CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND – The legacy of imperialism is one that lingers uncomfortably in both Japan and Britain. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe insists on making visits to Yasukuni Shrine, which enshrines Japan’s war dead along with Class-A war criminals. In Britain’s case, many Oxbridge colleges have become a focal point for unprecedented tensions over the legacy of Britain’s imperialist past, be it with the recent repatriation of a bronze cockerel from Jesus College to Nigeria, or the campaign to take down the statue of arch-imperialist Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College.
Edward Said, author of “Orientalism,” comes up in every discussion of cultural imperialism or “appropriation.” As his nearly religious adherents are keen to tell us, any “Western” comment on or borrowing from “Eastern” culture is at best totally inappropriate, at worst an attempt to exert cultural control.
This time a Cambridge college, Trinity Hall, has been forced by these adherents to change the theme of its summer party from a “Tokyo to Kyoto” celebration of Japanese culture to the foolproof, if bland, “Metropolis.”
A typical criticism came from a half-Japanese student who, in a scathing article about the event, said the theme used their Japanese identity as a “prop and costume.” The student rallied to Said, saying the event promoted a “dehumanizing and offensive” presentation of Japanese culture that “feeds into the history of objectification and fetishization of Asian people.” The organizers of the event, dismayed at the negative reception of their theme, changed it in order to “not be divisive.”
Said has been widely criticized for conducting shoddy research and cherry picking evidence to suit his message. In a stinging attack on “Orientalism,” the Islamic scholar Ibn Warraq wrote that Said “gave those unable to think for themselves a formula.” But Said has a point. We need to be careful about how we celebrate the past and be sensitive to cultures and peoples clearly oppressed in the creation of the British Empire.
But Japan? Really? Isn’t the blanket application of Said’s “Orientalism” to everything, to all issues relating to cross-cultural experiences, foolish? Worse, doesn’t it get in the way of creating bridges between ourselves and others?
When it comes to Japan, their formula just doesn’t work. Japan, the world’s third biggest economy, home to the corporate behemoths of Sony and Toyota, was never a victim of imperialism, but was itself once an imperial power.
But more importantly, what those who are attempting to “defend” a country from Western appropriation forget is that Japanese people are very happy to see their culture being shared around the world.
This is not the first time Said has been called upon to make unhelpful arguments. In July 2015, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts Museum was forced to cancel its kimono try-on sessions at its exhibition “Looking East: Western Artists and the Allure of Japan” after groups of Asian-Americans turned up with banners protesting “Yellowface” and “cultural appropriation,” despite the local Deputy Consul of Japan insisting it was fine.
This cancelation, which occurred even though the kimonos had been provided by Japan’s public broadcaster NHK, angered many Japanese. Journalist Manami Okazaki, author of “Kimono Now,” wrote it was “cruel” to inhibit the Japanese “sense of pride” that comes with Japan seeing its culture celebrated abroad. Yet a tiny minority of Asian- Americans, who, in Okazaki’s words “don’t know what they’re talking about,” seem to be quite indifferent to the demise of Japan’s struggling kimono industry.
Promotion of Japanese culture abroad is a priority for the Japanese government. Having disavowed the projection of “hard power” through military means after World War II, the Japanese work hard to project Joseph Nye’s notion of “soft power,” the ability to wield influence through the medium of culture.
In 2007, for example, then Foreign Minister Taro Aso told the Diet (Japanese parliament) that Japanese “pop culture” should be harnessed as a diplomatic tool to “induce other countries to listen to Japan.”
The Cambridge students organizing the “Tokyo to Kyoto” event had partnered up with the university’s Anglo Japanese Society (AJS), clearly illustrating their goal of cultural appreciation rather than appropriation. Sae Kawakami, head of the AJS, expressed her sadness over the theme cancelation, saying: “As a native Japanese student, I feel strongly about sharing Japanese culture with the Cambridge community. The June event was an opportunity to celebrate Japanese culture.”
Another Japanese student, Isabella Yamamoto, commented: “For the most part, my English friends have a genuine interest in Japan, but have rather limited knowledge, leading to slightly ignorant questions like ‘Do you eat sushi every day?’ When I heard about the theme, I was excited because I would finally be able to share elements of Japan that I love with my university friends, such as the Bon-Odori dance, which is a fantastic part of Japanese culture.”
Okazaki spoke enthusiastically about the potential for events celebrating Japanese culture, saying they make people more “aware of your culture” and therefore more accepting of it. The Trinity Hall event was a chance for Cambridge students, most of whom cannot afford an expensive plane ticket to Japan, to learn about some aspects of Japanese culture, and to develop greater cultural empathy.
Saying Japanese culture can only be performed and experienced by the Japanese not only inhibits cross-cultural exchanges — it also ignores the fact that Japanese culture is not a product of homogeneous one-nation development. It has been informed by a variety of different sources, and still is.
Hiroshige, a Japanese woodblock artist, famous for the iconic “The Great Wave of Kanagawa” print is one of Japan’s most revered artists. Yet while his work is perceived to be “typically Japanese” his style was influenced by Chinese painting traditions. And his paintings also had a profound impact upon French Impressionist artists in the 19th century.
The cancelation of the “Tokyo to Kyoto” theme on the basis that it could cause offense, will only hinder future attempts for people to learn about other cultures, and in that way to dispel any myths and stereotypes held. If Japanese events can only be organized and performed by Japanese, we are in essence saying that we as outsiders can never enjoy it, which only serves to reinforce the idea of “Us” and the “Other,” and renders Japan as forever being foreign and exotic.
Ellie Olcott is a second year student at Cambridge reading politics and sociology. She spent her formative years growing up in Tokyo and is interested in topics related to gender and race.