ISE, MIE PREFECTURE – I have proof that Japan is making progress in women’s empowerment. But it doesn’t just come from the global economic and political agenda priority item known as “Advancing Women’s Empowerment and Gender Equality.”
The Group of Seven summit at Ise-Shima was a success for women through random acts of kindness on display, besides the fact that empowering women in Japan and around the world has become a logic-driven position and not just a feel-good emotion.
Empowering women is good for economic development. We should have more capable women in positions of power. It’s not rocket science. It’s sandbox sensibility. But enough about an agenda item. Let me share the unsung women leaders I met.
I wasn’t with the designated big league G-7 leaders, otherwise known as all those men plus German Chancellor Angela Merkel, but I did have an opportunity to access the International Media Center near where those leaders were meeting.
My thank you list begins with the young women who so capably escorted me and many other visitors, VIPs and the world’s media through the Japan Exhibition annex. This was an extraordinary display of Japan’s innovation and tradition, but what made it come alive were the bilingual women volunteers on hand to converse about what one was seeing. The women who escorted me were bright university students, some from Mie Prefecture, one an exchange student from Taiwan. Without them I would have felt like that aimless shopper who says, “I’m just looking,” and departs quietly shortly after.
Another random act of women’s leadership came from an Ise-Shima Summit volunteer at Mikimoto Pearl Island, located in Toba City, Mie Prefecture. An excited group of local residents, Ama divers and Taiko performers was waiting for the arrival of first lady Akie Abe, and her G-7 partners Joachim Sauer, husband of Germany’s chancellor; Sophie Gregoire-Trudeau, wife of the Canadian prime minister; and Małgorzata Tusk, spouse of the European Council president.
By now I had been on my feet for hours and was feeling quite peaked. My phone battery had died, my camera battery was weak, and my body was weaker. Within minutes of arriving, a volunteer asked what she could do for me. I’m sure she could see that a number of batteries, as well as myself, needed recharging. She found electricity and gave me her chilled tea.
I designated her my summit star volunteer and asked her where should I send a letter of thanks. She responded, “I’m just a housewife from Nagoya.” I laughed and said, “Drop the word ‘just’ before ‘a housewife’ in your vocabulary. You are making a big difference to me as a citizen ambassador for Japan.”
Then I asked, “How did you get here? What is your story?” She applied as a volunteer in answer to an ad and received both English and hospitality training. And where did my star volunteer end up? Serving as a translator to the G-7 spouses as they graciously worked the line to greet the Ama divers and local residents.
Another vivid memory involves Sophie Gregoire-Trudeau embracing a young Japanese girl who had just performed for Japan’s first lady and the other VIPs. The girl had greeted Canada’s first lady and Akie Abe, and burst into tears of excitement. The heartfelt moment caused several Japanese reporters to rush over for an on-the-spot interview with the new media star, who undoubtedly said that it was a thrill to present Toba to the world.
Young and old, international and homegrown, women were making a difference, taking the initiative, sharing the conversation, giving a hug of encouragement and comfort. And Joachim Saur, a quantum chemist professor, was right at home with the women spouses, taking the time to give the Mie Prefecture local residents a lifelong memory.
Louisa May Alcott, author of the classic “Little Women,” said in the 19th century, “I only ask for a chance to be a useful, happy woman, and I don’t think that is a bad ambition.” Nearly a century and a half later, we are still asking for that same chance.
The Amaterasu Omikami spirit prevailed from watching Akie Abe engage with the other G-7 spouses along the Isuzu river’s edge at Ise Jingu, to the Ama divers displaying their skills before the VIPs, to the young women volunteers at the Japan Exhibition moving from topics that ranged from the world’s thinnest and refined silk, made in Japan, to “Hobalin,” an underwater drone used for deep-sea exploration.
Don’t we want women to shine here in Japan and elsewhere with the kind of compassion, care and concern that I experienced during such a high-profile event? The men may still be overwhelmingly in charge but capable women seem to be in control of making everything flow smoothly.
While so much of the news reports continue to focus on the negative — the declining GDP growth — I can’t help but see the positive: the rise in gross domestic power of the feminine persuasion. And if I were planning the hospitality committee for Tokyo 2020, there’s this housewife I know from Nagoya.
Nancy Snow is Pax Mundi Professor of Public Diplomacy at Kyoto University of Foreign Studies.