When you live in Japan, starry-eyed visions of cherry blossoms and anime settings gradually give way to the real joys and frustrations of living in a real country. Over time, I heard one problem in particular brought up again and again by friends who otherwise loved Japan: the poor state of women’s rights.
In 2016, Japan dropped even further in the gender equality rankings maintained by the World Economic Forum. It places 111th out of 144 countries, making it the lowest ranked industrialized country, and below neighboring South Korea and China. And the tangible reasons behind this abstract number are pretty easy to grasp: there are few women in positions of power in politics or business; sexual harassment is more often than not swept under the rug; and still-rigid gender roles pressure women to become stay-at-home wives and mothers. Even when it seems as though progress is being made, Japan appears to be dragging its heels.
What makes Japan’s gender inequality doubly frustrating is that there seems to be nothing foreign residents here can do about it. While in many of our own countries, one might get involved with protests or advocacy, Japan has a different culture with its own complicated system of social relations. For all our good intentions, and while international communication does play an important role, foreigners can’t be the ones to impose western (or another culture’s) feminism on Japanese culture. Change has to come from within.
That’s exactly what makes it so important to support grassroots Japanese organizations fighting for gender equality. Contrary to popular belief, feminism in Japan is alive, and there are ways that foreigners can contribute to it. The resilient organizations listed here are just four of many that anyone can support by donating, volunteering, or becoming a member. All the sites provide at least some information in English.
1. Women’s Action Network
The WAN is a non-profit that aims to support women in a wide-ranging array of activities across Japan. The organization hosts lectures and events, and disseminates up-to-date news about women’s rights issues in Japan and internationally. Led by the influential feminist scholar Chizuko Ueno, the WAN has an academic slant, as they maintain a historical archive of feminist magazines and offer free video recordings of feminist lectures. That being said, the group also posts about films, art exhibitions, and even manga and anime related to women’s rights. It’s a great source to stay informed on all issues related to feminism in Japan.
If you want to get involved, their website posts about events and calls to rallies across the country. You can also become a member, which will net you a newsletter subscription, free attendance to events, plus voting rights in the general assembly.
2. National Women’s Education Center
The brick and mortar NWEC is located in Saitama, where anyone can utilize their well-stocked library specializing in gender equality, women’s rights, and family issues. The group holds training sessions for everyone from high school girls to company managers, to counselors who work with women.
If you can’t make it to the physical location, the NWEC website is also an excellent place to do research, especially for those with little Japanese ability. It features a list in English of local and university-specific organizations related to women’s rights, so you can find the right non-profit to get involved with if you live in Japan. You can also volunteer for the NWEC itself – they host orientation seminars three times a year.
3. Asia-Japan Women’s Resource Centre
Japan-based but very internationally-minded, the AJWRC fights to end violence and discrimination against women around the world. It’s roots lie in a group of Japanese women’s protest against sex tours made to other Asian countries by Japanese men. Nowadays it aims to educate and campaign about feminist issues as they intersect with war, trafficking, neoliberal globalization, and so on.
The AJWRC publishes a biannual English journal called “Voices from Japan”. At the time of writing, the most recent issue contains articles about asylum-seeking refugee women, government policies as they relate to women, and testimonies of “comfort women” survivors from WWII. Other than subscribing to the journal, you can support the organization by becoming a member, making a donation, or volunteering as a proofreader or translator.
4. Working Women’s Network
In a country where women continue to face huge challenges in building a career, the WWN fights to close the gender gap in working conditions. The WWN’s goals are to eliminate gender-based discrimination in hiring and job evaluation, establish equal pay, and combat sexual harassment in the workplace. The WWN has supported various legal cases related to gender discrimination and sexual harassment, including the high-profile case of Rina Bovrisse. Bovrisse’s lawsuit against Prada Japan eventually reached the United Nations, and resulted in a UN statement calling for the Japanese government to introduce new regulations making sexual harassment illegal.
The WWN conducts research on the status of working women, and submits reports to CEDAW, the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, as well as the Japanese government. These reports can be read on their website. Anyone who wishes to support the WWN’s activities can become a member or send a donation.
What do you think about women’s rights in Japan? Do you have any advice or tips on ways to support gender equality here? Know of any organizations? Share your thoughts in the comments!