Empowerment training draws interest across Japan

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It is Saturday afternoon in Kamioka, Kanagawa Prefecture, and Yuri Morita is bringing the first of a two-day seminar on empowerment issues to a close. The room is full — some 60 women aged between late 20s and 60s, and a scattering of men.

“There are usually more (men),” Yuri notes after the last student has left. “Who are they? Mainly professionals in education and social welfare — teachers, nurses, midwives, many kinds of helpers and carers. They come from Hokkaido, Tohoku, Kyushu, even Okinawa.”

Originally from Yokohama, she is now director of the Empowerment Center she established in 1997 in Kansai’s Nishinomiya, where she lives. Through the center she conducts more than 20 seminars a year in the Kanto and Kansai areas. “This morning we worked through the workbook I translated into Japanese from the textbook I authored in the States in the early 1990s while working as an affirmative action trainer of the University of California.”

In the late 1970s she moved to Mexico and then to the U.S., where she was influenced by the spiritual lives of native Americans and, in the late 1980s, wrote a prizewinning biography of American Indian Movement leader Dennis Banks. Since then she has published 21 books for adults and children on matters of empowerment, human rights and diversity, child abuse and domestic violence.

During the 1980s, Yuri contributed to helping thousands of American men, women and children through the Child Assault Prevention program (CAP). She introduced CAP to Japan in 1985 and since then she trained more than 3,000 qualified child abuse prevention specialists, and over 135 CAP projects have been established all over the country so far.

She established the Empowerment Center because of the enormous need for professional and personal training on the five topics in which she specializes, including violence prevention, human rights and effective communication. The purpose of all her training is for participants to gain theory, knowledge and skills for effectively working in the fields of education and social services. Empowerment is central to all such topics. “The need for training continues to grow, and all seats of my seminars are usually filled in advance.”

This April a sumo “oyakata” (stable master) attended one of her seminars on assertiveness training. He explained that the traditional rigid rules of communication and harsh training in the sumo world were no longer working. “He felt there had to be a different way.”

She is involved in lobbying for changes to the law on child abuse prevention passed in 2000. “I was on a committee, offering consultations to lawmakers.” While many recommendations were reflected in the reformed bill passed this April, some were not. “The problems that remain are mainly systemic. We want courts to be more involved. They’re too distanced from the needs of parents and children.”

For the last five years, she has been the energetic force behind a multigenerational Kansai-based event, “Peace with Action.” “I’ve always been proud of Japan’s peace Constitution. We must work hard to keep it intact, extend its impact on the rest of the world, not see it thrown away.”

The fifth “Peace with Action” will be June 12, from 1 to 5 p.m. in the seventh-floor large hall of Osaka’s Dome Center. Along with award-winning musicians in concert, the event will include a panel discussion on the Constitution with Yuri, Allen Nelson (a Vietnam War veteran and nonviolence trainer) and Ryutaro Honda, a 90-year-old man who has been talking about his war experience for the last 20 years.

One act, Seitaka Onna — female dancers who stand tall on stilts — always moves the audience greatly. “I founded this group. To do things alone is hard, but if we connect with one another, we can be an effective, energetic force for change. ‘Tsunagaro’ is my main message: Be connected.”

People often comment that she plants seeds wherever she goes. But until recently the image did not please her. “It reminded me of a dark print of a painting by Millet of people sowing fields by hand. The workers looked so tired and lonely.”

But then she found her young son reading a school textbook, “The Wisdom of the Dandelion,” which describes how the flower tires and lies down, but while resting keeps on growing and creating seeds. When it recovers and stands up, it is much taller than the yellow daisies, and its seeds are the first the wind catches to carry far and wide.

There was a time not so long ago when Yuri lay down, feeling very, very tired. But now she is not only walking taller, spreading a message that celebrates life and determines to find a way to stop violence, but wearing a badge with a dandelion image and the phrase “Peace with Action” running around the edge. “This badge carries three messages: ‘hikiwake yo’ (not to win and not to lose, but to get even), tsunagaro, and ‘akiramenai’ (never give up).”

Sunday the seminar would continue with role play. “It’s the most rewarding part of the training, because you see people waking to their essence and power.” In the meantime she has an hourlong train journey to make to take care of her aging parents. (She has two children in universities in the U.S. and a 9-year-old back home with her American husband, a Methodist missionary.)

She says it’s incredibly moving to see people who believe that no one loves them realizing that they can love themselves. “In a previous seminar, a woman was surprised to realize that she could accept herself as she is. That was when she really started changing. Empower- ment draws out an inner strength that allows you to embrace yourself.”