome the injustices and hardships created by racial and ethnic divides. “Passion for Justice”, a documentary by Yuri Kochiyama, follows her dramatic, life-long plight as a Japanese-American and an activist, who was held in an internment camp during World War II. In the film, Kochiyama shares what it was like to live in an internment camp and the hardships she faced, as well as follows her journey from the internment camp to living in Harlem, New York. In Harlem, Kochiyama meets Malcolm X, an African American human rights leader who was so taken with Kochiyama’s story that he visited her in her apartment. Kochiyama overcomes the hardship of living in an internment camp and facing intense prejudice to become a leading human rights activist herself. This documentary is a shining example of how film and art can be used to inspire people and help them understand the need to stand up for basic human rights. If orientalism, which creates misconceptions about individuals from different races or ethnic groups, is a recurring problem in our society, then why hasn’t our government or society recognized this and taken steps to prevent it from occurring again? Has the government reacted differently to Arab-Americans following 9/11 than it did to Japanese-Americans following Pearl Harbor? Has society? Following Pearl Harbor, Asian Americans were subject to numerous laws that severely discriminated against Asian Americans during this time period. For example, the alien land laws, as discussed in Sucheng Chan’s “Hostility and Conflict”, were first passed in California in 1913 and rendered aliens ineligible for citizenship. In addition, under the Alien Land Laws, Asian Americans could no longer buy or lease agricultural land for more than three years, severely limiting the ability of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Asian Indian immigrants to earn a living in agricultural areas. The government justified these actions in the name of national security. Following 9/11, hostility against Arab-Americans escalated. However, the government did not take actions to intern people of Middle Eastern descent or impose other sanctions on them by limiting economic opportunities. Concerns that the government was profiling people of Middle Eastern descent by detaining them in airports for questioning led to changes by the government in this policy. However, although the government did not enact laws affecting the rights of people of Middle Eastern descent, nor did they intern anyone following 9/11, there is certainly a significant amount of hostility and resentment between certain members of the public which has resulted in acts of violence and verbal abuse, as well as discrimination in the workplace. In his book, “On Orientalism”, Edward Said explores Western perceptions and attitudes towards the Middle East and discusses how Americans have come to view the Middle East as a strange country full of villains and terrorists. Said points out how these misconceptions blind people to the true nature and beliefs of Middle Eastern people, creating serious cultural divides. Apart from the physical misrepresentations of Middle Eastern people that are perpetuated in everything from popular children’s books to television commercials and movies, there are subtler forms of Orientalism that exist amongst America’s current social strata to this day. Are you familiar with the popular, yet horrifically misconceived notion that Islam is a religion that prescribes the death and absolute demise of all who refuse to convert and worship Allah? Or that Muslims promise young men that they will die a hero’s death and be greeted by virgins in the afterlife if they become a suicide bomber? This is an example of how Orientalism is used to exaggerate a perspective to tarnish the image of everyone in a particular ethnic group or race. This type of exaggeration has proven to be commonplace time and time again, despite efforts to address prejudice and knock down stereotypes. It distorts the reality that, despite the extraneous and violent efforts of a handful of radicals whose image the American media loves to perpetuate in order to get media attention; Islam is a respectable religion which has many parallels to the teachings of Christianity. Yet, sadly enough, people refuse to research much further than whatever the popular opinion is before they formulate their own opinion or take a stance on a controversial subject. Unfortunately, due to today’s electronic media, misinformation travels quickly and perpetuates such ignorance, which is why Orientalism still exists in our society today. Fortunately, there are scholars whose writings have helped repair the hatred and hostility and tear down the facades of Orientalism to inform people about the realities of Asian American life and culture. One of these short stories is Hisaye Yamamoto’s “The Brown House”, which tells the story of a Chinese immigrants who come to California to find a better life. “The Brown House” allows the reader to step into the shoes of an average Asian American father who is turns to gambling to try to win money to support his family. His disapproving wife ends up taking half of their children away with her for a week while he reevaluates his life and tries to overcome his gambling problem. The manner in which this story pushes against the concept of Orientalism is that by placing the reader in this Asian American father’s shoes, the reader suddenly realizes that the father’s problems are no different from that of any other man with the responsibility of providing for his family. The father certainly didn’t practice any strange or grotesque family traditions or fit the description of any physical or social distortions which a white man of that time period certainly may have expected. He was just a run-of-the-mill father who faced the same challenges in providing for his family, trying to overcome a gambling addiction and in interacting with people from different races as other men. By putting a human face on the struggles of Asian American families, this story helps people develop compassion and understanding for Asian Americans. One of the most persistent stereotypes of Asian Americans is the way that Asian American women are portrayed in the media and in movies. The compelling documentary, “Slaying the Dragon,” examines how Asian and Asian American women are portrayed in movies since the 1920s and 1930s. For example, the character Anna May Wong epitomized the classic dragon lady that many people continue to assume is a realistic portrayal of an Asian American woman. The documentary also features movies depicting Japanese geisha girls who are trained to wait on men hand and foot and attend to their every need. In more recent media, Asian American television news anchors are shown, required to confirm to a particular “look” that has become a stereotype of the modern Asian American woman. The problem with these stereotypes is that they make it difficult for people to have a realistic understanding of Asian American women. Another informational scholar, Wakako Yamauchi, combats the misrepresentation that Orientalism has cast upon Asian American women in her story, “That Was All”. In this story, Yamauchi clearly depicts and documents all of the romanticized, intimate emotions and butterfly-like jitters that an Asian American woman experiences for her father’s bachelor friend at the adolescent, young adult and middle-age periods of her life. This story completely dispels the western notion that Asian women are exotic “dragon-ladies” who are the epitome of erotic, sexual beings that make it their undying duty to cater to their man’s each and every need, as if they were for hire. By depicting the woman as an awkward teenager with a crush on an older man and as an older woman who continues to have deep yet unrequited feelings for the same man, Yamauchi helps invalidate the cultural stereotypes that persist regarding Asian American women. Her awkwardness and difficulty in understanding her attraction to this man are very different than the stereotype of a Japanese geisha girl who is trained in the ways of love. These stories and films have helped dismantle the misconceptions associated with Orientalism. But is it enough? Unfortunately, information about how the U.S. government took actions to discriminate and take away the rights of Asian Americans is not always taught in our school systems. The Chinese Exclusion Act, for example, is no longer included in many school curriculums or commonly taught in schools in America in an attempt to conceal politically-incorrect government actions from recent American history. Adding such information to school curriculums around the globe would ensure that future generations are thoroughly educated about the tragedies that have happened as a result of such misinformed ways of thinking and encourage people to develop a deeper understanding of different races and cultures before forming an opinion. The day that racially intolerant thoughts and words cease to be acknowledged by the majority is the day that racial intolerance and prejudice will cease to be able to affect anyone. In conclusion, the Asian American literary canon is a powerful tool in combatting racial and ethnic prejudices in today’s society. Breaking down stereotypes in the way that Yamamoto and Yamauchi did by pouring their hearts and souls into stories that pushed back against Orientalism and acquainted the world with an honest and accurate portrayal of Asians is vital. However, as a society, we must do more. We must be vigilant in educating future generations regarding the insidious nature of Orientalism and how it perpetuates ugly stereotypes that prevent us from creating strong bonds and relationships of trust with individuals from different races and ethnicities. We must ensure that our schools encourage students to read and view the literary works of Asian American writers and filmmakers to understand how Orientalism and the prejudice it invokes has resulted in the inhumane or unfair treatment of Asian Americans in the United States. We must provide students with accurate historical information about how Asian Americans were treated in this country. And, we must take steps to ensure that our news media is more accountable for portraying people from different races and cultures accurately. Through education, we can fight back against the ridiculous, misconstrued notions created by Orientalism to become a more racially tolerant – and stronger - society.


1. Chan, Sucheng. "Hostility and Conflict" New Jersey - Rutgers University Press. 2000.

2. Munson, Espiritu. “Asian American Studies Reader: Executive Order 9066”

3. Said, Edward W, Sut Jhally, and Edward W. Said. Edward Said on Orientalism. Northampton, MA: Media Education Foundation, 1998.

4. Schaefer, Richard. "Chinese Americans and Japanese Americans" Pearson .Prentice Hall. 5thEdition.

5. “Slaying the Dragon: Asian Women in U.S. Television and Film.” Dir. Deborah Gee.

6. Yamamoto, Hisaye. “The Brown House.” Charlie Chan is Dead 2. Ed. Jessica Hagedorn, 2004. 525-532. Print.

7. Yamauchi, Wakako. “That Was All.” Charlie Chan is Dead 2. Ed. Jessica Hagedorn, 2004. 555-560. Print.

8. Yu-Wen, Jean, Shen Wu, Ming Song. “Asian American Studies Reader: Introduction”.

9. “Yuri Kochiyama: Passion for Justice." Dir. Rea Tajiri. 1999. Documetary. Asian American Movement. Web. 11 May 2014.


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