The title The Teahouse of the August Moon suggests the central theme of this play. When Fisby asks, “Why an August moon?” Sakini answers that “all moons good but August moon little older—little wiser,” a way of saying that, in spite of an initial lack of cross-cultural understanding, it is possible for East and West to learn from each other, given enough time and the willingness to learn.
On the Okinawan side, several important cultural concepts, cloaked in satire and irony, are addressed. Saying one thing and meaning another (honne and tatamae) is crucial to understanding the Okinawan mind. Thus, when Sakini calls Colonel Purdy a “very wise man” because he can predict the weather, the audience understands that Sakini is, in fact, making fun of Purdy’s ignorance of the weather patterns on the island. Language differences that influence ways of thinking are also addressed. Unlike English, the Luchuan dialect has no future tense; thus, when Sakini answers Fisby’s question about how long the ride to Tobiki will take by saying, “Oh—not know until we arrive, boss,” he is not merely being funny; he is reflecting a cultural difference.
Beneath the humor, the perception of Americans as wasteful is conveyed in a scene in which the jeep that is to take Fisby to Tobiki ends up carrying an old lady, her daughter, her grandchildren, some goats, much baggage, and an old man. To the villagers, it is a wasteful luxury to use the jeep only for Fisby and his staff when many needs can be met with a single trip. In numerous ways, the play conveys the message that causing someone to lose face must be avoided. Though Sakini seems to be manipulative, he also upholds his cultural orientation when he is the go-between to save face with various villagers: The old woman on the jeep is the mayor’s grandmother; Fisby must receive gifts before delivering his speech; the loser of a wrestling match is declared winner, though everyone knows better.
Because Fisby does not understand the important concept of on (obligation), he interprets as bribery the idea of appointing as village officials those who have given him the best gifts. The precedence of the aesthetic over the pragmatic is demonstrated in the villagers’ suggesting that watching the sun set is more important than meeting to learn more about democracy.
The play also speaks to a tendency of Americans to impose their customs on others without understanding the rationale for native ways. Purdy advocates impracticable requirements for the Okinawans regarding laundry. Similarly, issuing one order that will require disobeying another satirizes inept policy-making: Sakini cannot keep his oversized socks pulled up and hurry at the same time. Colonel Purdy is made to look ridiculous in other ways. His ego is deflated when he realizes that Captain Fisby, supposedly the “cream of the Army’s geniuses,” is in fact a misfit rejected elsewhere. Purdy makes signs for every possible situation, but he looks at a map upside down when he tells Sakini, a native of Tobiki, where it is located.
The theory of democracy is perceived differently by the American and the Okinawan: To the angry townswomen, real democracy would not allow Lotus Blossom to have all kinds of beauty enhancements that they may not also have. The true role of the geisha is not understood by Fisby; he must learn that a prostitute is not an exact counterpart. By the end of the play, misperceptions of both sides have been shared, and the well-meaning, if bungling, efforts of the Americans are complemented by the ability of the Okinawans, with...
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a long history of occupation by foreign forces, to adapt in order to survive.
Democratization This play is set during the Allied Occupation of Japan following World War II During that period, from 1945 to 1952, the United States instituted a policy of democratization, according to which the military was to oversee the establishment of some form of democratic or representational government. In the play, Captain Fisby is sent to the tiny village of Tobiki, on Okinawa Island, to carry out the process of democratization In his opening monologue, the character of Sakini, an Okinawan interpreter for the U S. military, explains,"We tell little story to demonstrate splendid example of benevolent assimilation of democracy by Okinawa.'' Colonel Purdy explains to Fisby that"my job is to teach these natives the meaning of democracy, and they're going to learn democracy if I have to shoot every one of them."
Among other things, Purdy instructs Fisby that "your first job when you get there will be to establish a municipal government." Purdy also instructs Fisby to "organize a Ladies' League for Democratic Action." Upon arrival in Tobiki, Fisby informs SaMni that "Plan B," which provides instructions for the process of democratization,"calls for a lecture on the ABC s of democracy.'' He asks Sakini to explain to the villagers "that we intend to lift the yoke of oppression from their shoulders " When asked by the villagers to explain democracy, Fisby stammers, "Well, it's a system of self-determination. It's—it's the right to make the wrong choice." Fisby then goes about instructing the villagers to appoint a chief of Agriculture and chief of Police. Fisby at first balks at the seemingly irrational basis on which the men for these jobs are chosen, but comments, somewhat ironically that "no one can say this isn't self-determination."
In the second act, Sakini, in addressing the audience, refers to Tobiki as a "seat of democracy." But Fisby's efforts to implement "Plan B" seem to go awry when the villagers use the democratic process to vote for "geisha lessons" for all the women and to build a cha ya, or teahouse, for the village. When Fisby attempts to protest, the villagers use the argument that they are exercising democracy in these decisions. Sakini explains to him that the villagers "say they just held meeting in democratic fashion and majority agree on resolution'' to build a teahouse. And, when Fisby protests, Sakini reminds him, "But you tell them the will of majority is law " Thus, the villagers accurately take on the values of "self-determination" represented by democracy although the outcome of this process is much different from that intended by the U.S. military as outlined in "Plan B."
Industry In addition to democracy, Fisby is assigned to establish industry m Tobiki to "make them self-supporting. '' Fisby learns of the traditional crafts of Tobiki as the villagers each present him with a gift, including a cricket cage and a fine, handcrafted, lacquered cup. This detail is in fact culturally accurate, as lacquer ware is indeed one of the traditional crafts of the Okinawa islands. The notion of industry, however, is at odds with the values of a traditional craft. Mr. Oshira, who has made the lacquered cup, explains to Fisby that it is a skill passed on from father to son, a part of his family heritage. Sakini describes the fine detail involved in the making of the cup, pointing out that it is "thin as paper, carved from one block of wood. Then painted many times with red lacquer," with a gold fish painted inside. Nonetheless, Fisby suggests that they set up an industry and mass-produce the cups to market as "alostart," Fisby suggests that they "set up machines and turn them out by the gross," but Mr. Oshira explains, "I take pride in making one cup at a time.... How can I take pride in work of machine?"
This exchange demonstrates the process by which industry, and mass-production, as practiced by American capitalism, undermines the value of traditional skills and traditional works of art. Although they follow Fisby's intentions, the villagers fail to market any of their traditional crafts. Fisby then hits on the idea of mass-producing the locally made, traditional sweet-potato brandy to the nearby military bases. He calls the business The Cooperative Brewing Company of Tobiki. This proves an extremely successful industry by which the village of Tobiki prospers.