When I heard that the theme for the Trinity Hall June Event this year is ‘Tokyo to Kyoto’ it made me really uncomfortable. It’s undeniable that the primary purpose of May Balls is to celebrate the end of exams and pay extortionate prices to do so (a whole different matter in itself). It is not to critically engage with and learn about another culture. I’m not opposed to Japanese culture being celebrated and made visible in Western contexts. I go to the Japan Matsuri every year in London (run by the Japanese Embassy) and really enjoy it as it makes me feel at home with fellow second-generation and diasporic Japanese people. However, the Japan Matsuri celebrates Japanese culture on its own terms, defining it from a Japanese perspective and inviting people from other cultural backgrounds in to get a better idea about what a Japanese matsuri would involve. In the case of this June Event, Japanese culture is being used to serve the purpose of a ‘theme’, rather than being celebrated in its own right and initiated by Japanese people, highlighted in the fact that no member of the Trinity Hall Committee is Japanese. But even if they were to invite Japanese people onto the committee the fact remains that this is an event that happens every year as part of Cambridge tradition and needs a theme to make it exciting. This is what makes it appropriative, and by equating Japanese culture with a theme it commodifies it, and treats my identity as a prop and costume.
A recent email I received from the Anglo-Japanese Society mailing list, presumably recruiting Japanese people who make up the majority of AJS, added to my upset about this event. The email advertised jobs as follows:
*Half on Half Off roles*
Work from 8pm-12.30pm
-Hand out things in queue
-Control sweet stall
-Talk to people
-Work at drinks stall
-Taking polaroid photos
(there are 15 available places)
*Full time roles*
Anyone can apply through the website
If part of society, mention AJS in additional comments
Needs to be done ASAP as we are appointing people soon
Link to applications for full time roles: http://www.thjuneevent.co.uk/employment.html
*One role for one or two hours*
Choose the role from the list above section “Half on Half Off roles” and the number of hours you would like to work
*Participants in Bon Odori (Bon Festival Dance)*
Please see links below for example videos of the Bon Festival Dance and an explanation on the cultural significance of the Dance. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=we3_aDa2Hls https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oZzS_C388Hw http://www.inhamamatsu.com/culture/bon-odori.php
Do not worry if you have never been involved in the Dance before. We can do a practice session together. There is no need to be able to dance from memory: the participants dance in a circle so you can copy what the person in front of you is doing.
*People who would just like to attend in Japanese traditional dress (yukata/happi) or cosplay and not work*
Apparently it was the Anglo-Japanese Society that asked to help out at this event. Despite this, the opportunities advertised do not involve collaboration or cross-cultural communication; it is merely putting Japanese people into pre-assigned roles to make the event look more ‘authentically Japanese’.
Having Japanese people “talk to people” or walk around the event in yukata as part of the theme directly commodifies Japanese culture and objectifies Japanese people, which is inherently dehumanising and offensive. This amplifies and feeds into the history of objectification and fetishisation of Asian people that still persists today.
The Bon Odori explanation is most likely an attempt at cultural sensitivity. However, the issue with this is that, rather than employing people who know ho to perform and have experience performing the dance, the aim is to simply include people who ‘look the part’ regardless of their cultural attachment or prior knowledge of it; their only qualification being their race. This again plays into the idea that Japanese people are merely a spectacle to be viewed for entertainment.
The reason why it is so crucial for Japanese people to be able to define Japanese culture on their own terms is to actively reverse the ideological and material damage done by Orientalism, defined by Edward Said as “the way that the West perceives of – and thereby defines – the East”, translatable in this context to “the way Cambridge perceives of – and thereby defines – Japan”. Orientalism has been labelled by Andrea Smith as one of the three pillars of white supremacy; alongside anti-Blackness and anti-indigenous colonialism. Yet, it seems to be the least discussed, most poorly understood and, most worryingly, underpins anti-Asian racism.
“The Orient” (cultures spanning from the Middle East to Japan) is constructed by the West as separate, passive, eccentric and backwards, whereas “The Occident” is seen as the ideal. This works to create dichotomies between the self and the other, historically used to justify attempts of invasion. People may argue that Japan hasn’t been colonised by the West so why is this relevant? Stereotypes of “Oriental” people have been applied to Middle-Eastern peoples and East Asian peoples alike: the Oriental person is depicted in a single image, a sweeping generalization; an essentialised inferior character. Under this logic, all people of East-Asian descent and their cultures are constructed as the same; persisting today with my college’s hall serving ‘Salmon with Asian dressing’ and people telling me about how they used to live in Hong Kong or study Chinese when I tell them I’m Japanese. As race is socially constructed, people read and racialised as East Asian are ascribed similar stereotypes. Asian men and women are defined against the Western norms of gender identity. Whereas Western women were represented as pure and innocent, Asian women were constructed as hypersexualised and unappeasable, needing to be tamed and saved by the white Western man – the very roots of Asian fetishisation. On the other hand, Asian men are portrayed as slight, meek and unassertive, therefore making them easy to defeat in combat with white Western men – the roots of the feminisation (supposing femininity signifies weakness) and de-sexualisation of Asian men. More recently, this was evident in Sacha Baron Cohen’s speech at the Oscars “addressing” the lack of Asian representation: “How come there is no [Oscar] for those hard-working yellow people with tiny dongs. You know – the Minions”. This is not only ideologically damaging but denies Asian people their own agency, depicting them as submissive and incapable of thinking or acting for themselves; an internalised struggle amongst many Asian people today. Further, the persistent othering of people belonging to “the Orient” is evident in events such as the placing of Japanese Americans in segregated internment camps during World War II, justified by the belief that these US citizens were perpetually foreign. This notion carries on at Cambridge itself, with British students’ distancing and lack of social interaction with international students from South-East and East Asia.
The narrative of the East as the strange and unusual other is perpetuated in Western views of Tokyo.
There is a tendency in the West to play up and highlight the “quirky” aspects of Tokyo such as cosplay, otaku culture and maid cafes. On the other hand, Kyoto is depicted as traditional, quaint and full of submissive geishas who make a great photo opportunity against the backdrop of temples, reinforcing ideas of Eastern exoticness.
The June Event committee may argue and even believe that they want to celebrate Japanese culture; however, this echoes the fact that Orientalism historically arose from an attempt to “honour” Eastern cultures whilst redefining them for the West. Orientalism presents itself as a well-intentioned recreation of Eastern traditions and people, yet it is a construct derived from the West that is largely exaggeration and myth. Even if it is fascination rather than malice towards the East that underpins cultural appropriation, this doesn’t make cultural appropriation in any way innocent or justified. In Orientalism, the fascination is itself part of the problem. Attraction to Japanese culture purely because it is “exotic” and “cool” without critical engagement with the history and feelings of Japanese people themselves is orientalist.
I am not accusing the committee members of intentionally causing offence. However, I think that a more informed understanding of the damage that Orientalist discourse has done to East Asian, South Asian and Middle Eastern lives by creating their status as somehow subordinate would have led to the conclusion that treating a country and someone’s cultural identity as a party theme is a step too far. To those considering going to the event and to Japanese people who may want to get a free ticket by participating, I would ask you to think about how this event commodifies Japanese culture and people and I would ask you to reconsider.