Last weekend, a memorial gathering was held in Waseda for Yayori Matsui, the former Asahi Shimbun reporter and women’s rights advocate, who died in December from liver cancer at the age of 68. A proper funeral service had been held two months earlier at the Shibuya church founded by Matsui’s minister father.
The purpose of the Waseda event, however, was to look forward as well as backward.
That’s because Matsui’s work continues. Throughout her 33-year career in journalism, she always tried to cover environmental and women’s issues for the newspaper, though her editors would have preferred she didn’t. Following her retirement in 1994, Matsui founded the Asia-Japan Women’s Resource Center, and in 2000, she and the Women Against Violence in War Network Afghaheld a mock tribunal in Tokyo on crimes committed by the Japanese Imperial Army against sex slaves during the Pacific War. The tribunal featured testimony from former sex slaves and the participation of international judges. The verdict found Emperor Showa guilty of war crimes, but by that point just the idea of the trial had invited the wrath of rightwing groups, who demonstrated at the venue and made threats.
As a reporter, Matsui was acutely aware that such an event meant nothing without the media’s involvement, and later, when NHK changed the editorial tack of its coverage of the tribunal, she sued the public broadcaster for breach of trust. Matsui and her supporters accused NHK of watering down its report due to pressure from rightwing groups.
That suit is still pending, but Matsui wanted it to continue even after her death. Another of her legacies is a proposed museum about sex slavery and violence against women. According to a short film that documented the last two months of Matsui’s life right up to her death and which was screened at the memorial, she came up with the idea after she first fell ill while in Afghanistan in October.
Whatever she felt she accomplished during her life was meant to continue after it. By the same token, people who didn’t like her and what she stood for continue to attack her even after death.
One of these attacks appeared in volume 43 of Takarajima magazine’s “Real” series of essay collections, published in early February. The title, “Mare ni miru baka onna,” can be translated as “Exceptionally Stupid Women,” a purposely provocative phrase that’s meant to sell the contents, which comprise 34 short pieces about famous women.
Many of the targets are easy (Dewi Sukarno, Sachiyo Nomura) and some of the essays make valid points, but as the title suggests, the collection’s purpose is to focus on women in the public eye primarily because they are women, and therefore the writers — 16 men and one woman — were commissioned specifically for their negative feelings about their subjects.
Takashi Nakamiya, who writes about Matsui, is a self-proclaimed “leftist watcher,” which is another way of saying “rightwing crank.” Only a crank would write that he “prays that God takes this sinful woman [Matsui] before her suit with NHK comes to trial,” a sentence that would seem to indicate it was written before her death. Elsewhere in the piece, Nakamiya indicates that he was aware of Matsui’s terminal illness and even manages to use it against her. The Asahi Shimbun, he writes, ran a big article about Matsui when she announced she was dying, thus giving her “a big present.”
Nakamiya’s contention is that the motivations for everything Matsui did were ego-driven and money-oriented. He implies that the 1.5 million yen she collected from supporters following the announcement of her cancer diagnosis was somehow for herself, as if she were planning to take it with her. He doesn’t mention the museum. Similarly, the mock tribunal was nothing more than a “witch-hunt” that allowed Matsui to become more internationally famous.
The writer doesn’t bother to address any of the issues that Matsui advocated, but simply dismisses them with curt references to leftwing fanaticism. Fanning current resentments, he claims that the tribunal was “a comedy” to entertain North Korea, which, in Nakamiya’s view, is tacitly manipulating all expressions of liberal activism in Japan.
Takarajima is a notorious, muckraking publication, but Nakamiya’s commentary is too sloppily rabid to be honored with charges of slander. I imagine even Matsui’s supporters will not take him seriously enough to respond, but, in a way, that’s exactly the point. Nakamiya knows that the worst thing he could do to Matsui and her legacy is not take them seriously. He characterizes Matsui as a self-centered harpie obsessed with left-wing causes, thus automatically reducing those causes to jokes without actually discussing them.
By extension, the entire collection of essays is circumscribed by a belief that the subjects are not to be taken at face value. They are merely women, who are, according to the tenor of the essays, exceptions to the rule, the rule being men. This way of thinking still informs a great deal of media discourse, and not just in Japan.
In the film shown at the memorial, this point was made clear by a comment from a woman who is now a reporter at the Asahi Shimbun. Female journalists are still rare. When she was hired, a senior editor told her, jokingly, “Please don’t become another Yayori Matsui,” meaning, please don’t be a pain in the neck. The woman said that would be impossible, because “there is only one Yayori Matsui.”