Charles Longfellow and Okakura Kakuzo: Cultural Cross-Dressing in the Colonial Context
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positions: east asia cultures critique 8.3 (2000) 605-636



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Charles Longfellow and Okakura Kakuzo:
Cultural Cross-Dressing in the Colonial Context

Christine M. E. Guth

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In the nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century colonial world, where photography often functioned as a tool of visual surveillance and codification, body markings, physiognomy, and costume were key determinants in fixing identity and underscoring otherness. Photographers working under British colonial authorities in India compiled vast dossiers of the subcontinent's many ethnic groups, classifications based on their distinguishing physical traits and attires. European commercial photographs from the same period essentialized Japanese alterity in the form of samurai and geisha, showing that Japan, though never part of a European colonial empire, was not exempt from these cultural practices. Later, as Japan developed its own empire, its authorities also embraced photography as a potent new technology for documenting and classifying ethnic minorities both within its borders and on the Asian continent. By inscribing Ainus, aboriginal Taiwanese, and Koreans into what Timothy Mitchell has called an “Orientalist exhibitionary [End Page 605] order,” Japan showed the Western world it had become a modern imperialist power.1

Clothing—or the lack thereof—was a primary means of articulating ethnic differences in colonial photography.2 Photographers encouraged their subjects to don the various costumes and accessories that confirmed exotic expectations, even though these were not their customary attire. They further devised quaint and scenic settings that maximized the distance between Western viewers and the subjects they beheld. To achieve the visual effects they desired, photographers even hired artists to hand-paint their products, thus blurring the lines between the photograph as documentary fact and artistic fiction.

Although there is no denying the “disciplinary gaze” of photography, many photographs that appear to inscribe a colonial vision in fact disclose ambivalent meanings not intended by the power behind the camera. Photographic subjects sometimes subverted their assigned social roles through inventive poses, gestures, and facial expressions. Moreover, when this technology was available to the colonized, they often made use of it to try to alter the identities imposed on them by colonial norms. Though often ignored or unknown because they were produced in limited numbers for personal or family use, such photographs constitute valuable and revealing documents in the history of colonial relations. The photographs that I examine here fall into this category, underscoring the potential the camera offered both colonized and colonizer as a creative tool for subverting social and racial stereotypes and creating individual identity.

The focus of this essay is a corpus of photographic portraits of Charles Appleton Longfellow (1844–1893) and Okakura Kakuzo (1862–1913). Taken as a whole this work raises complex and challenging questions about the use of the body and its coverings to articulate social and ethnic differences. Charles Longfellow, the eldest son of the New England poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, was a bohemian who devoted his life to travel in exotic lands, most notably Japan, where he lived from 1871 to 1873 and more briefly in 1885 and 1891, and amassed a significant collection of Japanese art.3 Unlike Longfellow, who is virtually unknown today, the international reputation Okakura Kakuzo enjoyed during his lifetime grew even greater following his death. His professional career included posts at the Tokyo Imperial [End Page 606] Museum and later the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, as well as the directorship of the Tokyo School of Fine Arts (Tokyo Bijutsu Gakko). He also authored numerous influential essays, including The Ideals of the East (1903), The Awakening of Japan (1904), and The Book of Tea (1906), all originally written in English.

I was first drawn to the photographs of these two men because of their shared use of cultural cross-dressing as a strategy of self-presentation. Despite the differences in their nationality, age, professional aspirations, and personal fantasies, both Longfellow and Okakura believed clothing—and I include in this term tattoos that “clothe” the body—to be a powerful aesthetic language that allowed them to transcend time and space. By donning exotic, often provocative...