Japanese Houseboy - WTF?
September 22, 2012 8:45 AM   Subscribe

What is the story behind the pop-cultural trope of the "Japanese Houseboy?"

So this is something you encounter from time to time in midcentury American books, movies, and TV - a house servant who is (apparently, maybe not actually) Japanese. It's often played for a laugh in a racist way. A primary example is the character of Ito in Auntie Mame. But my question is: what reality, if any, does this reflect? Were there large numbers of Japanese people entering household service in the US in the 20s, 30s, 40s? It just doesn't jibe with my understanding of world history, and I'd like to identify any non-fictional resources that indicate this was a real phenomenon, and if possible, describe the historical conditions that gave rise to it.
posted by Miko to Society & Culture (12 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Also, warning: if you're going to first try Googling just "Japanese Houseboy" like I did, you're going to have wade through a loooot of porn results.
posted by Miko at 8:45 AM on September 22, 2012 [5 favorites]

A few starting points (helpful keyword: "domestic")

Mexican women immigrants and Chinese and
Japanese immigrant men had served as domestic servants from the late nineteenth
century up through the 1920s. Yet during the era in question, immigration
from Asia had been curtailed by the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and the
1924 Immigration Act. Moreover, at least 500,000 Mexicans were deported or
repatriated during the Depression. Therefore, there would have been a scarcity
of domestic servants in the San Francisco Bay Area. -- Working on the Domestic Frontier: American Indian Domestic Servants in White Women’s Households in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1920–1940

In 1921, the year Mizutani published his history, 75 percent of the New York issei were engaged in domestic labor, a slight improvement over the 90 percent figure prior to World War I.[21] Given that increased U.S.-Japanese trade attracted larger numbers of Japanese business and bankers to New York, the actual number of domestic workers probably remained unchanged.[22]

The story of Toyohiko Campbell Takami (1875-1945) illustrates how one early immigrant overcame his beginning as a domestic worker.[23] Takami achieved success as a medical doctor with a private practice -- Tokyo Life, New York Dreams

Residential maintenance gardening was pioneered in California in the early twentieth century by Japanese immigrant gardeners who found themselves racially excluded from owning property.... -- Mexican Immigrant Gardeners:
Entrepreneurs or Exploited Workers?

I think this last point is key.
posted by dhartung at 9:01 AM on September 22, 2012 [3 favorites]

In his 1931 graphic novel The Four Immigrants, Henry Yoshitaka Kiyama depicts the experience of Japanese men in California who find themselves only being able to get jobs as houseboys.
posted by Kattullus at 9:11 AM on September 22, 2012 [5 favorites]

JAPANESE HOUSE SERVANTS; Superior in Many Ways to the Average White Girl. National Society of New England Women looks to the Japanese as a possible solution to the so-called "Servant Problem," with a response from the Japanese standpoint. NYT - May 1900.

Surprisingly, no log-in was required to view the article
posted by Lorin at 9:19 AM on September 22, 2012 [3 favorites]

Good answers above, I won't repeat. The other aspect you are missing is that during"mid-century" as you say, will have seen literally hundreds of thousands of American soldiers serving in the military occupation of Japan. My father was there off and on nearly a dozen times from the end of the war in 1945 through various deployments up to the late 50's. In the post-war devastation, and with little functioning economy, it was very common for Japanese citizens to approach servicemen and ask to be employed as houseboys or butlers or valets-- whatever you want to call it. It was seen as a mostly beneficial relationship, since the servants cooked, did laundry, ironed uniforms and spit-shined boots, all for what was to the GI's a very low wage. The beneficial part for the Japanese person was that they wouldn't starve to death-- things were hard there after the war. Even if you didn't have a houseboy yourself (and some lower-ranking military men chose not to) you would certainly be familiar with the system (which still persists today in Korea, where American GI's derisively call them "yobos", although the ideal yobo is female and also offers "other services"). So that is probably a good explanation of how it entered into popular imagination. Remember, this was still the age of conscription, so just about every person who had been in the military had seen this (it existed in Germany as well, only there it was called "frat", short for fraternization). So it was a common stereotype that almost everyone was familiar with, thus the inclusion of these many characters in popular media, who filled the same sort of role that nerdy Urkel would make famous decades later.
posted by seasparrow at 12:01 PM on September 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

In Japan during the occupation army days and up until the late 1960's, "Houseboys" were hired by the military to work on military bases. They served in various areas. A barracks might have several men working there, to collect laundry, shine boots, and generally maintain the barracks.

The custom was to leave dirty boots under the bunk, and laundry in a bag tied to the end of the bunk. Laundry usually was collect two or three times a week, and boots were shined daily. Some barracks contracted the houseboys to make up bunks in the morning, after the soldier went to work. Shined boots were returned in the afternoon before the soldier returned from his duty station, and laundry was folded and placed on the bunk. Starched uniform items were hung, not folded. A laundry list always accounted for all the items that were processed, so that the soldier could keep track.

Soldiers living in barracks stateside did all these chores themselves, soldiers living in Japan didn't. Each building had a Japanese honcho, or foreman. Each soldier paid the honcho a montly fee for these services, typically $10 per month. This was voluntary, although it was the rare individual who'd pass up such a bargain.

Some houseboys worked in the mess hall, often as cooks or prep chefs, as well as dining room workers. Housegirls didn't work in the living bays, and they were not prostitutes. In my units, on Okinawa in 1964, and Northern Japan, 1968-70, houseboys were considered legitimate labor, not servants.

Japanese civilians contracted other jobs on base, for example, as cashiers at the PX, on-base drivers, or groundskeepers for base housing. I never heard of maid services for base housing, but I guess it might have happened.
posted by mule98J at 1:12 PM on September 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for the great answers. To be more specific, I'm interested in Japanese people in domestic service in the US and not on military bases.
posted by Miko at 1:23 PM on September 22, 2012

I don't remember the details, but Julie Otsuka touches on this in The Buddha in the Attic, which is primarily about the experiences of female Japanese immigrants in the first half of the 20th century.
posted by snorkmaiden at 3:23 PM on September 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Residential maintenance gardening was pioneered in California in the early twentieth century by Japanese immigrant gardeners who found themselves racially excluded from owning property.... -- Mexican Immigrant Gardeners: Entrepreneurs or Exploited Workers?

In the movie Chinatown, which takes place in the 1930s, Noah Cross (John Huston) has a Japanese gardener. I wonder what research the screenwriter, Robert Towne, used to establish that detail.
posted by jonp72 at 9:53 AM on September 23, 2012

What an interesting question! There's a Japanese houseboy in James Merrill's poem 'The Summer People':
Ken the Japanese "houseboy"
(Though silver-haired and frail)
Served many a curious hot hors d'oeuvre
And icy cold cocktail.
I hadn't realised that there was a pop-cultural trope around Japanese houseboys in mid-century America. That changes my reading of the poem: I'd always assumed that the heavy quotes around "houseboy" are meant to suggest that Ken and his employer are gay lovers, but maybe not; maybe it just means that Ken is too old to be called a "boy". I'll have to read it again. I have to say that Ken is one of the less successful aspects of the poem: Merrill makes him speak in comically accented Engrish ('Dear Jack-san, now am ord, / Dream of my Kyushu virrage' etc) and he never really emerges out of cliché, which is a pity because in other respects it's one of Merrill's most haunting poems.
posted by verstegan at 3:07 PM on September 23, 2012

Response by poster: Interesting, verstegan - in pop culture this almost always appears as a cliche, with the exaggerated accent, as well.
posted by Miko at 8:18 PM on September 23, 2012

Another prominent pop culture example might be the Green Hornet with his Japanese sidekick/manservant Kato. The radio drama began in 1936.
posted by Rock Steady at 4:09 AM on September 24, 2012

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