The feminist movement has a whole lot going against it in Japan, in both social and institutional aspects. To begin with, there’s a cultural tendency to keep your nayami (troubles) to yourself. People are taught to contain themselves and avoid burdening others with their problems. When these “troubles” involve contentious social issues, like gender equality and sexual assault, the pressure to keep to yourself only grows. In addition to the social pressure to stay quiet, there’s also an element of shame culture, a social tool that keeps nonconformist ideas tampered down. This is not to say that people aren’t speaking out, simply that the social obstacles to making widespread societal change are many.
In the past few years, it’s become clear that women in Japan who do speak up are punished for it. Such instances only illustrate the kind of staunch misogyny that created the framework of laws we must live within. Past cases seem to point to the idea that, according to Japanese law, women are not to be trusted. The terms that fall under “evidence” are difficult to meet, especially considering the mental state of someone who experienced assault. Furthermore, sexual harassment and assault victims are frequently put to blame, their makeup and clothing choices questioned.
Despite these obstacles, however, there’s change brewing in the archipelago. Not long ago, the weekly magazine Spa! published an article ranking colleges based on how sexually “easy” their female students were after drinking. Soon after, students and young activists Kazuna Yamamoto, Ryo Tsujioka, Asaki Takahashi and a few others created an organization called Voice Up Japan (VUJ). The group’s first initiative was starting a petition to take down the offensive article.
Their activism hasn’t stopped since. VUJ is now a structured organization with the purpose of “creating an environment where more people in Japan can speak up, while advocating gender equality in the Japanese society.” Victims of sexual harassment and assault on university campuses have begun sending messages to VUJ. Teaming up with Human Rights Now and Spring, VUJ has launched a new ambitious petition. This time, their target is the Ministry of Justice and their demand is to revise the Penal Code Articles 177-178 regarding sexual assault.
These articles in the Penal Code don’t place importance on the single most critical point defining rape: lack of consent. In its current form, the law makes it harder for a woman to denounce violence, because she is asked to provide “evidence” of physical assault, intimidation, incapacitation or inability to refuse. For this reason, many women hesitate to speak up. Many of those who have tried to seek justice were dismissed due to lack of “proof,” and police, bound to this law, are forced to leave these cases unsolved, the perpetrators unpunished. Even worse, a case is left alone because the accused has a reputation to uphold, as is the case with Shiori Ito, who went public with allegations against high-profile journalist Noriyuki Yamaguchi in 2017.
This April, I applied to volunteer for the VUJ, and met the energetic and inspiring Yamamoto, student and entrepreneur, for an interview. In late May, I became a member of their research team. Right now, the team is composed of a variety of individuals: not only Japanese people, not only students and — importantly — not only women. In Japan, the word “feminism” is still used in a derogatory sense, connoting an extreme and overly aggressive movement. Men often refrain from calling themselves “feminists.” One of the goals of VUJ is to overcome this misconception and having male members on board helps demonstrate that gender equality is an issue that concerns all human beings.
The research team is currently working on a questionnaire addressed to university students in Japan to collect data regarding sexual harassment. The questionnaire is anonymous and asks whether the victim experienced behaviors that are considered sexual harassment according to the UN. An anonymous questionnaire is a good chance for victims to share their stories without fear of consequences, especially if the prosecutor is a person in power (e.g. a professor). In this way, VUJ can help give a voice to all those who would otherwise keep it inside because society would think that they are exaggerating or because the legal system doesn’t protect them as it should.
There are a lot of feminist movements in the world today. In Italy, for example, we have a movement called Non Una di Meno. The presence of these movements could be seen positively, considering the fact that people are taking action, or negatively, if we think that even in 2019, in a world we think is so civilized and advanced, some members of society are still oppressed and need to fight for their rights — like in Japan. But the silence has gone on for too long. VUJ is exactly what Japan needs now. It’s not only an organization advocating gender equality, but a movement that encourages women and men to raise their voices, with no fear and no shame. By getting together and speaking out, change can happen.