HeForShe Taking Root in Japan

By Rhea Endo

NAGOYA. The Nagoya University HeForShe Student Club is a student organisation founded in 2017 at Nagoya University. It advocates for UN Women’s campaign HeForShe’s cause – gender equality and inclusion – that Japanese Universities, especially outside Tokyo, are in desperate need of.

“MenーI would like to take this opportunity to extend your formal invitation. Gender equality is your issue too.” In 2014, Emma Watson, British actress and UN Women Goodwill Ambassador, gave a widely praised speech at the UN to launch the HeForShe Campaign, a unique movement that asks men to “take up the mantel” to fight for a gender equal world. In four years, roughly 1.3 billion people have committed to the movement, and even in Japan, a country that ranks 110th in the Global Gender Gap Report, HeForShe is a small, steady force in the field of education.

Paving the Way for Parity

Criticism towards the practicality of the HeForShe campaign in achieving gender equality is not uncommon. That it changes little, is too individualistic, and seems to ask “very little of men”. Nagoya University in Japan, however, begs to differ. Located in Aichi Prefecture, the public university’s president Seiichi Matsuo was appointed an ‘Impact Champion’ of HeForShe’s Impact 10x10x10 pilot program which, according to a Forbes article, is the “most significant work that HeForShe has undertaken”. It is an initiative to achieve parity by 2020 through a top-down method, inviting world leaders in three areas – governments, companies, and universities – to find effective approaches in ending gender disparity. An annual report covers the ways various leaders have approached the problems their country, corporation, or institution faces and how they could/could not overcome the challenges. Prime Minister Abe was also appointed a champion of this program. The student club was established in November 2017, with a steady flow of members coming and going.

Dr. Matsuo claims that Nagoya University is a “nationwide leader” in promoting HeForShe’s cause. Indeed, the Office for Gender Equality (renamed Center for Gender Equality in 2017) and the Gender Equality Promotion Special Committee were established in 2003, one of the first of their kind in Japanese universities. The office has provided extensive support for female employees, such as providing childcare and networking opportunities for young science researchers, though the notion that only women would need such childcare remains problematic. The center claims it has helped raise awareness on gender equality on campus and is working towards balancing the male-female ratio in traditionally masculine areas of study, such as allocating women-only positions in natural sciences and engineering. Furthermore, the university has created a “Fund for Gender Equality and Justice”, which aims to increase the number of female researchers and decision-makers to 20% by 2020 (which, one student remarks, is “not even near half!”), and has built a Gender Research Library, which houses 20,000 books related to gender studies.

Students Standing for Gender Equality

Whether the university is actually a “nationwide leader” in advocating for gender equality remains debatable. One group of students, however, is paving the way as advocates for HeForShe’s cause. The Nagoya University HeForShe student club aims to “spread awareness about gender and gender equality,” says Momo Mori – a 4th year student, who founded and now represents the HeForShe student club, and was raised in Germany. “Many of us found [HeForShe] very binary, but it can also be interpreted…as a spectrum and everyone who identifies in that can stand up for and support people who…are marginalised and oppressed.” Their hope is to create a gender inclusive and feminism-positive university. Since radical feminism rarely receives praise and support in Japan, they aim at “being inclusive,” Elif Erdogan, another founding member, points out, focusing on topics such as toxic masculinity, activism, and sexuality.

The club started as a closed group of friends, when Momo learned at a lecture that the Gender Equality Office “was waiting for student engagement” as a HeForShe champion university. “As Emma Watson said, ‘If not me, who? If not now, when?’ I thought of her quote when I started the club.” In fact, her interest in feminism was sparked from watching Emma Watson’s 2014 UN speech. She also underlines that not many clubs in Aichi Prefecture provide a safe space for a diverse group of people to talk, learn and influence others about gender issues. “We try to include both domestic Japanese students and international students to incorporate a wider view on gender equality,” she says, although the majority of members are non-Japanese. Some members initially joined to support their friends, but became interested in gender equality through their participation.

Spreading the Message

In their 2nd year, the club became more active.They’ve hosted film screenings on various topics, including Japan’s Secret Shame, a BBC documentary on Japanese reporter Shiori Ito’s rape case. They’ve held workshops and lectures on sexual harassment, sexual violence and self defense, and participated in the school festival (Check out their Instagram for details). Many of the event participants are club members, but the surveys they’ve conducted have allowed them to grasp the general opinion within Nagoya University about Japan and its gender issues. 

As with many student clubs, however, they face the issue of ‘keeping’ members. Since the club is very diverse nationality-wise, discussions tend to be in English, which Elif says poses a problem when trying to recruit Japanese students. “We are now starting to properly structure the club to make it sustainable once the founding generation graduates next year,” Momo says. Funding is another problem, with a serious lack of financial support from the university, although the Gender Research Library occasionally grants funds.

Japan is in the process of gradually accepting gender equality and the idea of feminism, albeit very slowly and with reluctance. The presence of the HeForShe student club is therefore of crucial importance. “We stand for a gender equal world, undivided by socially constructed gender boundaries and stereotypes, Momo says. Gender equality cannot be achieved with only one side of society present. All members of society, including men, have to be involved in the fight for change.”
Heforshe Nagoya website : http://heforshe.provost.nagoya-u.ac.jp/