The past year or two have seen progress for two often-marginalized sectors of Japanese society — women and the LGBT community. Voices are finally being heard, after years of being lost amid a general conspiracy of silence and reluctance to challenge the status quo.
In line with the international phenomenon of #MeToo, Japanese women are speaking up more about issues such as sexual harassment and assault. The LGBT community is also making inroads toward having their rights recognized. Some municipalities now recognize same-sex partnerships, and in 2017 Osaka approved two men as the first same-sex couple to be official foster parents of a child.
Nevertheless, politicians still often make sweeping statements with impunity, with a recent example being Mio Sugita’s controversial remarks last month that LGBT couples were “unproductive” members of society for not being able to produce offspring, and that policies to support them were a waste of money. Sugita also criticized Shiori Ito, a journalist who went public last year with an accusation that she had been raped by a high-profile fellow journalist, saying Ito was at fault for “drinking so much.”
Against this background, Amnesty International Japan recently rolled out a new program to help schools and universities get to grips with some of the issues relating to gender.
“Discrimination against women and LGBT individuals are pressing issues for discussion within Japanese society,” says Director Hideki Nakagawa. “As part of our Love Beyond Genders campaign, Amnesty International Japan introduced the Gender Human Rights Education Project, with an aim to provide a forum and tools for students to learn about and discuss gender, discrimination and human rights protection.”
Amnesty Japan partnered with American attorney Carolina van der Mensbrugghe to design and implement the program. Van der Mensbrugghe has a background in gender and human rights, and had previously worked in Japan with other NPOs such as UNICEF and the Nagasaki Foundation for Peace. She arrived back in Japan in November last year and began working on the English manual.
“The Japanese version is now being translated by Amnesty’s Japan staff. The contents were fine-tuned in Japan, based on interviews and pilot sessions with LGBT rights activists and educators with a background in human rights and gender,” she says.
In the course of her work on the project, Van der Mensbrugghe has noted some cultural differences between the U.S. and Japan.
“One major issue difference is that LGBT rights and gender issues are only just now gaining publicity in Japan,” she says. “Conversely, male-female gender discrimination here in Japan has been normalized to the point where it hasn’t even been seen as an issue or as a violation of people’s rights until now.
“The response here in Japan seems to be reactive — Japanese schools don’t seem to think about gender-sensitivity training until something happens,” says Van der Mensbrugghe. “The complaint we’ve seen from young Japanese people is that there isn’t much information out there and they don’t know who to talk to.”
According to Van der Mensbrugghe, an important part of gender education is addressing stereotypes and misinformation. As an example, she notes there is a difference between LGB (lesbian, gay, bisexual) and T (transgender). “LGB identifies who are you are attracted to; T is about who you are.” Earlier this year, the authoritative Kojien dictionary, Japan’s most widely used dictionary, failed to make this distinction in its newest edition, drawing criticism from LGBT advocates.
Mameta Endo is a transgender activist who has become a voice in the media for the LGBT community in recent years. He welcomes Amnesty’s gender education, noting that very few curriculums for teenagers currently touch on LGBT issues, robbing all students of a chance to understand differences for themselves.
He says that such education could alleviate the suffering and alienation that many transgender youth experience at school. “For example, data shows that among young people who have consulted with hospitals over gender identity issues, 1 in 4 has experienced school refusal over things like made to wear the ‘wrong’ school uniform,” he points out.
While participants in Amnesty Japan’s programs have mostly been university and high school students so far, Van der Mensbrugghe believes that offering such information at an earlier stage would be even better. “Ideally, this would be rolled out at a younger age so they have the information and have time to plan their lives going forward,” she says.
Aki Sakuma, a professor at Keio University, agrees that Japan’s education system is lacking in opportunities for students to discuss gender-related issues. Sakuma is the deputy director at Keio’s Teacher Training Center. “While gender education has existed in Japan for the past 20 years, it has been only in specialized programs at tertiary level, and thus for those already with an interest in the topic,” she says.
According to Sakuma, the topic of sex and gender education is a complicated and loaded issue for public schools to address. Schools have found themselves in hot water with politicians, as in 2003 when a school for children with special needs in Hino, Tokyo, became embroiled in a scandal for trying to introduce basic sex education to students. The school was severely criticized by the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly. The same thing happened earlier this year with the sex education program at a junior high school in Adachi Ward.
“Ideally, children would be exposed to basic gender education from preschool. It isn’t just about sex education, or who one is attracted to. It also includes developing self-esteem and awareness of other lifestyles, and how to protect yourself from abuse, for example,” Sakuma says.
Amnesty Japan has received positive feedback from schools and faculties that have received the training. Students at Den-en Chofu Gakuen, a private junior-senior high school in Tokyo, participated in July.
“I don’t think enough people, particularly students, are aware of gender issues. A teacher said she just heard about the #MeToo movement the day before. If an educator isn’t aware of this pretty big news story and topic, I doubt students are any better informed. I believe education is the first step to understanding which then can lead to change,” says Jason May, the school’s returnee program director.
“Our workshops create a safe space for people who are unseen or unheard — they get to hear how their peers feel on certain issues before outing themselves. I have had kids come up to me after the workshops, saying that having these conversations has given them courage,” says Van der Mensbrugghe.
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