Yu Negoro, 40, is a documentary filmmaker who has delved deep into the issues of gender and sexuality in Japanese society. Her first project was a series of three short films dealing with women suffering from eating disorders, a condition Neguro suffered in her 20s. Attributing her problems partly to conflicts with her mother, Neguro says she is now convinced that anorexia and bulimia are often the only outlets for women tormented by pressures to conform to gender stereotypes. She is now working on a film about men accused of domestic abuse, examining what social factors have driven them into turning violent toward women.

You grew up in the city of Kurashiki, Okayama Prefecture. What was your family like?

I come from a so-called “nuclear family,” a family of five consisting of me, my parents and two brothers. My father was a salaryman for a major petrochemical company, and my mother was a housewife. I was an active kid early on, but I started feeling depressed when I entered junior high school. At that time, my mother was taking care of her mother-in-law. She spent 13 years just nursing her, playing the role of “the good daughter-in-law.” I think I was being depressed by the situation. I felt there’d be nothing good for my life, in Kurashiki, as I could see myself just following in her footsteps, marrying another worker for the local petrochemical complex and living there as a housewife.

Did you go on to local schools?

Yes. I went to a girls’ high school and a local junior college, then worked for a clothing company. It was a typical course of life for girls around me, and in a few years I would have had an arranged date and got married. But then I suddenly quit my job, because I became interested in filmmaking. It was when I was 22 or 23. I worked as a staffer for a local documentary film festival, and I met creators like (now award-winning filmmaker) Naomi Kawase, who was back then shooting about life around her with an 8 mm camera. I was inspired by the idea that you can make a film all by yourself. As I made films, I started to see problems in wider parts of society.

What led you to make a film about eating disorders?

It’s rather simple. I was bulimic myself, and joined a support group for eating disorder sufferers. I made many friends there, but I lost one of them to suicide. She had always said she wanted to die, but I never thought she would, so I was shocked. And I wondered if I’d said the right thing to her, because I told her at one point: “If you seriously want to kill yourself, I can’t stop you.”

You show in your films that eating disorders are linked to gender issues.

I have been influenced a lot by psychiatrists who have incorporated concepts of feminism in their treatments of patients. Dr. Yuri Morita, a psychiatrist who studied feminism in the U.S., for example, has written that at the roots of such issues as eating disorders, domestic abuse and addiction to alcohol, drugs or gambling are the traumas people suffer when they are deprived of self-respect. She has said that victims of sexual or verbal harassment are more likely to develop dependency issues. And I noticed the causal link between my past and my problems, and this has formed the foundation of my life ever since. It was the eating disorders that led me to restart my life.

What are your thoughts on Japan’s status in international gender empowerment rankings? It’s been 27 years since the Equal Opportunity Employment Law.

That law, I think, was introduced to make women work like men — and in Japan, men who work themselves to death have been idealized. So it was only a few elite women who (benefitted) from the law. The situation hasn’t changed much since, as a majority (54.5 percent) of working women are employed as hiseiki part-timers (as opposed to the percentage of men in part-time labor, which stands at 19.7 percent). So you can’t say the law has resulted in an increase of women as fulltimers. The wage disparity between the sexes is still there as well. It was a very violent law, basically saying to women that, if they want to work to the point of not menstruating, let them. I used to work like men myself because, while I was working at a TV production company, I wanted to get a director’s post so much. I used to sleep on the floor of the office. But at one point, I realized that wasn’t the way I wanted to live my life.

Feminism has never really taken off in Japan. And women seem to lack a common platform to share their problems.

We don’t have opinion leaders. But while our battle for equality for women ended in defeat, what has come to our rescue is the movement by sexual minorities. Japanese society has very little know-how on redefining genders, but the LGBT movement is slowly happening here, and it offers a ray of hope.

I go to meetings of Rainbow Action (a group for sexual minorities in Japan), where they run a monthly kamo (“Maybe I’m …”) cafe. Anyone can drop by and confide issues they have, without giving their names. They can say, “Maybe I’m a lesbian,” or “Maybe I’m a girl, though I’m supposed to be a boy,” or “I think I’m gay, but I can’t tell my mom.” Or heterosexual people can also drop in and share problems, like, “I joined the company through the connection of my father, so I can’t quit even though I want to.” Nobody feels out of place there. It’s a really relaxing environment, where people share ideas on how they can liberate themselves from constraints of sexism. In Japan, feminism, women’s lib and men’s lib all kind of floundered. But the rainbow flag might make it.

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