"I saw an opportunity for people to recognise and gain a new understanding of Asian diversity"Flickr: MrSnoopy

The Shinkansen bullet train was built in 1964. On its route are the two capitals of Japan: in the east lies the vibrant and hustling Tokyo, further in the west is the old imperial capital of Kyoto. These two cities succinctly capture Japan’s eclectic history and together make for what I thought was a novel theme for my college, Trinity Hall's, June Event. However the negative reactions that followed the announcement of the theme bewildered me. The inevitable cries of cultural appropriation and orientalism before the doors had even opened demonstrated to me an unnerving lack of trust and belief in both ourselves and our peers. The theme has now regrettably been changed to ‘Metropolis’, an evident departure from the culturally stimulating to the comfortably abstract.

When the original theme was announced, I felt excitement and instant nostalgia: Japan has always been close to home for me. I was born in Yokohama, and both my parents were waiting tables in Chinatown during their post-doctoral studies. Every other year we take another trip back to Narita International Airport; just last summer I climbed Mount Fuji.

Yet I think this is all irrelevant here. My limited personal experiences do not give me more or less authority in denouncing or supporting this event before it has occurred. How are we to make progress and remove the insidious effects of cultural appropriation when we blindly prevent efforts to celebrate a different culture? I am not attempting to undermine people who are offended by the theme, but I am suggesting that we cannot praise or criticise something before it has come to fruition. The delicate balance between appropriation and appreciation can only be accurately judged upon the end-product and not the mere proposition.

Another argument I have heard is that a June Event fuelled by cocktails and hastily prepared meals is not the right platform to educate and inform students. I disagree: we are not all intoxicated ignoramuses who lack any desire for learning.

There are too many monotonous themes out there, found through extensive online searches by the organisers, each a new and more convoluted synonym for the word ‘dream’. This is not an insult directed at the hard-working committees in each college. Instead, the insult is at all of us, as we apparently lack the nuance and objective reasoning needed to enjoy and critique an event that attempts to ever-so-slightly challenge us. The precedent has been set, one that discourages future organisers from choosing themes that attempt to inform. We are now left blissfully untroubled and uninspired as we queue for a second serving of mac ‘n’ cheese.

A further concern which has been raised is how a theme of  a national identity could be presented in a tasteful and accurate manner. Anger at an insensitive and offensive event would be rightfully due, no disagreement there. In the case of Trinity Hall’s ‘Tokyo-to-Kyoto’ themed June Event, the University of Cambridge’s own Anglo-Japanese Society was consulted before any complaints were made. The reason behind this was (somewhat ironically) to prevent any cultural appropriation from occurring in the first place. The society accepted different roles within the event itself to help accurately promote aspects of Japanese culture. This was not enough for some: twisted facts and circulated complaints ultimately lead to the story being picked up by the national press. Packaged together with Trinity Hall was also Clare May Ball and its theme of ‘The Orient Express’.

Cambridge has previously had similar themes which have been undertaken without any prominent calls of insensitivity. For example, in 2013 ‘Eastern Odyssey’ was the backdrop for Downing May Ball. Back then my immediate thoughts were not of unavoidable orientalism or disdain at Western bastardisation of my culture. Instead, I was overjoyed by the mention of the steppes of Mongolia in the event description, and amazed that my homeland 5,000 miles away was going to be in a theme here. This may be hopeful optimism but I could not condemn the efforts, let alone call for a change in theme because I was afraid that my culture was going to be misrepresented. Rather I saw an opportunity for people to recognise and gain a new understanding of Asian diversity.

May Balls and June Events could and should be used as one of the many desperately-needed instruments for change. ‘Tokyo-to-Kyoto’ could have been a model that set the benchmark by cooperating with the appropriate university society to ensure guests leave with a new sense of cultural awareness. It could have set a new paradigm for what to expect at a May Week event, a difficult but achievable goal which sadly has been prevented from blossoming before the beginning of the June Event itself.

The more I think about this situation, the more parallels I see with the no-platform debate. The difference being that here we are no longer preventing the spread of hateful or harmful ideas; instead, we have now begun censoring the attempts to eradicate them.