There is a perfume called Mitsouko, by Guerlain. According to the brand’s website, the perfume carries a “mysterious, balanced, velvety” scent, named after a character from a 1909 French novel La Bataille (The Battle). Written by Claude Farrère, a friend of perfumer Jacques Guerlain, the story is set in Nagasaki during the war between Russia and Japan (1904-05) and tells of the romance of Mitsouko, a wife of a Japanese naval officer, who has an affair with a British officer stationed in Japan. “Guerlain had the incredible and daring idea of combining a chypre with a very fruity peach note, giving this fragrance all of its modernity”, the website explains. The perfume was released in 1919 when the European fashion scene was calling for the liberation of white women in order to abandon the convention of perfumes. But it was also the resonance of Japonisme, the aspiration for the foreign taste. Mitsouko, with its beautiful, dignified and ‘exotic’ image, quickly became a popular product. Despite the original inspiration, it was worn by all genders, including French novelist Anaïs Nin, as well as Jean Harlow, Charlie Chaplin, and Ingrid Bergman in Hollywood.
Having served as a naval officer stationed in Asian countries, Claude Farrère succeeded in an accurate portrayal of a Japan striving for modernisation. The novel depicts the struggles of the Japanese elites in learning from the West while keeping the Orientalist fantasies of lustful brothels and opium dens. In the story, a French painter regrets that Mitsouko and her husband prefer dresses to kimonos, biscuits to Japanese sweets, and Western furniture to shoji screens. It seems to reflect the European view of the modernisation of Japan as well as the lack of its civilisation, with Mitsouko’s body as its agent.
After ending its isolationist foreign policy in the second half of the 19th century, Japan transformed itself into a global force, absorbing modernity, namely, militarisation, colonialism and imperialism. At the same time, with the growing number of migrant labourers from East Asia to the Americas, East Asia as an emerging world power became a threat for the Western elites. Consequently, the discrimination against East Asians, the hatred of foreigners and immigrants based on racism became a phenomenon in the West, now known as the Yellow Peril. The typical images of the romanticised characters in the fictions reinforced a racialized and gendered stereotype of East Asian bodies as the inferior Other with Yellow Peril ideology as a background.
There was another woman with almost the same name, Mitsuko, who was born to a merchant family in Tokyo in 1874. By a curious coincidence, she later married Heinrich Coudenhove-Kalergi, a diplomat of the Austro-Hungarian Empire seconded to Japan. In 1896, they decided to leave for Europe. She is said to have enjoyed the salon culture of Vienna, although this may have been exaggerated and euphemised as a Cinderella story of a happy Japanese woman married to a European noble family. It is not clear whether the romance was shared equally between Heinrich and Mitsuko. Nevertheless, in contrast to most cases of Western men hiding their marriage status in their native countries and having a local Japanese lover (as we see in M_a_d_a_m_e_ _B_u_t_t_e_r_f_l_y_), the couple officially registered their marriage in Tokyo – despite the opposition from both families due to racial and class differences. As only Catholics were allowed to marry the Coudenhove-Kalergi family, Mitsuko converted to Catholicism at Heinrich’s request. Emigrating to Ronsberg (present-day Poběžovice in the Czech Republic), Mitsuko had to be educated thoroughly in the European lifestyle, behaviours and manners. But at the age of thirty-two, she was suddenly left a widow with seven children. Bearing the responsibility of raising her children as sophisticated aristocrats, the dutiful wife became a disciplinarian mother. When her second son Richard was eighteen and found love in the Jewish Austrian stage-actress Ida Roland, a thirty years old single mother of two, Mitsuko could not accept their romance. Anyhow, no one could ever imagine what impact their encounter would have on the history of Europe.
In 1923, with Ida’s support, Richard published a book entitled “Pan-Europe”, the earliest unification movement of Europe, which much later led to the foundation of the European Union. It should not be dismissed however that Richard envisaged a different future for Europe, seeing the world as seized by five powers; the Americas, Britain and its colonies, Russia, the growing East Asia, and Europe including its colonies in Africa. Just like Yellow Peril, his political stance was nothing other than Eurocentrism. His philanthropy and ambition were based on the then accepted colonialist and aristocratic stance, believing in the foundation of Europe as Christianity with Greek civilisation as its origin. However, his cosmopolitan vision for the future later conflicted with Nazism, and Richard and Ida fled Austria right before the Anschluss. In a harsh twist of fate, they left Europe and went into exile in New York in 1940. The fact that Richard and Ida arrived safely in New York, first and foremost, premised on his Western appearance and his title of Count. Had he gone by his birth name Eijiro, things might have turned out differently. As Japan was an enemy of the United States, many Japanese and people of Japanese descent were deported to concentration camps in the U.S. Amid the tension of the wars, Mitsuko closed her life in Vienna in 1941.
Despite slight differences in spelling, Mitsouko and Mitsuko are pronounced the same. While one lived in the world of fiction, the other lived in reality. Following their stories, what emerges is the intricate entanglements of global histories through transnational mobility within the matrix of world power where nationalism, patriotism, colonialism, imperialism, and eurocentrism intersect. This is the epitome of today’s neoliberal, global capitalist society that consumes commodities on the basis of an unbalanced exchange and exploitation. History is not repeating itself. Rather, it is a matter of where the global matrix of power is stabilised.
Born and raised in the harbour city of Kobe, artist Michikazu Matsune has been living in Vienna since the 1990’s. In his performance Mitsouko & Mitsuko, Matsune confesses his admiration for what we call Europe. However, he continues, he realised it was just an illusion. He himself cannot escape his body, characterised as an East Asian male with a Japanese name. And so, he stands on stage and urges the audience to question Europe – to unlearn the fictions of Europe and Asia that most of us have once absorbed. When the audience is challenged to fall in love with him on stage, or conversely, when they are gazed upon by him from the stage, or when they are encouraged to imagine through his body the forgotten Viennese actress Ida Roland, the spectators are confronted with the orientations within their own gaze. Matsune’s question “Are you ready to leave Europe?” is a reflection on those who were/are forced to leave Europe for various reasons. And, at the same time, it is a question for those who were/are going to Europe. And, for the EU itself, an imaginary entity on the verge of collapse. To gaze, to desire, to fall in love. Or to escape. It is the ontological search on the power relations that lie behind them. We are on a never-ending journey to re-imagine histories that, like smoke, are visible only fleetingly but keep haunting the present.
Michikazu Matsune is an artist who creates works in his personal method by merging documentarist and conceptualist practices. He utilizes diverse approaches, which range from stage-performances and interventions in public spaces to making text-paintings. Characterized as both critical and playful at the same time, his work examines the tension around our cultural ascriptions and social identifications in our globalized contemporary society. Matsune was born in Kobe and has been based in Vienna since the 1990s. www.michikazumatsune.info
The original version of this text was published for the performance Mitsouko & Mitsuko by Michikazu Matsune, presented at Wiener Festwochen, 2021.
We met Matsune thanks to the critic’s residencies by Verein K in September 2021.