Beware the loan word “feminizumu.” If you ask accomplished, educated and gainfully employed Japanese women whether they are feminists, the adverse reaction can be confusing. I first came up against this in a seminar of women art-history students, who unanimously, and vehemently rejected the idea of being feminists.
After a bit of exasperated mansplaining, on my part, that none of them would be studying masters or doctorates without the travails of feminist activists who had fought for the vote, access to higher education and equal treatment under the law, I was told that, for them, “feminizumu” meant, essentially, “discrimination against men.”
The connotations of the word were not “equality” or “liberation” but being loud, obnoxious and having an overdeveloped sense of entitlement.
This all came back to me at a seminar for the group exhibition “Blossom Blast: ‘What it Means to Be a Woman,’ ” when the panel — curator/artist Miki Saito and featured artists Rika Shimasaki, Kit Nagamura (also a Japan Times contributor) and Kuristina Culina — talked about what “feminist” meant for them.
“It’s someone who competes with men and doesn’t want to lose … it’s a bit ‘Showa era’ (1926-89),” said Shimasaki.
Cue some exasperation from Nagamura, who is American but has been in Japan for more than 20 years. “Words change meaning over time. We have to be careful about that,” she said.
Culina’s misgivings about the word also revolve around an implied reverse discrimination. “Why can’t we be gender-free? Can’t men have an event like this (“Blossom Blast”)?” she asked.
When setting up this exhibition to help celebrate International Women’s Day, Saito said she found that there is a “big gap in the idea of feminism” between the Japanese and foreign communities in Japan.
“The foreign community in Tokyo was extremely supportive and positive of the idea. However, the Japanese were very wary of some of the issues that the show might confront,” she said. “Some sponsors did back out after they saw our key image by artist Sabrina Horak. … They only wanted to be a sponsor if the image was by their standards a ‘beautiful and pleasant’ looking female figure.”
For this second iteration of “Blossom Blast,” which was established last year when UltraSuperNew Gallery in Shibuya asked Saito to curate a slot at the last minute, photographer Nagamura has obliged that request with a sensual body-perfect female nude. The twist is that this image is paired with another photograph taken on the same day, with the same model, but from an angle that reveals scars from breast reconstruction surgery and a wrinkled and exhausted postnatal stomach.
Horak has two icon-like pieces in the exhibition that use a distinctive shocking pink-oriented color palette. Her depiction of bodies and body parts manages to be both literal and comedic.
Ambivalent prettiness can also be seen in Shimasaki’s series of dried-flower heads, syringes and ampoules fixed in tablets of clear resin framed by surgical trays (the syringes were those used for Shimasaki’s infertility treatment), while Culina’s giant tumescent woollen appendage is a mixture of penis and nipple. Hannah van Ginckel’s collages, reminiscent of the hellscapes of Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel the Elder, as well as Max Ernst’s “Une Semaine de Bonte,” are cut-out figures and objects pasted on twee found landscape paintings.
Saito provides most didactic, but also most restrained piece. “6 Red Flags For A Woman Artist” is a list of warnings about sexual predation that Saito wrote out in frustration after a particularly humiliating incident of sexual harassment. She later turned the list into a blue and pink painted board.
With sentences like “1. The offer is too good to be true. Promises a lot of ambitious things that cost $$$ and is willing to pay for it,” Saito is deadpan and functional compared to the confessional use of text by Tracy Emin or the agitprop of Barbara Kruger. It’s a restraint that complicates the declarative format of the piece. Apart from offering solid advice about exploitation in the art world, Saito’s work illustrates how feminism may work in a culture where direct self-expression, for women and men, continues to be considered stressful and uncouth at some level.
It’s complicated, of course. Tokyo is not Hokkaido, Kansai or Kyushu, and if you’ve got in the way of an old biddy trying to get a seat on a train in Osaka, then you’ll know that being demure or kawaii can be a gender performative strategy that is disposable when it comes to sitting down on public transport.
A comment at the seminar by Polish blogger and business woman Katarzyna Barczyk was, “This negative or positive feminism thing — we shouldn’t really have to be bothered about whether it’s nice to be a feminist or not.”
This was a core issue for “Blossom Blast” as an exhibition, and reflective of how gender roles are changing in Japan, even if it’s not called “feminism.”
“Blossom Blast: ‘What It Means to Be a Woman’ ” at UltraSupernew Gallery runs until March 18; 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Free admission. gallery.ultrasupernew.com