After the many late nights spent in high school cramming to pass an entrance exam, university life can be an exciting turning point in the lives of youth in Japan. With club activities, drinking parties and many opportunities to start dating, this newfound freedom is sometimes overwhelming.
However, these activities, the ones that make all the hard work worthwhile, also tend to be a hot spot for sexual violence — a lesson that some Japanese students may only be encountering for the first time and one that foreign exchange students may not expect in a country with a reputation for being extremely safe.
At the beginning of each semester at orientation, universities hand out anti-harassment pamphlets to freshmen to prevent bullying, but there’s not discussion about consent. When students at Sophia University brought this issue up with the distributors of that school’s pamphlet, they answered that they were unaware of what was considered “rape.” How can universities keep students safe if there is no clear definition or rape and other forms of sexual assault?
Advocating for consent at universities in Japan proves to be difficult when statistics betray the reality. The country’s rate of sexual violence is shockingly low, ranking 105 out of 119 countries according to some media reports, but that’s said to be because most victims of sexual violence either don’t report it or aren’t aware they have been violated. How do you fix a problem among students when they likely don’t know it exists?
To make clear what is and isn’t considered sexual violence, Chabudai-Gaeshi Joshi Action (“Chabujo” for short) has taken steps to bring the conversation into everyday life. A grass-roots feminist NGO that hosts sexual consent workshops, Chabujo aims to flip oppressive gender norms on their heads in the same way someone might chabudai gaeshi, flip over a low dining table in fit of rage.
Chabujo is the queen bee of various branches of activism currently operating across top-tier universities like Tokyo, Waseda, Sophia and Soka. After training members on community organizing through annual study sessions, these students are able to build foundations of activism at their home schools that align with their campus culture.
At University of Tokyo, a campus dominated by male academics, Tottoko Gender Movement offers a soft edge to an otherwise uncomfortable topic (the name pays homage to children’s show “Hamtaro”). The group operates like a book club, coming together to discuss writings on gender in Japan while promoting discussions on consent in classrooms on the side. Incidentally, one thing Tottoko noticed during its classroom sessions was that students were more likely to listen to the message when the group used the katakana loan word sekusharu konsento instead of the Japanese term seiteki dōi (sexual consent).
Shaberu — which mixes the Japanese word for chat, “shaberu,” and the English pronunciation for “shovel” — is a newly established group at Waseda University that deals with issues of gender inequality. Like a shovel, the group hopes to expose the problematic roots of the current environment, pull them out like weeds and plant healthier foundations.
At my school, Sophia University, my friend and I established Speak Up Sophia, a group that encourages people to voice their views on sexual violence in Japan. We aim to give survivors a safe space to open up about their experiences, write articles about their stories and post them to Instagram alongside empowering messages written on classic works of art. Through our activities, we have succeeded in becoming the first university in Japan to incorporate the topic of sexual consent into textbooks that are a part of a mandatory physical-education class, which all students must take in order to graduate.
The students at Soka University have also made great strides in their activities. They established a circle called BeLive Soka to promote the message that everyone should “be” able to “live” a life in which they can freely express themselves. The group hosted a mandatory sexual consent workshop across three different faculties, successfully targeting hundreds of incoming students. To further drive the message home, they host frequent Believe Cafes that create spaces for students to gather and ruminate on gender issues in Japan.
Sexual consent is a concept that isn’t confined to the nation’s bedrooms — it affects all aspects of life. When someone steps on your foot in a packed train, you’ll likely get irritated because it is a violation of your personal boundaries. It’s important to always ask permission before we touch someone, and to apologize if we do by accident. Our bodies are ours, they do not belong to anyone else: mutual respect of each other’s boundaries could lead not only to safer campuses, but a safer society.
Speak Up Sophia, Tottoko Gender Movement, Shaberu and Voice Up Japan will host an event on sexual harassment and violence at the Yotsuya campus of Sophia University (Room 401, No. 6 Building) on June 20. For more information, visit www.twitter.com/speakupsophia.