Wednesday, November 12, 2003Why are activists, led by the National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum, mounting a protest against Bonzai, a ritzy Seattle sushi restaurant?
Because Bonzai stages a popular monthly "Naked Sushi Night," a buffet-cum-performance art spectacle featuring sushi served from the Saran-wrapped torsos of live female models sprawled on tables. This idea wasn't Bonzai's, however; the live sushi-tray-girl concept originated in Japan and has been around for some time (those of a certain age will recall The Tubes' "Sushi Girl.").
"It's dehumanizing, the manner in which people are buying and selling sushi to be eaten off a woman's body. It's dehumanizing to be treated as a plate." says Cherry Cayabyab, president of the local chapter of NAPAWF.
Is naked sushi such a horrible thing? Maybe yes, maybe no; personally, I say "no," considering the rest of news we see on a daily basis - but a closer look at the debate's interplay of social, ethnic, and gender dynamics is revealing. Consider this alternate scenario: what if the live nude model from whom diners chopstick maki rolls were a white - or Asian - male?
Who would be most likely to patronize such a display? Or, more importantly, who would organize a protest? I can easily visualize the white-sushi-boy-tray concept marketed as either a fanciful "Ladies' Night Out" or a decadent Studio 54-type gay bar centerpiece. Now change the stage a bit - the naked sushi model is a Black man. This opens up an entirely different can of sexual and racial worms. If the sushi model were a white female, "Naked Sushi Night" collapses into a vat of dreadfully poor taste and fringe fetishism - but we could probably be convinced to see the display as a sort of Bohemian "art," and we probably wouldn't see an organized protest.
It's only when we combine oppressive images that naked sushi takes on its controversial cloak. Not only are the models women, but they are Asian women, who have been endlessly stereotyped as submissive and servile at home and abroad.
I can see how some people might find this display offensive; but remember this isn't a public display. Diners pay for the privilege to take part in "Naked Sushi" in a private, adults-only setting, and the models are willing paid participants - or at least one hopes so. No one seems to claim the naked sushi models are performing under duress.
What the protest organizers don't seem to look at is the possible cost-benefit result of their actions: the publicity they generate will likely create even more demand for "Naked Sushi" - and put Bonzai's business through the roof, exactly the opposite result they hope for. Those offended by naked sushi would never attend in the first place, and it's highly unlikely that a law will be passed banning the event - or that any "Naked Sushi" fans will be shamed into mending their lascivious raw-fish-gobbling ways.