Japanese Cultural Practices in “Madame Butterfly” Film and their Effects on the Story

Occasionally, creative arts in the form of literature, films, theaters, and television are used to describe the cultural practices and identities of people in various racial groups or countries. Madame Butterfly, in particular, has a storyline that clearly reflects the Japanese cultural practices of duty, honor, and shame. The film is constructed around Butterfly, a 15-year-old girl who falls in love with Pinkerton an American captain (My Secret Garden 1). After disappearing for three years, Pinkerton comes back to his legally married wife from America to collect the child he bore with Butterfly thus leading to her death due to shame. Therefore, the following response will discuss how different Japanese cultures are represented in this film and the effects they have on the entire storyline.

Historically, the Japanese culture was embedded in the moral codes of upholding honor or duty, and a breach of any of them could lead to death in a bid to eradicate shame. Therefore, the core expectation of all Japanese people is to avoid shame at all costs (McCrann 7). People from Japan perceive that a person’s behavior has a greater impact on the wider society. Therefore, the Japanese uphold that it is every person’s duty to live by societal expectations so as to avoid shaming either one’s family or the entire Japanese community.

Consequently, Madame Butterfly’s story is divided into three acts in which each one of them clearly illustrates the existence of honor, duty, and shame in one way or another. In the first act, the protagonist Butterfly refuses to honor her religion by marrying a foreign man and secretly converting to Christianity (Secret Garden 1). As a result, of this shameful act her uncle attends her wedding uninvited and goes on to curse her for her selfish actions. It is here that the story shows how the extent to which breaking the law affects society and an individual Japanese person. While her clansmen suffered from shame Butterfly suffers from denouncement from her entire family where she is only left with her friend Suzuki alone to care for her as the rest of the household leaves her alone.

In the second act, the moral culture of duty has been well illustrated through Butterfly’s ability to loyally uphold her marriage vows even after the departure of her husband for three years. In the film, Butterfly refuses to marry again, despite the constant insistence of the marriage broker and her friend Suzuki to remarry as the chances of Pinkerton’s return seemed almost impossible (My Secret Garden 1). However, Butterfly’s patience and loyalty yield eventually as Pinkerton comes back to Japan after three years of disappearing on his newly wedded wife.

It is in the third act that the Japanese culture of shame is clearly demonstrated.  It is here that Butterfly learns of her husband’s betrayal which leads to immense disappointment in her as Pinkerton’s journey was not meant for her instead he had come along with his American wife to take away the son they had born together (My Secret Garden 1). To eradicate this shame Butterfly resolves to take away her life as the culture expects from a person who has not lived as per the expectations of the Japanese way of life. Notably, Butterfly’s death was propagated by disownment from both her clansmen and her husband who had lured her away from her culture only to come back with another wife.  

Originally, Madame Butterfly film intended to be a romantic opera in an American-Japanese relationship. However, the broad representation of the Japanese culture in the movie has adversely affected the entire storyline as it is now a misinterpreted artwork that modern-day people relate to the challenges faced by Asian women.  In this film, Japanese cultures are seen as cloaked and inferior, thus affecting women from Eastern countries, but it is a false misrepresentation by western cultures. Notably, this film significantly reinforces and perpetuates the fact that women from the east do not have a gender identity and they are not allowed to make their decisions even on sensitive issues like those revolving around marriage. Through the recurrent airing of this film, the Orientalism approach is continually resurrected to show the absurdness of Eastern cultures and their effects on the female gender. For that reason, Madame Butterfly’s storyline has continued to propagate misconstrued beliefs that Asian women are inferior as perceived from the past until to date.  

From Madame Butterfly film clearly shows that Japan is embedded in a culture of duty, honor, and shame. In each act one or two of these cultural virtues are represented through the actions of Butterfly, the main protagonist. Honor is expressed through her refusal to adhere to the marriage obligations of her culture. On the other hand, duty has been seen through her ability to uphold her marriage vows by loyally awaiting her husband’s return for three years. Shame is shown when she takes away her life while her clansmen reject her for refusing to adhere to the required cultural practices. For that reason, the broad representation of Japanese culture in this film has adversely affected the movie’s storyline. It is here that eastern women are perceived as inferior and challenged by their Japanese cultures.


Works Cited

McCrann, Takako. “Shame, Honor, and Duty.” World History. Vol 41 (2007): pp 7.

My Secret Garden. Madame Butterfly by Puccini-Love Duet (Opera Movie, 1995-subtitle).

YouTube. YouTube, 4 March 2010. Web. 24 October 2016.

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