Trinity Hall's theme 'Tokyo to Kyoto' has provoked controversySimon Lock

Trinity Hall’s June Event has received a formal complaint from a Japanese student concerning its theme ‘Tokyo to Kyoto’. The student in question met with the event’s organising committee along with Audrey Sebatindira, the Trinity Hall JCR BME Officer, in order to make her concerns and discomfort known to them.

Three of the released May Ball and June Event themes are centred around providing an experience of non-Western cultures – Darwin College’s ‘Havana Nights’, Clare College’s ‘The Orient Express’ and Trinity Hall’s ‘Tokyo to Kyoto’.

The issue of cultural appropriation is one that has recently risen to greater prominence in discussion of the welfare of BME students. Millie Ngaage, a fifth-year Medic who has previously held the roles of Vice President of the BME Campaign and President of the CU African Caribbean Society, said that she had misgivings “as soon as the titles were announced”.

“It just makes me feel uncomfortable,” she added. “The same kind of uncomfortable you feel when someone cracks a ‘joke’ about not being able to see me in the dark. Perhaps it’s because these things have a way of reinforcing stereotypes”.

Clare College’s ‘The Orient Express’ has also faced criticism despite the claim that the theme focuses on ‘world-famous stops along the famed route of the Orient Express’, many of which are European tourist cities.

However, Ploy Kingchatchaval, a third-year English student, explained that the suggestion that the ‘Orient’ part of the title is not the focus and that ‘The Orient Express’ has been chosen in order to depict places such as Paris and Amsterdam is “exactly what [she has] qualms with”.

“They clearly didn’t just intend for it to be about ‘travel’, because ‘orient’ is such a loaded term. They’ve gone with ‘The Orient Express’ in order to associate their ball with ideas of luxury and exoticism – which is just a prime example of the fact that the words ‘the Orient’ still hold these kinds of toxic connotations, of commodification and enjoyment of white people at the expense of others. The vibe they are going for with ‘The Orient Express’ is white people travelling in first class on a train, visiting ‘exotic’ places with the inherent sense of privilege that comes from being a rich tourist.”

Kingchatchaval added that “the whole thing is skewed from a rich, white perspective: it’s going to be a white presentation of these places they’re trying to represent, full of stereotypes, which is erasing and gross.”

Speaking to Varsity, Sophie Birkin, President of the Trinity Hall June Event 2016, said: “From the outset we recognised that the execution of our theme could be problematic, but as a committee we have been mindful throughout to do our upmost to avoid any insensitivity.

“Our aim has always been to celebrate culture and we have talked with many Japanese artists, suppliers and societies throughout the planning process in order to ensure the event is led by these sources rather than our own interpretations. We have been met with great enthusiasm from these correspondents and are greatly saddened that this does not reflect everybody’s opinion. However, we will continue to take steps to mitigate these issues, and recognise that it is our responsibility to do so.

“We hope to show that appreciation need not be equated with fetishisation. We do not pretend to be able to perfectly represent Tokyo or Kyoto but we hope that our efforts will bring light to some amazing aspects of these places that may otherwise be lost in generalisations about Japanese culture at large.

“As ever, we encourage anyone with ideas or concerns to get in touch.”
Jun Pang, a first-year HSPS student, observed that “the Trinity Hall June Event team seems entirely conscious of the problematic nature of their theme” and have “anticipated many questions and concerns”, which was “evident throughout the website”.

“My issue, then,” she explained, “is why did they choose to pursue this commodifying, Orientalist theme in the first place?

“I appreciate the fact that the team wants guests to ‘appreciate and understand the significance and beauty of this rich culture’. It’s great that one of the charities the ball is supporting is Greenpeace Japan.

“But why is Japanese culture the culture that is to be put on display, broken down into lanterns, rice bowls, sakura trees, and a painting by Hokusai? What are we doing by perpetuating the othering gaze? And if we know that is what we’re doing, why are we still doing it?”

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