During the visit of Japan’s Crown Prince Fushimi to England in 1907, Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado was banned for six weeks by the Lord Chamberlain, who was concerned that its frivolous portrayal of the emperor would offend the Japanese—who had recently entered an alliance with the British. At the same time, British military bands were instructed not to play arrangements from the operetta although Japanese bands on Japanese ships in the Medway River were doing so.
The operetta had been presented once in Yokohama, Japan, under a different title, but was then banned in Japan until 1946, when it was produced by American occupation forces. Japanese reactions to the operetta had been mixed from its premiere; some Japanese dignitaries found the material grossly insulting, while others were not offended. Gilbert’s sources for his libretto included a Japanese exhibition held in London during 1884-1885, but he created a mythical Japan merely based on the concept of emperor worship, not intended to denigrate a revered being or his surrounding culture.
Ko-Ko is now the Lord High Executioner in the town of Titipu in old Japan, and to his courtyard come many knights and lords to flatter and cajole the holder of so dread and august an office. One day a stranger appears at Ko-Ko’s palace, a wandering minstrel who carries his guitar on his back and a sheaf of ballads in his hand. The Japanese lords are curious about his presence there, for he is obviously not of noble birth and therefore can expect no favors from powerful Ko-Ko. At last, Pish-Tush questions him about his business with Ko-Ko. Introducing himself as Nanki-Poo, the minstrel announces that he seeks Yum-Yum, the beautiful ward of Ko-Ko, with whom he had fallen in love while playing the second trombone in the Titipu town band a year before. He heard that Ko-Ko is to be executed for flirting, a capital offense in the land of the Mikado, and since Ko-Ko is to die, he hopes that Yum-Yum will be free to marry him.
Pish-Tush corrects the rash young man, telling him that the Mikado had revoked the death sentence of Ko-Ko and raised him at the same time to the great and noble rank of the Lord High Executioner of Titipu. Nanki-Poo is crestfallen, for he realizes that the ward of an official so important would never be allowed to marry a lowly minstrel. Pooh-Bah, another nobleman, secretly resents that he, a man of ancient lineage, has to hold minor office under a man like Ko-Ko, previously a mere tailor. Pooh-Bah, however, is interested in any opportunity for graft; he is even willing to betray the so-called state secret of Ko-Ko’s intention to wed his beautiful ward. Pooh-Bah advises Nanki-Poo to leave Titipu and by all means to stay away from Yum-Yum.
Meanwhile, Ko-Ko has been preparing a list of the types of criminals he intends to execute—autograph hunters, people who insist upon spoiling a tête-à-tête, people who eat peppermint and breathe in another’s face, the man who praises every country but his own, and apologetic statesmen. Uncertain of the privileges of his new office, the Lord High Executioner consults the Lord High Everything Else about the money to be spent on his impending marriage. Pooh-Bah advises him, first as private secretary, and gives one...