When magician David Hirata first uncovered a story about Japanese vaudeville troupes coming to America in the 1860s, he never expected it could say so much about the roots of modern magic and his place in it. Nor did he think a small prop those vaudevillians used could say so much about racism back then — and the way we can and can’t talk about it in 2019.
The prop was called a soko-nashi bako, or “box without a bottom” in Japanese. Americans, however, were introduced to it by a different name: the “Jap box.”
“I recognized it as soon as I read its description. It’s something I was familiar with from my childhood,” Hirata tells me. “It led me down a rabbit hole of research about how I was connected to this magic prop.”
For more than two centuries, Japan was a hermit kingdom, almost completely sealed off from the rest of the world in the name of political and cultural protection. It was only in the mid-1800s that the country lifted severe regulations on trade and access, and until that point, Japanese citizens had no chance to legally leave the island nation. A few years ago, Hirata stumbled across a historical journal that alleged the first commoner to receive a passport was a magician, Namigoro Sumidagawa. He was headed for America, where Sumidagawa ultimately stood in front of gawking audiences and unveiled one of his special tricks: a bottomless box that appeared to “catch” and transform whatever went into it.
But Sumidagawa never won much fame as the man behind the box. Indeed, it was one of his first contacts, an American performer named Wellington Tobias, who popularized the trick around the country. Thanks to ignorant audiences and the magic of yellowface and a fake accent, Tobias earned decades of fame as the “first Japanese” magician to headline in American vaudeville.
According to historical accounts, Tobias dubbed the prop “the Jap box.” So Hirata figured that would be the perfect title for his own one-man show, as a nod to both the trick and the long, loaded history of “Jap” as a racial slur. “So you have this American who appropriates the culture and the material, and then fast-forward to my development as a magician. It’s weird, Tobias was an early originator of a particular sleight of hand that I absolutely love. And that tension intrigued me,” Hirata says. “My relationship to this story as a Japanese-American magician lies midway between him and Sumidagawa, in a sense.”
Hirata tells me while he had no big message to “reclaim” the slur, he assumed it was going to provoke discomfort. But his Japanese friends and family, some of whom have painful ties to wartime internment in the U.S., approved of the subversion. So did the diverse audiences who showed up to last year’s performances in San Diego. Yet a run in Berkeley, California, this fall proved that even the most earnest attempt to question the meaning around a slur can be an uphill battle. To Hirata’s surprise, The Jap Box elicited a number of complaints from within the Japanese community, including from the board of the Berkeley chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League.
“They seemed quite shocked, first of all, that I’d received no protests on the title up to that time. They were genuinely shocked. They asked me, ‘Well, haven’t you faced the slur as part of your life?’ I have, but I only really remember a handful of times,” Hirata says. “I realized, okay, the word just represents real trauma to a portion of our community. And it’s hard to predict who exactly feels that way, even if it seems like the older generation.”
In so many ways, Hirata’s experience is an encapsulation of how Asian Americans often struggle to confront their struggles with racism and racial awareness, even as the demographic explodes as a cultural and economic force in the U.S. Asian Americans form the fastest-growing population in the country, jumping 46 percent between 2000 and 2010 despite national growth hovering at just 10 percent. Asian flavors and Asian pop culture have captured the American zeitgeist. And we’re seeing a historic turnout for Asian Americans in politics.
But the debate around what kind of language that can be reclaimed, and how young Asians like myself are supposed to confront an American history full of turmoil, feels like it’s still in its infancy — at least compared to the last decade of conversation in, say, Black, Latinx or LGTBQ communities. Hirata found opposition to his thoughtful use of “Jap,” and he ultimately decided to change the title of his one-man show to A Box Without a Bottom. To him, it wasn’t worth it to be stubborn in the face of Japanese advocates suggesting otherwise.
What does make it worth it?
Maybe the biggest example is the crusade from rock band The Slants, which ended up the subject of a Supreme Court case after battling a decision from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. The government stated its name was offensive and couldn’t be registered. The band, which serves as a purposeful send-up of racist attitudes toward Asians, believed otherwise.
Frontman Simon Tam has noted that the band’s name and lyrical content takes a mocking act from their childhoods and reclaims it as “a point of pride, instead.” The group won its case in 2017, and Tam declared in a lengthy statement that the decision was a win for people of color and the LGBTQ community, who have often been censored by federal rules “simply because we believe in the deliberate disarmament of toxic language and symbols.”
“We’ve had to endure the Trademark Office working in isolation of our groups to navigate the troubled waters of identity politics and shifting language and culture, without any sense of cultural competency, consistency in enforcement of rules and only giving the benefit of the doubt to the most privileged members of society,” Tam stated.
The implication here is that reclaiming slurs isn’t just a personal act, but a blow against power structures that determine who and what can benefit from a slur’s existence. This gets complicated in a hurry when it’s unclear what the motivation is.
Take Yellow Fever, the fast-fusion restaurant in California that caught all sorts of flak when it made national headlines after partnering with Whole Foods. The baggage around that phrase hasn’t dissipated since it was initially weaponized for Asian exotification, and it ultimately didn’t matter much that Yellow Fever was owned by a Korean-American couple — the involvement of a brand synonymous with white gentrification ruined the optics from the get-go. Some observers concluded that the phrase “yellow fever” should exist “in a museum” rather than as a reclamation project.
Meanwhile, I can’t shake the feeling that even a brash, failed attempt at remixing historical insults still seems like progress, especially with one as complicated as “yellow.” Early European travelers and anthropologists actually considered East Asians to be white, according to Michael Keevak, a professor at National Taiwan University. That view changed as it became clearer that Asians weren’t merely submitting to European systems of trade, religion and culture, but rather competing with them.
By the 18th century, Western anthropologists started classifying “yellow” alongside white, black and red (for Native Americans) as a racial identifier. “Yellow” didn’t describe skin color so much as affirmed that Asians weren’t “normal,” with the color alluding to both sickness and exotic beauty, Keevak argues. The invention of the so-called “Yellow Peril” at the turn of the 20th century was the final nail in codifying xenophobic attitudes toward Asians, even as Asian people grappled with the notion that their vastly different cultures could be generalized in this way.
Taking that back feels like power to me and someone like NPR’s Kat Chow, who mulled her own appreciation of reclaiming “yellow”: “The idea of calling myself yellow stirs in the pit of my stomach, the same place where bellyaches and excitement form. It feels at once radical and specific,” she wrote. “Though it’s a slur — in fact, because it’s a slur — it’s the type of word that could force people to face its long, storied history of racism and resistance directly, every time they hear it.”
And it’s what convinced director Jon M. Chu to ask Coldplay, again and again, for the rights to use their ballad “Yellow” in a pivotal scene of his smash cross-cultural hit Crazy Rich Asians. Coldplay rejected his request at first, likely out of nervousness given it had landed in hot water in the past for lurid music videos that ginned up Orientalist tropes. But in a letter addressed directly to Chris Martin and Co., Chu argued that his desire to use “Yellow” was an act of self-affirmation.
“My whole life, I’ve had a complicated relationship with the color yellow. From being called the word in a derogatory way throughout grade school, to watching movies where they called cowardly people yellow, it’s always had a negative connotation in my life,” Chu wrote. “That is, until I heard your song. … It immediately became an anthem for me and my friends and gave us a new sense of pride we never felt before.”
The idea that Asian Americans could reclaim an umbrella slur like “yellow” is far from a given — over the centuries, Asian societies have always had their own prejudices against each other. The history of Asia is fraught with invasions, war crimes and cultural rivalries. East Asian racism toward poorer, darker-skinned communities is real. And in the U.S., Asian Americans have the highest wealth inequality of any racial group. Amid all this division, it’s hard to picture how reclaiming language works when you’re juggling a dozen languages and cultural histories. Then again, that didn’t prevent student activists in the 1960s and 1970s from creating a label and diaspora of “Asian American” in a time when such intersectionality didn’t exist.
Being that I’m Korean-American, when I think of Asian slurs, I think of Gook, one of my favorite films of 2017. I spoke to writer-director-star Justin Chon about why he decided to tell a story about two Korean brothers living and working in a primarily black and Mexican neighborhood. I was especially curious why he titled it something that makes a lot of people uncomfortable when they have to reference the film. Chon laughed about it being a risky marketing move, but also said that triggering conversation was the point in more ways than one.
“Life in America is a topic of money as opposed to social issues,” Chon said of the typical Korean immigrant perspective. “There’s not much talk about how the system may be unfair to them racially. They just put their heads down. It’s younger people like you and me trying to figure out what it’s all supposed to mean, and feel like, once some roots are down.”
The idea of keeping your head down fits neatly into the myth of the model minority, and it colors how we think of ideas like “respect” and “integrity” when young Asian Americans interrogate our place in the American experiment. Growing up, my parents tried hard to downplay the problems they had faced as immigrants with broken English. To be immune to the insults, side-eye and casual mistreatment was to be strong; to fixate on America’s structural problems was to be distracted. But maybe past trauma can become something else; new research suggests that considering how to reappropriate slurs and ultimately neutralize them can help progress discourse for everyone. Maybe connecting the ties between these traumas — between Jap and gook and chink and slant and yellow — is exactly what a young Asian diaspora needs in a post-#MeToo, post-Black Lives Matter world.
For Hirata, there is some irony in that Tobias and early American audiences likely didn’t see the word “Jap” as a slur, but rather as a convenient shorthand for a new and fascinating group of people. The toxicity of the word today has more to do with World War II, after all, than any other phase of American history, he points out.
The language of racism, though, never really goes away — it just changes, slowly, until we either learn to whisper about it or forget the origin, even as the words remain.