Lafcadio Hearn called the Japanese woman a creature “shaped for the service of gods and men.” John Lennon divorced his English wife and took to eating stinky natto (fermented soybeans) to be with Yoko Ono. Major League baseball legend Pete Rose is famed for hooking up with a much younger Korean Playboy model while separated (but not legally divorced) from his wife of 20 years. There’s no need for serious digging; just scrape the surface of history and there are plenty of examples of Caucasian men who showed the symptoms of a phenomenon known as “yellow fever.”
Now a sizzling six-part series titled “They’re All So Beautiful” on that very topic is being released online on April 1. Despite being created by Asian women — it’s directed by Debbie Lum and coproduced by Makiko James — the series is in no way a diatribe against white men attracted to Asian women. There is, however, a sense that it’s about time the tables were turned. Surely the exotic objects of men’s desire are entitled to do some analyzing about who they are and what exactly is behind all the attention they get.
Anne Ishii, spokesperson for the series and a bicultural professional, says, “I think of yellow fever as both a white man’s burden and a fetish.”
In 1980s Los Angeles, her first-generation Japanese family had to face the racist backlash of Japan’s bubble economy (this was the era when U.S. politicians trashed Toshiba TVs on Capitol Hill and New York real estate was being gobbled up by Japanese developers), and Ishii longed for life in Japan, even though that implied a different blight, as her relatives in Chiba were Korean; a whole other can of worms. Still, Ishii says, “I’d have rather been a disenfranchised Korean in a Japanese suburb than an Asian in Los Angeles.”
But as L.A. became a hub for Korean businesses and immigrants, Ishii rose to prominent hottie status. In high school she was wildly popular; in college she was an “exotic wonder.” Her list of laughable pickup lines generated by white men panting — panting! — for a date with an Asian babe is long, varied and hilarious. “Asian women taste better” is just one of the not-so-subtle recurring utterances she heard.
On this side of the Pacific, the 1980s and ’90s marked a period of ethnic-inferiority complex run amok. All the fashion magazines here at the time featured white models and lectured Japanese readers on what exactly was wrong with us (too thin in the wrong places, short legs, slitty eyes, etc., etc.), and why gentlemen all over the globe preferred leggy blondes. Back then, a reasonably pretty white girl from Ohio could casually board a plane, land in Tokyo and by the end of the week make $8,000 posing for fashion magazine Anan. Japanese models, on the other hand, were not in demand anywhere. Instead they were often hired by escort agencies for the benefit of foreign businessmen.
The self-imposed racial inequality going on in Japan was so bad there should have been U.N. sanctions! Maybe that’s a bit extreme, but we Japanese accepted our apparently inferior position as the norm.
In the past 10 or so years, however, the scales have tipped. Japanese models and actresses now adorn magazine covers, and Korean pop culture came in with a vengeance and fueled the fire of an adoration of the Asian Woman.
Hair and makeup artist Kazuo Watanabe, who has been an avid “Asian-woman watcher” for three decades, says, “The Japanese finally woke up to the fact that Northeast Asian skin, hair and a slim body are all things to be cherished.”
The good news was that as Japanese women gained in confidence, they were less likely to be flattered by advances from white men enamoured by their exotica.
Take the case of 42-year-old Mika (she prefers not to disclose her last name), who runs her own beauty consultation firm and is married to her second American husband.
“The first time was to an English teacher, 20 years ago,” she says. “I was so flattered by his interest, so grateful that he found me beautiful. But then I got disappointed by his lack of ambition. I married my second husband for the right reasons — we’re wonderful business partners, we respect and understand each other and we share the same hobbies. Nationality or differentness doesn’t come into it anymore. It’s such a relief for me.”
On the other hand, that “differentness” could be the driving force behind yellow fever, says “Tokyo Vice” author Jake Adelstein. Having been in Japan over 20 years, Adelstein says, “I believe yellow fever comes from the male ability to project onto women their own fantasies of the ideal woman, which is very possible when there is a language barrier in place that makes communication itself mysterious. If you can’t understand what a woman is asking for or she doesn’t overtly ask for things in a Western way, such a woman may seem less demanding.”
Oh, demanding! Yes, we’ve heard that demanding is bad, real bad. Making no demands is what sets the Asian woman apart and makes her so desirable, according to Hearn and his set (though apparently, Hearn was unattractive and unpopular back in the West and only got to enjoy the company of accommodating females after his arrival in Japan). But does adopting the clichéd persona of a submissive Asian woman really work?
“Not in this day and age,” says Mika. “Men — whether they’re Japanese or foreign — want intelligent, self-assertive women with plenty of sense. When the economy is this bad, being submissive gets a woman nowhere, regardless of her skin color.”
While Ishii has this to say: “Asian men have pointed out that women with yellow-fever complaints are those who date white men, suggesting we’re the proponents of the very thing we complain about.”
And though she admits there’s some truth to this, it’s also a bald fact that “Asian women with white men simply become exposed to the more galling pickup lines.”
After spending a chunk of her adult life battling those lines, Ishii says, “If I’ve learned one thing in the last 10 years, it’s been simply to patronize better bars where guys don’t hit on women. I fell in love with the white guy I’m dating now in just such a bar.”
I want to know: Where is this bar and can we have one in Tokyo?
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5