It was the Christmas present nobody needed. On Dec. 25, 2019, Weekly Spa! magazine published a ranking of universities according to whether their female students were “sexually easy.”

“It’s not that I see just this article as a problem,” student Kazuna Yamamoto told The Japan Times at the time. “This caused all the frustrations I had about misogyny in Japan to explode.”

Yamamoto, along with three other women — two of them fellow students from International Christian University — channeled their frustrations into the formation of Voice Up Japan, a student-run organization that advocates for gender equality.

The group has chapters at ICU and four other universities — Aoyama Gakuin, Meiji, Keio and Waseda — and currently counts Japanese, Russians, Hongkongers, Americans and Germans among its membership.

“We are very connected and always try to learn from each other as our teams are very diverse, says current member Tohko Hirota, 20. “It’s very important to reflect the diversity we have in our teams for the content that we create.”

Sarah Niehaus was born in Germany and grew up in the Netherlands and Argentina. The 28-year-old joined Voice Up Japan ICU after coming here as an exchange student, but it was her Argentinian upbringing that first sparked her interest in gender issues.

“Unfortunately, there’s a lot of gender-based violence that can be seen on a daily basis in Argentina,” Niehaus says. “At the same time, for a few years now, there’s been a very strong feminist movement. Seeing all these women working so hard, being so strong and so brave, and talking about these issues so passionately really inspired me to do something about it myself.”

Making progress: Sarah Neihaus says she is beginning to see activist-promoted discussion in the mainstream Japanese press.
Making progress: Sarah Niehaus says she is beginning to see activist-promoted discussion in the mainstream Japanese press.

Similarly, Hirota spent her youth moving from country to country in Latin America thanks to her father’s job, which exposed her to multiple cultures that influenced the way she looked at gender issues as a Japanese woman.

“Most of my friends are proud feminists, and I see how they are voicing up about these issues in their Instagram stories,” she says. “Having these people in my life influenced me to join Voice Up Japan, because as a Japanese person in Japan I thought that I would also like to be someone who raises awareness and talks about these issues here.”

It’s a discussion that is taking place on social media platforms — Instagram in particular — and touches on systemic and societal sexism, introducing inspirational individuals and other forms of activism. However, Voice Up Japan isn’t strictly an activist organization, and often collaborates with experts to organize different events, including one that took place at the end of March that invited HR consultant Tetsuji Inaba to talk about job hunting.

Among its current goals, Voice Up Japan ICU has partnered up with Minna no Seiri, an organization that aims to reduce taxes on menstrual products, which last month released a survey that revealed 1 in 5 Japanese women have difficulties buying sanitary pads or birth control due to financial reasons. Together, they have launched a campaign to put products in schools that will help with what is referred to as “period poverty.”

“Our long-term goal is to make sanitary pads available in universities on a national level,” Niehaus says.

“If this movement gathers a lot of attention,” says Hirota, “more and more people are going to start talking about it, which then generates this ripple effect and starts a discussion about the topic in society. That’s really important, you know, to discuss these issues. Every small daily activism leads to something bigger in the future.”

When talking about activism in Japanese society, both Hirota and Niehaus are optimistic that changes are already starting to take place.

“What stuck with me most was that at our last press conference on sexual harassment during job hunting, a lot of Japanese people actively shared their own sexual harassment experiences on Twitter,” Niehaus says. “This was very positive feedback.

“The narrative has definitely changed. A few years ago, the mainstream media wouldn’t even write about the representation or under-representation of, for example, women in politics. But now it’s reaching the mainstream media because more activists are actively speaking out about this.”

The women also point out that similar discussions surrounding LGBTQ+ issues are also taking place.

“Legally, there is still a lot of work to do, no doubt about that,” Niehaus says. “But at least we can see changes in the narratives.”

While Voice Up Japan ICU is only open to ICU students, the main branch welcomes support from anyone interested. For more information, visit voiceupjapan.org. The ICU branch can be found at voiceupjapanicu.org.

Scrolling for activism on Instagram

A lot of the discussion on gender equality is taking place on Instagram. Here are a few bilingual accounts to follow:

0.75 Women Japan: This group aims to create a society where the patriarchy is broken down. In doing so, women can be afforded the same rights as men, and female beauty expectations can be reimagined. @0.75_womenjapan

Blossom The Project: Founded by Meg Hoffman Nakagawa, this project provides a platform for discussing mental health and discrimination in Japan. @blossomtheproject

Speak Up Sophia: This Sophia University group aims to spread awareness of sexual consent and gender equality, with students talking about their own experiences. @speakupsophia

Super Smash Hoes: Founded by Fahreen Budhwani, this podcast and blog provide platforms for discussing feminism, pop culture, politics and history. Feminism is often misunderstood, and its goal is to change that by “smashing the patriarchy one post at a time.” @supersmashhoesmedia

Uprizine: Based out of Temple University Japan, Uprizine is an activist platform that writes about gender, mental health and sexual misconduct. @uprizine

Wanna Be Me: A student group based out of Kanazawa University, it aims to make the concept of feminism more accessible through discussion (Japanese only). @wannabeme_ku

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