Flower Demo, a catharsis for sexual assault survivors

Photo by Kohei Usuda

As night fell on August 11, about 150 people assembled at Gyoko-Dori Avenue near Tokyo Station to protest against a series of rape cases that ended in non-guilty verdicts. Since its inaugural demonstration in April, the Flower Demoーinitiated by feminist activists Minori Kitahara, Eiko Tabusa and Akiko Matsuo, and held on the 11th day of each monthーhas expanded to 18 cities nationwide and continues to evolve into a larger social movement in Japan. At the Flower Demo, participants are given the stage to speak up about their experiences of sexual assault. Akiko Matsuo (pictured above), the feminist publisher of etc.magazine and one of the core organizers of the Flower Demo, said she believes that the “survivors’ voices are the most powerful as their voices have the ability to spark change in our society”. This statement already rings true: last month, the Ministry of Justice announced that they will establish an investigative commission to deliberate penal code revisions pertaining to sexual crimes. Matsuo attributes this to the efforts of the Flower Demo, stating that “the voices of the participants were the main driving forces that brought about this decision”. The members of the investigative commissions will be chosen next March, and Jun Yamamoto, the executive director of Spring, Japan’s first incorporated sexual assault survivors’ organization, sees it vital to ensure “specialists and survivors of sexual assault a spot on the investigative commission”. The Flower Demo will continue to be held until March next year, which is when the members of the investigative commission will be announced.

Feeling safe

Participants of the Flower Demo hold up placards and bring flowersーa symbol of empathyーto stand in solidarity with the survivors. Perhaps this is one of the many examples of how the Flower Demo has “built an environment where people can feel safe to talk about sensitive topics that are usually shared in closed, private spaces”, to draw from Matsuo’s words. Nayu Takahashi was among a dozen speakers who took up the microphone at the August rally. A student at the International Christian University and a member of Voice Up Japan ICUーa student organization that aims to tackle gender inequalityーshe spoke out about her experiences to the public for the first time. When Nayu was a senior in high school, she was raped by a foreign man she didn’t know. “I had never experienced anything more frightening in my life. Before I could even experience true love, my precious body and rights were violated. It altered my life forever,” she recounted as her voice trembled. When she finally summoned up the courage to disclose her traumatic experience to those closest to her, it just resulted in rubbing salt in the wound. Her best friend reacted by making an insensitive jokeー“I hope you two make a cute halfie baby!”ーand her boyfriend told her that she brought this upon herself, while others scolded her to never bring up the subject again. Her deep psychological wounds were cut even deeper after receiving such comments from the people she trusted most. “I constantly blamed myself, contemplated suicide, and felt ashamed of being a sexual assault survivor.” However, when she revealed her past experiences to a gender studies professor at ICU, she found solace in her words. “She reassured me by telling me that I did nothing wrong. I wish someone had given me these words when I needed it most,” she recalled. After a while, she took another bold step by joining Voice Up Japan ICU, where she currently serves as the student representative. “I do not want to stay silent anymore. I decided to join this organization because it is high time that we raise our voices to spare the next generation from having to undergo what I went through”.

At the end of her testimony, she left us with a powerful message that empowered and inspired everyone in the audience: “Please do not think of yourself as filthy, worthless, or weak because you are a survivor. Your perpetrator may have been bigger in size, power and status, but the fact that you are still alive today despite having gone through such hardships proves that you are much more powerful and beautiful than you think you are”.

According to the Cabinet Office, one out of 13 females and one out of 67 males in Japan have experienced sexual assault. This includes cases of vaginal, anal and oral sex. If we include victims of other sexual crimes such as groping and indecent assaults, the number of victims will rise. Yet, less than 1000 cases of coerced sex are reported every year. The numbers speak for itself, but it takes an immense amount of courage to speak out about one’s experiences of sexual assault. Additionally, the lifelong pain and suffering perpetrators inflict on the survivors are irreversible. Nevertheless, as Matsuo encouraged those assembled at Gyoko-Dori, “talking about our unchangeable past will surely change the future”.

Photo by Kohei Usuda

The next Flower Demo takes place across 20 cities nationwide on September 11 (Wed). For more information, please visit www.flowerdemo.org

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