Reflections from artist and Tomorrow Girls Troop member Natsu Kawasaki on activism, gender equality, and visual representation in Japan, and the challenges faced by TGT as an emerging feminist art collective.
Undoing Misconceptions: “What’s the Difference between Feminist and Lolita Complex?”
Defining feminism is tricky even among feminists, given the vast array of social contexts and subject positions. In Japan, the discrepancy between different interpretations of feminism is no less pronounced, and for several reasons—including the overwhelming mainstream backlash towards the term “gender” in the early 2000s, the notion that “feminism” is a Western concept that doesn’t apply to Japanese culture, or the way discourse around feminism has often been confined to academia. This has led to, at best, rather pervasive misinformation on the subject in mainstream culture.
In 2017, Tomorrow Girls Troop (TGT) launched the Dear Kojien Project, which petitioned for a revised definition of “feminist” and “feminism” in the Kojien, Japan’s official dictionary. The sixth edition, which was in circulation until 2017, defined the terms as follows:
Feminism: An ideology and movement that asserts women’s rights to social, political, legal, and sexual self-determination, and also attempts to criticise and restructure male-dominated society and civilisation. Women’s liberation. The expansion of women’s rights.
Feminist: Women’s liberationist. An advocate for the expansion of women’s rights. Colloquially, men who are lenient towards women.1 (italics added)
Almost all dictionaries in Japan include similar definitions (which TGT delineates here); and, indeed, when the founding members of TGT conducted preliminary research online on “Japan and feminism,” we found several citations working with the Kojien definition, or at least using it as a starting point. We realised that its circulation was creating unnecessary confusion about feminism in Japan, and several anonymous yet representative online forums would ask questions like, “Takechi from Gintama gets called things like rori-kon [lolita-complex] or feminist, but what's the difference between feminist and rori-kon anyway?”
TGT concluded that a particular cause of confusion was the omission of “equality” from these dictionary definitions, which only stated that feminism is the “expansion of women’s rights”—but, of course, misogynists have pointed to that very same phrase to accuse feminists of misandry. Indeed, on the Dear Kojien Project petition page, many expressed frustration with the current definitions, stating that expansion of women’s rights (女権拡張) without mention of “gender equality” was misleading and vulnerable to misogynistic interpretations. Also troubling is the line that defines feminists as “men who are lenient towards women” (女に甘い男 / onna ni amai otoko), without any elaboration.
These definitions have been around since the first edition of the Kojien in 1955,2 and its continued circulation among the general public (especially the youth) is something TGT hoped to address with the Dear Kojien Project. An important component was to help explain that the need for an expansion of women’s rights arises, in fact, from the concrete and material gender inequalities faced by women. And while we still receive opposition when promoting feminism in Japan, the last four years have kept us hopeful, as we’ve seen significant strides in both the gender equality movement and with socially engaged art, which I’ll return to later in this essay.
The Birth of a Collective
Ashita Shoujo Tai (明日少女隊), or Tomorrow Girls Troop, is a fourth-wave, anonymous feminist art collective3 working at the intersection of art and activism, with a focus on East Asian feminist issues. TGT members consist of high school, college, and PhD students, full-time artists, artist mothers, people working in various non-arts related industries, and more. The diversity of genders, sexual orientations, and backgrounds contributes to the depth and breadth of our projects and concepts, and challenges our own internalised or preconceived notions. We are brought together as a team through our commitment to the collective’s mission, which is to combat sexism and bring about social justice in East Asia through artistic means.
TGT was founded in April 2015 by a handful of friends in the arts who recognised an urgent need to promote an understanding of feminism in Japan and Korea, and to push for dynamic social change. One of the founding members, Midori Ozaki,4 believed that it was not just social structures or access to resources that would liberate Japanese women from sexism and the confines of gender, but also a deeper understanding and embracing of gender equality. The troop has since grown to include members from neighboring East Asian countries, focusing on intersectional feminist discourse and social justice, manifested and achieved through art.
Academic Feminism and Feminism in Art
Feminism in Japan has thus far been centred heavily around the world of academia. Feminist artists, though active, were peripheral in the feminist movement, whereas established academics were recognised as prominent figures in feminism. Because gender studies and feminism, as discourses, were often discussed within exclusive academic circles, it created an atmosphere that discouraged those in other fields, like art, to approach it through their work. At the same time, these academics were rarely experts in art or other creative fields, and often distanced themselves from feminist discourse relating to art and visual representation. While some acknowledged misogynistic representations of women and children in Japanese subcultures or manga, feminists in academia refrained from openly criticising or discussing misogyny in art, for fear of receiving backlash or calls to “stay in one’s lane.”
TGT’s attempts to reach out to academics to seek their support in art projects and campaigns, or simply to connect with them in hopes of creating a strong network of feminists that transcends fields, have so far met with mild success, and generally we were only able to collaborate on one-time events—e.g., TGT’s work with Mari Miura, political scientist and professor at Sophia University, in organising a symposium on how elections affect women; support from Chizuko Ueno, Professor Emeritus at Tokyo University, and also the Chairperson of the Board of Women’s Action Network, the organisers for a May 2019 symposium, in which TGT will be participating.
The interest in TGT has been comparatively higher overseas, with several guest lecturer invitations at universities including Oxford and UCLA. TGT was also invited to participate as a panelist at an international symposium on activism by Generation Z in Milan, Italy.
Yet in Japan, artists are not taken as seriously as academic professionals or experts, and occupy a rather low social status in society—meaning feminist artists are further marginalised. This social context made it difficult for TGT to get their foot in the door and create alliances with established feminist scholars and circles, much less acquire a support base and work towards its mission of introducing feminism to a broad audience through art. TGT received backlash from both misogynistic netizens and feminist scholars, as seen in one of our first large-scale, long-term projects, to which I will now turn.
Challenging the Government’s Endorsement of Otaku Sexism
TGT’s “big break” in public discourse occurred in 2015 during our Change.org petition, when we asked the city of Shima to rescind their endorsement of the character Megu Aoshima as the city’s official mascot. Shima, located in the Mie prefecture, was selected as the host city for the 2017 G7 Summit and, in anticipation of their unprecedented global exposure, Megu Aoshima was chosen for their promotional material. This character, explicitly described as a seventeen-year-old girl by her creators, is dressed in a traditional version of the ama diving outfit worn by women shellfish divers,5 a respected but shrinking industry of the region. The style of the character is known as moe kyara, a subculture of Japanese manga and anime in which characters, the majority of which are girls, are simultaneously infantilised and sexually objectified.
TGT is not against moe kyara, and respects the freedom of expression of artists and creatives—after all, it is first and foremost an artist collective. Nor is TGT against otaku culture or advocating for the censorship of it. The questions TGT wished to raise with the petition was what it meant when an authoritative entity (like a municipal government) endorses representations of a sexualised minor, what kinds of messages this sends, and the prevalence of sexually objectified women and children in public spaces.
Initially, TGT looked into the idea of zoning as a possible solution or compromise, so that these visuals and products could be available for those who liked it, without the general public being subjected to it in their daily lives. But after much discussion within the collective and with other feminists, artists, and scholars, zoning was considered impractical. For zoning to work, there would need to be new sets of rules and guidelines, essentially regulating what is “appropriate” based on values that, realistically, would only cater to a certain group—and this could easily backfire for the arts. Instead, TGT concluded that education would be a more effective solution, as it would allow for more discussion and create a collective vision and understanding about gender equality, discrimination, and visual representation in our communities.
However, these issues were initially eclipsed by the backlash received online, from mainstream otaku circles to prominent feminists and academics alike, as the discourse was distorted into a “feminists versus otaku culture” issue. Prior to this project, sexism and misogyny remained largely unchallenged in otaku culture, which has grown into an incredibly lucrative global phenomenon, as well as a popular way Japanese culture is promoted abroad by public and private sectors. Once looked down upon as a subculture of geeks and social outcasts, otaku culture acquired new social status over these past fifteen or so years.
Many Megu Aoshima and otaku culture fans argued that the campaign led by “radical feminists” discriminated against these aesthetics and subcultures, and claimed it would set a precedent for censoring all things moe kyara or otaku-related. Realising that our message was either not clear or willfully being distorted, we began to detail our concerns, offering criticism and our perspectives as an artist collective. We also provided examples of the surrounding discourse on representation and discrimination through our social media platforms.
Despite the backlash and sudden internet infamy, it did set a precedent of speaking out against problematic media depictions of women and girls, and the Shima municipal government ended up rescinding their endorsement of the character. By providing our knowledge and experience as artists, we were able to invite the public to engage in discussions about sexism, representation, and art.
Since the Megu Aoshima incident, a number of municipal promotional campaigns in Japan went viral due to their controversial content—including Minokamo city’s attempt at using a moe kyara that emphasised the character’s breasts for their city-wide stamp rally event, and “Unako,” a promotional video by Shibushi City for eel (their local specialty), in which the eel is personified as a young woman in a school swimsuit being kept and grown for consumption in a swimming pool by an anonymous male figure. As more people became conscious of these problematic representations, the majority of them featuring sexually objectified minors, promotional campaigns put forth by the public sector have come under greater scrutiny. The general public is now bolder about speaking out, especially on social media. It is important to reiterate that TGT is not advocating censorship, but seeks to further the dialogue about the relationship between structures of power and representation, and the effects it has on society, so as to deconstruct conceptions of gender and internalised misogyny.
The Reception of Socially Engaged Art by the Japanese Art World
Through socially engaged art (SEA), TGT saw a potential to merge art and activism—and to communicate, educate, and be more closely involved with an audience through art. While SEA, also known as “social practice art,” has become more recognised globally, it remains a relatively unknown and misunderstood art form in Japan. It is often confused with regional community art, or Chiiki Āto (地域アート), which is usually associated with local government-commissioned art projects for revitalising tourism.
There are, however, important differences between Chiiki Āto and SEA. With Chiiki Āto, the primary objective is to revitalise the community through available industry or natural resources, and to be conscious of the community’s identity throughout the project. The artist is expected to act as an instrument for that, more than as an autonomous agent of change. SEA, on the other hand, is artist-conceived and artist-led. It often challenges the status quo and hopes to shed light on difficult issues.
SEA artists are very conscious and self-reflexive about underlying social dynamics, so if a particular community is the focus of a project, often the intention is to empower or collaboratively assist the community in opening up a critical dialogue, rather than simply pleasing the community. A Chiiki Āto project on the theme of diversity or immigration might involve commissioned artists organising a festival to showcase different immigrant cultures in a given city, with community art projects that invite residents to contribute, or perhaps a public art work that “celebrates diversity.”
In comparison, artist Yoshinari Nishio’s socially engaged art series called “Self Select: Migrants in Tokyo” takes place on the streets of Tokyo, inviting a Japanese national and immigrant to switch clothes on the spot. The work examines clothing as a way of expression and communication, but also as ways that people identify themselves as belonging to a certain group, and subsequently highlighting the uncomfortable reality of the “us/them” mentality. The participants were then invited to the exhibition space, where they could create original items of clothing in the installation. The project challenged notions of diversity and acceptance in a society that has often been criticised for trying to maintain “homogeny” (which never existed in the first place), and allowed for participants to be part of the creative and intellectual process rather than merely the subject of a superficial “celebration.”
When it comes to SEA, TGT has employed staple feminist practices such as remaining process-based and interactive, and intentionally engaging marginalised or vulnerable demographics, including racial minorities, precarious workers, and the LGBTQI community. Throughout our processes, TGT is also conscious of the notion of labour, especially in the arts, where in many cases people are still expected to work at a professional level without financial compensation. The majority of TGT members are mothers with young children, people with irregular employment, artists, students—already burdened with instability and a lack of resources and visibility. And so, it has always been important to emphasise just compensation when working within the group and accepting offers to give talks, workshops, or participate in shows. This obviously relates to valuing “invisible” labour, but is also imperative to the sustainability of the collective.
TGT was invited to participate in the first large-scale, mainstream exhibition focused on SEA from 18 February to 5 March 2017, in the main exhibition hall at 3331 Arts Chiyoda, Tokyo. The show was organised by Art & Society Research Center, a non-profit organisation that translated and published Pablo Helguera’s book Education for Socially Engaged Art: A Materials and Techniques Handbook—the cornerstone of the show. The event gathered international artists who had been working in the field for many years, such as Suzanne Lacey, Pedro Reyes, and Park Fiction, and emerging Japanese artists and collectives such as TGT, miri meter, Kenji Yamada, and Akira Fujimoto. TGT’s contribution was a video performance made for the Believe Campaign (a coalition that lobbied for changing the existing 110-year old laws on sexual assault), and also presented “Jyoshi-ryoku kafe” or “Girls Power Café,” where we made literature on feminism, from zines to books and journals, available for visitors to read. A TGT member was present at the café to answer questions and talk with visitors. There was also a performance based on the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index ranking, where a TGT member would go down the list naming the next country on the ranking, and visitors would write the countries on the chalkboard—so that, eventually, by the end of the show, the entire ranking would be visible, allowing viewers to see and be made aware of how low Japan ranks on this list in relation to other countries.
The only review of this exhibition published in mainstream Japanese art media was written by Youhei Kurose, for the May 2017 issue of Bijutsu Techo, the most prominent art magazine in Japan. The review’s title, “A Device to Prolong the Lifespan of Regional Community Art,”6 hints at its lack of differentiation between SEA and Chiiki Āto, even though this is a clear and important distinction to make when discussing the two. TGT, Suzanne Lacey, and Kurumi Wakaki were the only women-identifying artists in a show of fifteen artists/collectives.7 In his review, Kurose was critical towards Lacey’s work and calls Wakaki’s work “immature,” with no further explanation. There was no mention of TGT at all, nor did it raise any productive criticism for further discussion on the topic of SEA in Japan.
That said, there is no lack of artists and collectives working at the junction of art and social engagement, even if they remain under the radar. Recent developments have shown that curiosity over SEA is increasing, and the Kawamura Arts and Cultural Foundation launched a Socially Engaged Art Support Grant in 2017, which we hope will allow more in Japan to understand SEA. TGT’s work has always been focused on timely and relevant issues for everyday people—including discrimination in politics and in the workplace, domestic sexual violence, and gender stereotypes perpetuated through media. We’ve tried to tackle these topics with a wide range of approaches, from advocating changes in rape laws to designing placards free for protesters to download, and we hope to continue to work at this intersection of art and activism.
TGT’s Future Prospects
In the four years since TGT began, we have seen several encouraging changes amidst discouraging challenges. We have found dependable friends and collaborators, especially among what’s referred to as Generation Z, a new generation of internet-savvy activists already well-versed in intersectionality and feminism. The Dear Kojien Project attracted significant attention on social media, and the Kojien’s publishing company, Iwanami Shoten, even responded by revising the definitions for feminism and feminist, with the word “equality” finally included in the new edition (distributed on 12 January 2018).8 We are encouraged by these small victories and will continue to use these opportunities to connect more deeply with the public and fellow activists. Since 2018, we have been working on a collaborative project with the digital publication Honeyhands, bringing #MeToo discussions to the art world by raising awareness about sexual harassment in art schools. We are also collaborating with artist and scholar Yoshiko Shimada on a performance piece about military sex slaves (colloquially known as “comfort women”) slated for the summer of 2019.
Above all, we are impressed and excited by the marked shift in discussions around feminism in the public sphere—from “how is it different from lolita complex?” to being able to identify gender discrimination and collectively call it out. The momentum is a sign of hope not only for feminists but for Japanese society more broadly, and TGT is committed to continuing our advocacy for gender equality through art and activism.
Natsu Kawasaki is an artist and Tomorrow Girls Troop member.
1. Translated by Tomorrow Girls Troop.
2. In a 1979 song by popular male singer Yosui Inoue titled “Feminist,” a woman declares, “Feminists are my least favorite type of men,” by which she refers to men who shower women with lavish gifts. Another song by male pop singer Toshihiko Tamura, also titled “Feminist,” debuted in 2017 and was written from the perspective of a man who considers himself a feminist. The lyrics suggest that this is because he admires his mother, and the beauty and strength of women and motherhood. Both cases present feminists as men who admire women, and make no mention of gender equality.
3. Before formally founding TGT, Midori, one of the founding members, had a chance to listen to an artist talk with the Guerrilla Girls, and was inspired by their strategic use of anonymity—in that it allowed the art/issues to be the focal point. Also, back in 2015, it was still very risky to be openly involved in feminist activism, and for the members in Japan who were already in precarious living situations or disadvantaged social positions, it was preferable to be an anonymous group.
4. Individual TGT members use pseudonyms to protect their identity. This is called the Post-war Women Appreciation Project (戦後女性感謝プロジェクト). The names used are names of post-war figures who contributed to feminism and gender equality, but are often omitted from mainstream historical narratives. The project was conceived after TGT discovered that of the eighteen cultural figures highlighted in public school textbooks currently in circulation, there is only one woman mentioned (the legendary singer Hibari Misora). By using pseudonyms of underappreciated women, TGT seeks to bring their contributions into the mainstream.
5. Currently, divers wear modern-day diving gear for obvious reasons of safety and functionality.
6. Kurose, Yohei. “Chiiki Āto no Enmei Souchi.” Bijutsu Techo. May 2017.
7. Here I associate TGT as a women-identifying artist/collective because the project we exhibited was about sexual violence, which predominantly victimises women, and the members that physically appeared before the public to represent TGT during this show were all women-identifying members. There were other mixed gender collectives in the show, but their work was not necessarily women-identifying. See here for full list of the participating artists.
8. That said, there were some changes we still felt were problematic, making this a long-term project for us until the next revision period in 2028.