LONDON - In the mid-1950s, Britain’s relations with Japan were still fragile in the aftermath of the war and Japanese residents of London felt a strong desire to heal the wounds.
It was against this backdrop that the then-Japanese ambassador’s wife, Fukiko Nishi, set up an organization of Japanese women to improve Anglo-Japanese understanding and relations.
Nishi learned from a previous stint in Australia how to use the often-sidelined Japanese wives as a form of diplomatic soft power.
On describing attempts to rebuild Japan’s postwar image, she remarked, “Instead of moving a large rock in one go, I tried to build trust by gathering small pebbles.”
Sixty years on, Nishi’s achievements — alongside those of her co-founders, Hanako Watanabe and Teruko Howard — were remembered at a diamond anniversary event for the Japanese Women’s Association in Great Britain (Eikoku Nihon Fujinkai).
The first meeting took place in October 1956 at the Young Women’s Christian Association in central London. It attracted about 80 members, mainly the wives of diplomats and businessmen.
As well as fostering Anglo-Japanese understanding, the group acted as a network for Japanese women who often felt isolated with memories of the war still raw in Britain, according to Watanabe’s daughter, Eimi, who paid tribute to her mother’s achievements at the event.
The women were encouraged to bring their British friends to the meetings and there was a mix of activities — flower-arranging classes, dance parties as well as lectures and visits on all aspects of British life, including the food.
Women were encouraged to visit hospitals and old people’s homes and help Japanese women struggling to cope with living in Britain.
Several members have since formed sister associations that have kept alive Nishi’s desire to encourage people-to-people exchanges.
Meri Arichi, the association’s chairwoman, said the group began to really grow in the 1970s and 1980s as the Japanese economy took off and more wives accompanied their husbands to Britain.
But as the society grew, it tended to be more Japan-centric and there was less interaction with British people.
Arichi said, “For many Japanese women coming here, it was their first time outside of Japan. Often their husbands were absent and they had little support.”
“There were lots of guidebooks for travelers but nothing about living in England. So, the group made their own guidebook, which was handwritten and photocopied. We have revised it every year and it’s still very popular.”
Arichi said that even today new members can feel isolated due to poor English language skills, and long-term members can pass on their experience.
Although the position of women in Japan has improved vastly since the 1950s, it wasn’t until 2005 that the group abolished an antiquated committee structure that was organized around their husbands’ professions.
This came as a relief to many female expatriates who thought they had left behind the hierarchical structures of Japanese society.
Over the years, the association has raised thousands of pounds for charities through an annual bazaar, including for the victims of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster in northeastern Japan.
Since the Japanese economic downturn, membership has declined and the proportion of long-term residents married to British men has increased.
Arichi said, “For a long time the association has been very Japan-centric. We were doing things just for the Japanese. But it is time for us to go back to the first vision of Fukiko Nishi to promote the better understanding of Japan in England.”
Junko Kirkbride, who has been a member from the beginning, said, “In 1956 it was difficult for Japanese women. There was the (war) undercurrent and possibly resentment toward Japanese, but it wasn’t obvious. But now, it’s all forgotten. It’s much easier for Japanese women, they don’t carry that regret for the war.
“Japanese women coming to London are a lot more international in their outlook. They understand English and are more interested in learning about European cultures. This organization is helping that understanding.”
Fellow member Michiko Okajima said: “We hold practical, educational and cultural events. The important thing for me is to make new friends and I can help them.”