Hanna Stephens | Japan Is A Country, Not A Theme

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 
-Run queues
-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.

8 thoughts on “Hanna Stephens | Japan Is A Country, Not A Theme

  1. I can’t claim to have the same connection to Japan as you – not being Japanese myself – but I am a graduate of Japanese Studies at Cambridge and currently live in Tokyo, so think I’m qualified to make some comment on this.

    I honestly do not see what your issue is with this theme. Your entire argument is based on the premise that any country-related theme is essentially bad (or perhaps just those countries that you perceive to have been in some way damaged by the West). This is bizarre logic. Would you also apply it to Japanese restaurants run by non-Japanese people (“Japan is a country, not a type of food”)? To Japan-related events run by white members of the AMES faculty (“Japan is a country, not an academic subject”)? You basically seem to be claiming that only racially Japanese people have the right to celebrate Japanese culture in any shape or form. This is deeply misguided and actually quite offensive to someone like me who has no racial link to Japan but has dedicated much of their adult life to the country.

    If you had already been to the event and witnessed some of the things you describe above, it might be legitimate for you to write this article. But you haven’t, and you are pre-judging it based entirely on the theme. That is grossly unfair on the organisers.

    Some of the faux intellectualism in this article also really detracts from your arguments. You also made clearly inaccurate points – such as the depiction of male Japanese as “slight, meek and unassertive, therefore making them easy to defeat in combat with white Western men”. This is the exact opposite of how Japanese soldiers were portrayed during WWII (as merciless aggressors) and makes me wonder how much you actually know yourself about Japan’s history and culture.

    Generally, this article reads like you are complaining for the sake of complaining, as students are wont to do. I would suggest you wait until you’ve actually been to this event (although, I suppose you probably won’t be going, having read this) and then you can make a fair judgement.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You are not Japanese, so you can’t really dictate to a Japanese person what they should or should not be offended by. As a Cambridge Japanese Studies graduate you are obviously very knowledgeable about Japan and East Asia, but still you will only ever understand Orientalism from an academic point of view…


  2. You are clearly overacting to this matter. I genuinely have no idea why using Japan as a them is so offensive. We often see Monte Carlo being used as themes for many big events without people complaining. I believe it would an interesting for people to experience Japanese culture without actually travelling to Japan. And it not an offense to dance and dress in yukata.

    I would like to point out some of your skewed viewpoints:
    1. You are suggesting ordinary untrained people can not be actors but it’s not up to your decision. I believe those ‘ordinary people’ can make their own decisions. You could think of them as “yukata dressed” stewards.
    2. You are accusing them using ‘Japanese culture’ as a mode of entailment, however the aim not to create a “zoo” of yukata dressed people but using appropriate outfit and build a better atmosphere.
    3. The theme is not “Japanese culture”, the theme is “Tokyo to Kyoto”.
    4. Sorry I cannot understand the logic behind your ” Using Japanese culture as a theme = offensive = promoting of racism = promoting stereotyping against Asian”
    This would be the case if you let guests urinate or laugh at “yukata dressed” people.
    5. The concept of ‘authentic Japanese culture’ does not exist. If you go to Japan and carry out a survey, the chances are people would give different answers.

    I would like to believe people at the event have the ability to recognize the event is non representative of Japanese culture. Of course, you would like to believe that such event would give a false impression of Japanese culture to western people.

    Ultimately the matter is down to the people attending the event and Japanese people are willing to take part. The event is created without any intention of defame/racism/stereotype against Japanese/Asian culture, rather an appreciation of the beautiful natural resource and culture of Japan. It is very blunt to make such comment on the event when you only know the tip of an iceberg.
    As far as I believe, it is a nice way to promote Japanese culture rather than defaming Japanese culture.
    (P.S. Nice try to get attention. But NO!)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Having grown up in the 60’s, being of Japanese heritage could be quite difficult. Remember Pearl Harbor and Dirty Japs we’re oft heard comments. How my Japanese mother got all her children through a challenging moment in history and instill pride in our Asian heritage and in our home country is remarkable.

    She went on to participate in as many Japanese cultural events as she could. Through dance, origami, taiko drums or cooking and serving traditional food and tea she saw herself as an Ambassador to showcase her native Home.

    Through the efforts of many, the exposure to an unknown and once feared culture have created a wonderful understanding of Japan and it’s people.

    To share your culture and create interest is a opportunity.

    It saddened me to read your naive commentary as it makes you seem naive and selfish.

    Please go to the event and observe people enjoying the amazing culture of Japan.


  4. Interestingly this argument put forward has won the day & the “cultural appropriation” nonsense triggered a change of mind by the organisers …. not an uncommon reaction amongst student bodies these days. My view is that such decisions lack logic & seek to appease illogical rhetoric from strange view points. I’m sure it will not be the last inappropriate response from our current crop of student groups around the world.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s