The “Gender x Hashtag” movement: Turning “my” issues into “our” issues InsightsEssays: Civil Society in JapanVoices from JNPOCOther Topics

Posted on June 04, 2020

In 2018, Japan NPO Center (JNPOC) started an opinion site called NPO CROSS” to discuss the role of NPOs/NGOs and civil society as well as social issues in Japan and abroad. We post articles contributed by various stakeholders, including NPOs, foundations, corporations, and volunteer writers.
For this JNPOC’s English site, we select some translated articles from NPO CROSS to introduce to our English-speaking readers.

The “Gender x Hashtag” movement: Turning “my” issues into “our” issues

The year 2019 was an active year for the gender issues and the hashtag in social movements in Japan. Starting with the #flowerdemo on April 11, various actions sprang up, including #kuToo and #withyellow movements. In each case, ordinary individuals acted by raising their voices on social media. Although the #MeToo movement, which began in 2017, is said to not to have spread as widely in Japan as it did in other countries, these actions are a part of this greater global movement.

I am a 22-year-old female attending a university in Tokyo. I think there still are many friends in my generation, including myself, who have not yet been able to raise our voices. On themes surrounding “Gender x Hashtag” I spoke with Professor Natsuko Hagiwara (Rikkyo University’s Graduate School of Social Design Studies and the chairperson of Japan NPO Center) who has long been involved in gender studies.

#withyellow, engaging many people to protect students taking entrance examination from groping

“When I was a student, the sources of feminist views was women’s fashion magazines like non-no and an-an. I read the arguments by Hiroko Hara and Keiko Higuchi and learned it was okay to express these opinions”, Hagiwara said.

In Japan, in the not so distant past, the only way for individuals to publicly express their opinions was through media such as publishing articles and essays. However, the spread of social media has made it possible for individuals to express what they could not do previously towards people around the globe.

This January, Twitter posts with the #withyellow tag appeared one after another. This started as an anti-groping movement because groping is more likely to occur inside train cars on the day of the National Center Exam*. This movement involved many people. People who supported the movement sent out an app that shares information about groping occurrences and kept a watchful eye on fellow passengers at stations and in train cars on the day of the exam.
* standardized test similar to the ACT and SAT in the US

#kuToo*, making my problem into our problem

*pun for a Japanese word, kutsu (meaning both “shoes” and “pain”)

On social media you can get an immediate response. By attracting sympathy, a message spreads at once. And sometimes a message gets “flamed” but receives public attention as an important social issue.

The #kuToo movement began when many people favorably responded to a tweet about how women felt uncomfortable being forced to wear unsafe high heels just because they were women. At the same time, various opinions were voiced as well, including accusations like “People should complain to their employers directly,” questions stemming from some misunderstanding such as “What’s wrong with wearing heels to begin with?” and new perspectives on how “forcing men to wear suits is just as problematic.”

By having differing perspectives pointed out by others, a variety of reactions arise: some agreeing, some disagreeing, some posing further counterarguments, and others going at it from completely different angles, all of which contribute to the maturity of the argument. And anonymity, which is the distinguishing characteristic of social media, also makes it possible for anyone to express their individual opinions without hesitation. Nowadays, when a certain topic becomes popular on social media, influential people or the mass media tend to cover this topic, and the public may also come to deem it as a worthy social issue.

“At first, there are people who speak up, and then there are people agreeing with the issue being raised. My individual issue will eventually become our issue, a transformation into a societal and structural one,” says Hagiwara.

Even anonymously, you can change the system by speaking out

The social structure that has silenced women (and others) through invisible pressure, such as by making them feel “My feeling that something is wrong must be just mine alone,” is changing. Space to raise individual voices is not limited to social media. For example, companies and universities have created a point of contact for employees and students to discuss harassment anonymously.

Universities in Tokyo are receiving many consultations from their students. Even if just a personal feeling, it will be stored as data for the institution when it is let out instead of bottled up. When the number of consultations concerning a particular person accumulates to a certain extent, even if they may be anonymous, the person may get a strict warning.

Why do women put up with the situation?

On the other hand, although the social mechanism (i.e. consultation service) has been created, some challenges still stand in the way. One big problem is that only few people know about the consultation service itself. Other barriers include anxiety caused by not knowing how much the consultation service will actually respond to the matter, and possibility of disadvantages for the person using it. In order to increase people’s awareness, the author’s university posts consultation service information in more private places, such as bathrooms and locker rooms.

The obstruction to women’s economic independence is another challenge. According to the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare survey, Japanese women’s wages in 2016 were 73% of men’s; the disparity is still large by international standards. Economic disadvantage is prone to result in a domination-submission relationship. In this type of relationship, one side would have absolute decision-making power. Financial independence makes it possible for an equal sharing of responsibilities, opportunities, and rights between genders and gives more voice to women.

Fear of the perpetrator and finding the general social atmosphere unsupportive are also contributing factors for women to endure the violation rather than to report. When a woman in Japan protests against sexual harassment or raises her voice on gender issues, she is often bashed by perpetrators or appeased by those around her. Women are forced to endure the situation because when they rock the boat, they may suffer further disadvantage. Women may also miss an opportunity for consultation as the result of reading into how the perpetrator or the people around them would react.

Every movement starts with one person uttering or tweeting something

If you are actually victimized, it would be good to go talk to a point of contact for consultation if there is one, utter (or tweet) on social media, or talk to your friends. Even if the incident happened a long time ago, do not think it is a thing of the past.

Every movement first begins with an utterance of one person. From there, little by little, there will be people empathizing with the matter, and then the advocates will spread.

“It takes a lot of courage to be the first one, but there are always people who will stand up for you,” says Hagiwara.

Currently there are various ongoing movements, but the ways to raise voices vary. Hagiwara says: “I would like for the young people to closely observe and learn both ways of raising your voices: speaking up loudly to make a strong appeal, and making a rather quiet, harmonious appeal. Analyze what you thought in each situation and why. That’s where academic knowledge is needed, so that you can analyze well and discern which works.”

Even when you become a victim of a certain social issue, by understanding the structures that create discrimination and knowing how discriminatory attitudes actually produce perpetrators, you may then be able to understand that you are not to blame.

And even if a movement is covered by the news and gets social attention, we should not consider the issue as something that temporarily surfaced. Unless we understand that only a handful of issues surface because voices of the voiceless are successfully concealed by society, and that this issue is a part of a social and structural problem, you would not be able to see through the surface and recognize its true essence.

Making “our” problems into “everyone’s” problems

I myself have participated in the flower demonstrations twice. There I felt warm encouragement that my thoughts on sexual assault and gender-based harassment are not something that should be left unexpressed. When we can increase the number of spaces where we can voice our opinions, both on social media and in the real world, “our” problems will become “everyone’s” problems.

Hagiwara said: “To recognize the potential of each individual, regardless of gender, means gender equality. For this to happen, it is essential to eradicate the double-standard situations where men and women are evaluated differently based on their gender when they do the same thing.”

Though slowly, a series of movements using hashtags on social media have begun to make waves, as if to force a swing in a playground to swing bigger and bigger; eventually, these waves will be sure to reverberate throughout society.

April 1, 2020
Original text by Kanami Fukuda (JNPOC’s volunteer writer); translated by JNPOC