• Kiuko Notoya

The Value of Representation

Notoya's opinion piece on the April 1st ICAS event co-hosted by Uprizine, "The Courage of Our Convictions: Young Female Activists in Japan Defying the Social Norm." You can find more information on the event here.

Photograph by the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies

Feminism in Japan isn’t quite the same as feminism in western societies. Being a feminist isn’t seen as abnormal or rare in many western countries because why wouldn’t you support gender equality, right? But in Japan, not only is political and social activism rather rare, a lot of the time feminism is seen as a movement by young angry girls who don’t even know what they’re fighting for.

In the ICAS event it was mentioned that many Japanese men and women believe that gender equality exists in Japan. Why? Because women enjoy ladies’ day at the theatre and have women only carriages on the trains! This blew my mind. You can’t really think that women are treated as equals to men, when maternity harassment is so prevalent that the term is being taught in schools, and when the Prime Minister, who wants a society in which women can shine, has only one female member in his cabinet of twenty people?

Three months ago, I saw on my twitter feed that a Japanese magazine had published an article ranking female university students on how “easy” they are. Naturally, I was disgusted, and so confused as to why such a blatantly sexist and degrading article could be published. But like many others who felt the same way, I didn’t know what to do to protest this and to prevent something like this from ever happening again. But a few days later I saw on my feed that a female university student in Japan has started a petition, demanding that the publisher apologise. This was the first time that I had seen such a large collective effort by people to fight against the objectification and sexualization of women, which is so common in Japanese society, and I was incredibly moved. Two of the speakers of the ICAS event were directly involved with the petition and have continued to work to promote activism and advocate for gender equality. Another speaker was a former member of SEALDs, a legendary student activism group as well as the founder of a new activism group I AM, and alongside those three, Tricia, co-founder of Uprizine, spoke on activism through Uprizine within our school community.

Alongside the significant amount of change and influence that all four speakers have brought about in their respective communities through their activism, they all have experience in dealing with the inevitable consequences that come with being an activist and making yourself vulnerable to hate comments and backlash. By putting themselves out there, not only do they make themselves a target for hate by ignorant people, that hate can transform into a reputation that sticks with you wherever you go. Many activists in Japan conceal their identity in fear of the negative reputation that they will get which may ruin their chances of finding a job because they may be seen as “radical”.

Regarding this reputation that being an activist brings, one comment that was made during the Q and A session really stuck with me. One of the girls from Voice Up Japan, when asked if she’s concerned that her involvement in activism will negatively affect her job hunting, candidly answered that if a company doesn’t want to hire her because of her activism, then that’s not the sort of company at which she wants to work. That was an incredibly brave thing to say, as although it should be common sense that you shouldn’t have to change yourself to be able to be accepted and wanted by a person or a community, in the vicious Japanese job-hunting system, many try to present themselves as someone obedient who would work only in the company’s interest.

Not only this comment, but all four speakers that evening have been immensely brave in speaking up and fighting for what they believe in, especially in a society that often tends to cater to the “greater good of society” rather than the needs and interests of individuals and minority groups. Their work to change the often toxic standards predetermined by a restrictive and suffocating society such as Japan is valiant and exciting, and inspired is an understatement to describe what I believe most of the audience felt that evening.

Sometimes, I feel like I’m not really represented by the “feminist movement”. In my mind I know that the feminist movement is intersectional, and not exclusive to cisgender women in western societies, but it honestly gets hard to believe that when people tell me I’m “not very Japanese-like” for speaking up and having an opinion, or when I see media coverage of feminist activists, and all I see is white women. But when I attended the ICAS event last week, I saw people who looked like me, lived in similar communities as me, who fought for the things that I believe in, and who I felt genuinely represented by. This event reminded me of the importance of resilience, upholding your beliefs, and representation, but most of all, that ignorance may be universal, but bravery the likes of which can be seen in the four speakers through their activism, is something we could all learn from and aspire to have in creating a better world.

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