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Portraits of Feminism in Japan

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What is feminism in Japan? Rather than imagining it as a singular, coherent object, this exhibit seeks to introduce the diversity, difference, and complexity inherent in feminist activism in Japan. As in other cultural contexts, “feminism” in Japan can invoke sharply different associations, from office workers trying to reshape taken-for-granted structures of power and authority, to mothers advocating for safer school lunches after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disasters, and queer couples seeking legal recognition for the families they have created. Mainstream feminist activism in Japan has focused on advocating for change in families, workplaces, schools, political institutions, and laws, among many other contexts. Many ­– but certainly not all – feminist activists in Japan are also responding to the lasting legacies of Japanese colonial projects, working toward recognition, repair, and meaningful reparations for racial and gender-based violence that continue to impact communities disproportionally.

In this exhibit, some themes, questions, and commitments bring feminists together while others emphasize differences and disagreements. The portraits depict activists pushing for equity and inclusion from the perspective of gender, social class, ethnicity, and sexuality. We have intentionally chosen to depict activists with a wide range of commitments and identities, across time periods, as a means to challenge any simplistic understandings of either “feminism” or “Japan.” Indeed, as there is no singular version of feminism, neither is it possible to clearly define who or what counts as “Japanese.” For instance, Korean Japanese people live as descendants of colonial subjects forced or induced to move to mainland Japan. Facing continued stigma and discrimination, they do not hold full legal citizenship and therefore do not have the rights that would come with that status. In parallel, Uchinaanchu and Ryūkyū people living in what is now commonly called Okinawa face the intersecting harm caused by Japanese colonialization beginning in the 17th century and American military bases from 1945 to today. Although they might have been born in Japan, speak Japanese, or hold Japanese passports, activists in these communities complicate any idea of a singular national project.

Focused on feminism in Japan but located in the United States, this exhibit necessarily responds to common American (mis)perceptions of both Japan and feminism in Japan. At the most basic level, some Americans can be incredulous that feminism exists at all in Japan, or imagine that any hope of gender equality arrived only with the Allied Occupation after World War II. While offering concrete counterpoints to those assumptions, this exhibit also refuses simplistic laudatory representations of Japan. Sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and xenophobia, among other bigotries, intersect in Japan to implicitly and explicitly shape all lives. By depicting activists who have drawn attention to these patterns of discrimination, this exhibit simultaneously highlights inequities and the creative, effective, and inspiring feminist responses.

Closer to home, this exhibit connects Japanese Studies and gender research at the University of Michigan in a space where both have existed. Lane Hall is the current home to the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies (WGS) and the Institute for Research on Women and Gender (IRWG), but was an early home on campus for what became the Center for Japanese Studies (CJS). As the oldest center for Japanese studies in North America, CJS was founded in 1947 and played a pivotal role shaping American understandings of Japan during and after World War II. As part of the celebratory 75th anniversary year, we invite everyone to explore more about the history of Japanese studies at the University of Michigan through our companion website. We are thrilled to have this opportunity to reunite attention to gender and Japan in Lane Hall.

This exhibit represents a partnership between nine artists in Japan and the United States, four co-curators, three academic and research units at the University of Michigan, many members of our campus community who offered ideas, as well as everyone who takes time to engage the exhibit. After you have moved through the exhibit, in person or online, please take a few minutes to share your reactions through our companion website, by clicking on “share your reactions.”

The Curation Team and the Genesis of this Exhibit

This exhibit was created by a team of four co-curators: Grace Mahoney, Alexandria Molinari, Bradly Hammond, and Allison Alexy. From the initial proposal through the exhibition in person and online, the team shared ideas, discussed possibilities, and learned from each other. We hope that this collaborative spirit reaches all visitors as well.

This exhibit was originally imagined to focus on calendars featuring Japanese feminists that Abby Stewart shared with Allison Alexy in 2017. These bilingual calendars featured "The First Feminists of Japan" and included depictions of feminists with short biographical sketches of their lives and activism. As a collection, they made clear the depth and breadth of feminism in Japan. Allison gratefully received the calendars and tried to come up with a method to share them more broadly. When the Center for Japanese Studies was in a temporary home in the School of Social Work Building, likely around 2018, she brought them there to share but likely brought them back to her office. (Please notice the foreshadowing.)

In winter 2022, as we began to prepare for CJS's 75th anniversary, Allison realized that this might be a perfect opportunity to create an art exhibit featuring the calendars. They tied together Japan and feminism and could be exhibited in Lane Hall, one of CJS's early homes on campus. Doesn't that sound like a terrific plan? The only downside was we couldn't find the calendars. Since Allison received them, a lot had happened. She had moved offices and CJS had moved as well. The pandemic interrupted all our work and lives. Everyone spent a lot of time looking for these calendars, particularly the amazing CJS staff members who went through the storage space. No one could imagine throwing them out but we also couldn't find them. Allison feels sure they will magically return the day after this exhibit opens.

As a result, the team of co-curators began brainstorming other options to represent the complexity of feminism in Japan through art. We tried to find similar calendars online and buy them. But, with generous support, we decided instead to commission pieces from artists in the US and Japan. It was exciting to think about an opportunity to build connections with local and emerging artists. We invited recommendations from the CJS community for both feminists to feature and artists to invite, and then asked the artists to choose which feminist they would like to depict. Our list was far from exhaustive and there are many more possible feminists very worthy of attention. As you can see in their art and statements, the artists put tremendous thought and research into their work. They show the layers of research and thought behind each piece, and more than a few artists explain that they were not previously familiar with the feminist they chose to depict. We are pleased that the creation of this exhibit has created learning opportunities for everyone involved and hope that carries into the audience's experience as well.

To perfectly complete the circle, Grace suggested one memento for this exhibit should be calendars featuring the newly created art. We hope that your 2023 will be enriched by the challenging, thoughtful, and inspiring activists and artists included in this exhibit.

Appreciation and Thanks

Our first thanks go to the nine amazing artists who are willing to share their creativity, tenacity, and talent with us all. We thank the featured feminists and many more in Japan for their inspirational activism. The exhibit would not have been possible without generous funding from the Center for Japanese Studies, the Institute for Research on Women and Gender, and the Department of Women's and Gender Studies. For their thoughtful suggestions, helpful ideas, and extraordinary support as we built this exhibit, we thank: Yuri Fukazawa, Reginald Jackson, Natsu Oyobe, Hwaji Shin, Carol Stepanchuk, and Abby Stewart.