Canterburys newest nightclub Tokyo Tea Rooms accused of cultural appropriation

A newly opened cocktail bar in Canterbury has made national news after they were criticised for appropriating Japanese culture.

Tokyo Tea Rooms—a Japanese themed cocktail bar—was attacked online by resident groups and students, who claimed the venue to be encouraging problematic ‘cultural appropriation’, racism, and orientalism.

Members of the public reacted angrily after images emerged online from the club’s Facebook page showing two members of staff dressed in Asian-inspired outfits on its official launch night in August, after undergoing a £1 million makeover back in July.

The two were seen wearing formal kimonos, the traditional dress of Japan and Shimada-styled nihongami wigs. They are wearing white makeup traditionally worn by Geishas, Japanese hostesses trained to entertain men with conversation, dance, and song.

Images containing the two figures have since been deleted from the club’s social media page.

The cocktail bar’s interior is adorned with opulent Japanese features—such as ornamental trees filled with cherry blossoms, traditional artwork, a karaoke booth, including a bar serving beverages with a ‘Japanese twist’.

The news sparked a heated debate online over cultural appropriation and whether it is right for the venue to profit from its cultural theming.

Corine Shimazu, a recent graduate in English and American Literature at the University of Kent, told InQuire of her “disappointment” after hearing about the controversy.

Born in Shibuya, Tokyo, Shimazu has said the whole situation has been “difficult to actually put into words.” She questions the club’s decision to have workers dressed in traditional Japanese attire, as well as the club’s motto to ‘live and serve by the Japanese Ichi-go Ichi-e’ saying, which loosely translates to ‘One Time One Meeting’.

“Ichigo Ichie means treating people with respect. I think they are reducing this Japanese mentality to a mere ‘concept’ of the club, because if they truly understood the meaning of the phrase they’d try to represent Japanese culture more respectfully and accurately—as oppose to having two white people wearing ‘kimonos’ that are a little to revealing compared to the traditional kimonos we have.

“I do think the way they dressed these people makes them look as though they are sexualising and fetishising our culture.

The Labour MP for Canterbury, Rosie Duffield, wrote on Facebook: “Tokyo Tea Rooms owners crossed the line from cultural appreciation to cultural appropriation.” She has since removed the post from her page.

Caelan McDonnell, Student Ambassador at Canterbury Christ Church University, “doesn’t recommend” Tokyo Tea Rooms, writing on the club’s review section on its Facebook Page that “cultural appropriation and yellow face isn’t the best business idea”.

Kent Union Vice-President (Welfare) Omolade Adedapo said: “We need to discuss how fetishization and mockery of Asian culture has become so commonplace to the extent that some established a whole business based on cultural appropriation and mocking another culture for profit.

“This is actually uncalled for in 2018 and I really hope students collectively boycott this venue.”

Omolade’s calls to boycott the venue have now put into question the working relation between Kent Union and hospitality specialists Distinctive Bars: the company that owns Tokyo Tea Rooms and Club Chemistry on Station Road.

The two parties have collaborated in the past on projects such as Purple Flag the Zero Tolerance campaign.

Kent Union released a statement saying that they do not advocate a boycott of Tokyo Tea Rooms, they are rather “endeavouring to raise awareness about cultural sensitivity.”

They said: “We were able to have a constructive and respectful conversation, which outlined both parties’ concerns of the argument of cultural appropriation versus cultural appreciation and the handling of that sensitive issue.

“Kent Union acknowledges that they could have spoken to Tokyo Tea Rooms immediately, in order to represent the concerns of students, prior to commenting online.

“Looking forward, Kent Union are hopeful that Tokyo Tea Rooms will consult with students of Japanese heritage to ensure that the venue correctly represents their culture and that the themes used in the bar are appreciative and not appropriative.”

Others have come out in defence of the revamped club.

“[Tokyo Tea Rooms] is a great new venue with amazing decor and atmosphere,“ said local resident Richard Durrant.

“The Music was great. Would totally recommend an evening out to this new cocktail bar.”

Japanese native Sean Langan, who is half-Japanese half-British told InQuire: “Japanese people generally aren’t concerned with political correctness as much as Westerners, and I think the majority of Japanese people won’t find this offensive.”

The Venue’s Promotions and Marketing Manager Matthew Jones-Roberts responded to criticisms online saying: “I think this needs to be put into perspective. Clearly decisions were made that have caused offence. That was not the intention, but it has created a positive conversation about cultural appropriation if people are willing to have it.

“Unfortunately, a small local business is being attacked and made out to have attacked a culture maliciously which is clearly not the case.”

Later he told the Gazette: “What we are doing is celebrating Japanese culture not mocking it.

“Of course, we are sorry if we caused offence but there is nothing wrong with a Japanese themed-bar or an Australian-themed bar for that matter, which you see all over the world.”

The company has since reached out to the Japan Society at Kent Union early last week and are awaiting a response.