Ayano Sakurai believes that the Japanese government’s policy on gender equality needs more feedback from people of her generation who face wide-ranging gender-related challenges in their daily lives.

Sakurai, 25, saw an opportunity when the government solicited public comments on a draft of ideas for its forthcoming basic plan on promoting gender equality.

As the leader of a group of people under the age 30, she launched a project to encourage young people via social media and other platforms to make public comments on the draft.

“I wanted to let young people know that they can call for changes they want to see” in the next five years or so, Sakurai said.

The fifth basic plan covering the five years from fiscal 2021, which starts in April next year, is set to be compiled around the end of this year.

On Sept. 4, before the public comment period ended on Sept. 7, Sakurai and other members visited Seiko Hashimoto, minister for women’s empowerment and gender equality, to submit a report consisting chiefly of requests and opinions from more than 1,100 people under the age 30, collected via social media and online events.

“There are many struggles young people face that are not recognized by decision-makers,” Sakurai said. According to her, Hashimoto was surprised to learn about those challenges, including dating apps leading to sexual harassment during job-hunting activities.

The report called on the government to include young people in its policymaking process.

While praising the draft for covering a variety of gender-related issues, such as violence against women, related problems in times of disaster, low participation by women in science and unconscious bias, Sakurai said that it was too focused on educating and changing younger generations.

“This would only make it harder for young people with diverse views of gender to live, unless adequate measures to educate and change society are taken at the same time,” Sakurai said.

The report also stressed the importance of creating a diverse and inclusive society, asking the government to make efforts to eliminate discrimination against and inequality faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and other minorities under the framework of the basic plan. Currently measures for sexual minorities are not part of the basic plan for gender parity.

“It’s pretty terrifying to think that Japan will be caught up in the idea of gender binary even in 2026,” Sakurai said, noting that she understands some people and groups hope to focus only on female empowerment in Japan, which was ranked 121st in the World Economic Forum’s global gender equality ranking for 2019.

Natsuki Fukuda, 22, a member of the group said, “Issues faced by sexual minorities arise from gender stereotyping and gender-based discrimination, which relate to why women have been treated unfairly,” pointing to the importance of understanding and addressing the fundamental issues of equality for all people.

“Gender binary is just too outdated,” said Nozomi Doi, a 26-year-old midwife, who submitted a public comment to the government, separate from the group’s report. “The government should not stick with the idea just because it’s deeply rooted in Japanese society and they should never ignore the fact that many people feel rejected and hurt by the idea,” she added.

In the public comment, Doi demanded the introduction of UNESCO’s International Technical Guidance on Sexuality Education to improve the country’s sexual and human rights education in schools.

She called on the government to implement measures to guarantee reproductive health rights. “Japan is behind the global curve in terms of reproductive rights,” Doi said.

Specifically, she stressed the need to improve access to contraception, such as birth control pills. In Japan, the so-called morning-after pill, an emergency postcoital contraceptive method, is costly and requires a prescription from a doctor, even though the pill should be taken within 72 hours of sexual intercourse, according to Doi.

“Measures to protect the rights to self-determination regarding pregnancy and childbirth need to be taken,” she added.

The Sakurai-led project to collect comments from young people attracted much more attention than initially expected. Thirty-two groups threw their support behind the project, while Sakurai’s group had 1,700 Twitter and Instagram followers and some 600 people attended study sessions and other events it organized.

Psychological hurdles for young people to raise their voices remain high, however.

“I don’t think my opinions will be taken seriously by the government,” said a 23-year-old female corporate worker, who follows the group’s Instagram account. “It’s kind of overwhelming for people who are not that passionate about the topic to make public comments,” she added.

What is needed is that the government and the group develop a new way of gathering opinions from a wider spectrum of young people that fits with the times, Sakurai said, eager to continue empowering young people.

“I hope that young people will come up with constructive and innovative ideas while responding flexibly to changes,” Kae Ishikawa, director of the Japan Liaison Office of the UN Women, said in a message posted on the group’s website.

The period of public comments for the central government’s basic plan is already over, but there are opportunities for people to send requests to local governments regarding their respective measures to promote gender equality, Sakurai said.

“Going to vote is not the only way for the general public to participate in politics,” she said. “Our voices may not change anything, but speaking up for change is still so much better than just enduring in silence.”

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