Teaching “The Exotic White Man”
Susan Rimby
Shippensburg University
Case Study Icon
View Primary Source(s):
The Exotic White Man

Even my most intelligent and eager first-year students come to the World History survey course ill prepared for college level work in the discipline. Even students with the best high-school grades often have difficulty thinking critically, analyzing course material, and understanding the roles of women in history. Using primary sources in the World History survey allows me to begin correcting these deficiencies. I generally use a wide variety of documents during a semester, but have had particular success with visual images. Many students are visual learners and thus seem more comfortable working with this type of source.

The Exotic White Man works well in my “World History II: 1500 to the Present” survey course. The image itself is a late 19th-century Japanese color print from a private Dutch art collection. The painting shows four figures—an older female and miniature-sized male in the foreground; a larger male behind them; and a second, younger female in the background. The older woman is kneeling and looking at the smaller male figure, while the younger female is reclining on a bed. Both males are standing. While the women are Japanese and wear traditional kimonos, the males are Caucasians and have full beards. The larger male wears a military uniform with an epaulette on his crotch. The smaller male has the same facial features as the bigger one, but is naked, and his genitals are displayed. The older woman wears a horrified expression, while the younger one looks dazed or tired. The larger man appears alarmed or puzzled. The smaller male dances on one foot.

The Exotic White Man helps me teach two concepts. The images in the painting express a particular and very clear perspective on Japan and its adoption of Western culture. Analyzing the image enables students to understand that people living at the same time and in the same culture can view events and behaviors in conflicting ways. Secondly, because women are central characters in the print, students can use the image to explore the gendered contexts of Westernization and imperialism.

I use The Exotic White Man about two-thirds of the way into our 15-week semester. It’s one of many documents studied as part of a unit on 19th-century Western imperialism and its impact on Asia and Africa. By this point, we have already studied the Opium War, as well as European encroachments in the Middle East and Africa. We’ve also spent considerable time and effort reading about and discussing gender. Through topics ranging from European witchcraft persecutions to the impact of the Koran on Muslim women, students have come to understand that gender matters in history.

The Exotic White Man works well in a lesson entitled “The Meiji Restoration and Westernization of Japan.” I start the 50-minute class period by reviewing what students learned about the Tokugawa Shogunate earlier in the semester. Next, I lecture on the Meiji Restoration (1868-1912), emphasizing the difficulties faced by the Shogunate during the 19th century, Matthew Perry’s arrival in Japan, and the subsequent overthrow of the shogun. I continue by explaining how the Emperor Mutsuhito and his advisors and allies selectively adapted Western technology and culture. At the conclusion of the lecture, students are convinced that Japan has made a wise decision and has avoided the mistakes that embroiled China in the disastrous Opium War. All of this takes roughly 30 minutes.

At this point, I place students in their study groups and have them look at The Exotic White Man. I place students into four person study groups at the beginning of the semester, so by the time we encounter the Meiji Restoration, my classes are comfortable working in this fashion. I’ve tried both giving students the source cold and assigning it beforehand. The latter approach has not resulted in any significant improvement in class discussion. Students seem to need the lecture information in order to place the image in its proper context.

I generally ask students the following questions that I’ve written on the chalkboard ahead of time, and strategically covered with a screen.

— Who are the various people in the print?

— What do they appear to be doing?

— Is the artist pro- or anti-Western? What evidence leads you to believe this?

— What is the artist saying about the impact of Westernization and imperialism on women? How might the impact of imperialism be different for Japanese men?

Students spend approximately ten minutes analyzing the print. I’ve found that giving students too much time for group work inevitably leads to unproductive use of time. I circulate while students work, answering questions, facilitating discussions, and reinforcing the good comments that emanate from the groups.

If students have trouble getting started, I ask them to focus on the facial expressions, sizes, and ages of the figures in the print. Students usually remark that the reclining, younger woman looks tired or dazed. I’ll respond with, “When in a woman’s life might she feel that way? Why might she be lying in bed while a lot of activity goes on in the room about her?” I’ll ask group members to also hypothesize about the relationship of the other characters to the young woman, and why the smaller male is naked. Students generally conclude that the larger man is the woman’s husband or sexual partner, the older woman her mother or midwife, and the smaller male her newborn son. They conclude that the younger woman has just gone through labor and delivery.

Students often have difficulty, as well, with the third question: “Is the artist pro- or anti-Western?” To help students, I ask them to describe the facial expressions and body language of the characters. I’ll ask them, too, to contrast the mixed-race “baby” in the print with newborns they’ve seen. No class member has ever seen an infant with a full beard or a newborn that could balance on one foot. Students therefore conclude that the artist has negative feelings about liaisons between Western men and Japanese women, and the offspring born from these relationships.

We follow up the small group work with a whole-class discussion of the print and the corresponding questions. The discourse flows in the manner discussed above. If memory serves correctly, no students ever argued that the artist had a pro-Western perspective. Regarding the fourth question, students believe that Westernization leads Japanese women into sexual relationships with European and American men. At this point I ask them if at least some of these relationships might be compelled rather than voluntary. When I meet with blank stares, I ask students to comment on the adult male’s clothing. They frequently interpret the military uniform, particularly the epaulette on the crotch, as a symbol of force. They usually understand that Japanese men would be less likely to have liaisons with white women. Students state that this is because smaller number of European and American females were involved in the Westernization process, and because Victorian patriarchy would have allowed few opportunities for Asian men and Caucasian women to socialize, much less engage in sexual activity.

When time permits, as a followup to the whole-class discussion, I’ve asked the students to write an alternative title for the print. The most creative, and those with the best critical thinking skills, generally enjoy doing this. Less able students defer to other group members at this point in the exercise. Previous titles have included “This is What Happens When You Dilute Our Blood,” “Traitor to The Race,” and “The Mongrel Beast.”

My students have learned to consider diverse perspectives on historical events through their analysis of The Exotic White Man. The print and the corresponding study questions get them to appreciate that not all Japanese citizens favored Emperor Mutsuhito’s Westernization campaign. They’ve also learned to think about the way in which gender matters in history. After analyzing this particular print, one that criticizes sexual relations between Western men and Japanese women, my students clearly understand that imperialism has a gendered meaning. This becomes particularly apparent later in the semester, when the class reads Chinua Achebe’s classic novel of imperialism, Things Fall Apart.1 As the students read the book, they quickly notice that Igbo women often convert to Christianity more quickly than men. Furthermore, they are able to describe the appeal Western religion holds for low-status females living in a patriarchy.

When using this source I continue to be struck by how visual contemporary college students are. Raised with not only television, but also with home video and personal computers, my first-year students are better able to comprehend pictures than the written word. I continue to utilize other types of primary sources throughout the semester—diary entries, letters, and excerpts from government documents—and insist that my students develop critical reading skills. I find, however, that the occasional use of a visual image engages students and makes document analysis less intimidating. Furthermore, skills such as identifying a point of view and using evidence to formulate a defensible position transfer from visual images to other types of sources.

I’ve now used this print for half a dozen semesters and will continue to use it in the future. I’ve learned to give students sufficient background via lecture, so that they will be able to contextualize and analyze the image appropriately. Circulating during small group work and asking lots of questions is also necessary. This lesson works particularly well when students have collaborated together previously and have had lots of experiences analyzing a variety of primary sources.

Our south-central Pennsylvania students tend to be conservative, and some have been a bit embarrassed by the anatomically correct, male “infant”. After a few nervous giggles, my classes settle down and concentrate on the work at hand. If students ever write off-color titles about the print, they have the good taste not to share them during our whole class discussion. A high-school teacher, on the other hand, might want to avoid immature behavior or parental concerns, and choose a different source to teach about imperialism and gender.

1 Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart (New York: Knopf, 1992).