Occidental students participated in an activist exchange titled “Rebuilding After Disaster: Women Activists from Japan” Wednesday, Feb. 7. The politics department co-hosted the event with 10 representatives from the Japanese non-profit organization Women’s Eye, who sponsors the International Grassroots Women’s Academy in Tohoku. The mission of Women’s Eye’s leadership academies is to empower and connect young women in Japan who strive to rebuild their communities after the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and Fukushima nuclear accident crises, according to the event’s flyer.
The representatives from Women’s Eye included Megumi Itabayshi, Makoto Sasaki, Miyoko Sato, Kaori Segawa, Seiko Abe, Hiroke Kasahara, Ayumi Suzuki, Hiromi Furusatoi, Chiemi Kamada, Mizuho Sugeno, the group’s director Sachiko Taura and executive director Megumi Ishimoto. The speakers encouraged Occidental students to listen to experiences of the Women’s Eye representatives as well as share their own experiences with political and grassroots organizing through an open discussion. The conversation focused on a range of topics including maternal and postnatal care, marine education and organic farming. In addition to the guided conversation facilitated in part by Occidental politics professor Jennifer Piscopo, the event included a photo exhibition that displayed Japanese women leading various forms of community engagement.
According to Piscopo, not all of the representatives were able to tell their stories due to time constraints and the emotional labor involved in recounting their experiences. She said the photography was a way to give all of the representatives a voice in the discussion.
“[The use of photography] was really important, especially for U.S. audiences who haven’t lived through a disaster like those in Japan, to really look visually at both what the women survived and what they’re rebuilding,” Piscopo said.
Piscopo and her colleague, associate professor Jackie Steele from The University of Tokyo, helped organize the event. They both center their work around women’s participation in politics. Steele said that her work over the last few years has focused on rebuilding communities that have been affected by natural disasters in Japan through a political theory lens. Her work continued to develop after she received a two-year research grant titled “Diverse Young Leaders in Post Disaster Tohoku” from the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science. The grant allowed Steele to pursue an empirical research project which involved tracking young Japanese women who are participating in leadership academies organized by Women’s Eye.
“I’m [studying] the connection between post-disaster rebuilding and rebuilding local democracy and rebuilding with an inclusiveness around democracy,” Steele said. “I’m thinking particularly about women and also the broader diversity in the community, [including] low-income, single-mother, single-parent and LGBTQ households, and how we think through the connections of disasters, democracy and diversity.”
Steele explained that the International Grassroots Women’s Academy in Tohoku sponsors three academies per year in Miyagi, Iwate and Fukushima. This year, the representatives traveled to Los Angeles in an effort to gain exposure to different aspects of leadership and the ways young people become agents of change in the U.S., according to Piscopo.
Piscopo said that one of the primary motivations for hosting the event was to initiate and facilitate a reciprocal relationship between Occidental students and the women leaders from Japan.
“The visitors aren’t here to just tell us about their experiences, they’re here to learn about our experience,” Piscopo said.
Approximately 15 Occidental students attended the event and discussed their own work related to social change and political engagement. Some students shared their experiences with voter mobilization in swing states, while others discussed their work regarding bail bond reform.
Piscopo also noted that although Women’s Eye representatives and Occidental students work in different contexts, cross-cultural exchanges illustrate the value of collaboration and sharing experiences.
“Everyone was talking about strategies for making communities stronger and helping people who are marginalized find a voice. I think realizing that there are so many points of interconnection between parts of the globe and people in different parts of the globe who initially seem very distant and foreign to us is really important,” Piscopo said.
Pursuing and achieving social and political change through grassroots projects is not an easy task for women activists in Japan, the U.S. and around the world, according to Piscopo and Steele.
“One of the trends we see across the globe, but then again is very pronounced in Japan, is that women become engaged in what we think of as more informal politics or civic spaces,” Piscopo said.
Piscopo added that women who are first become involved in community or grassroots work may find they need more formal political power to affect the of changes they seek. This need can inspire women involved in grassroots work to pursue party politics and elected office.
Urban and Environmental Policy professor Martha Matsuoka, who was also in attendance, explained that effecting change can be challenging, especially in collaboration with others. She said women in the U.S. have stepped up to challenge the injustices they face through the #MeToo Campaign and protests against the Trump presidency, the culture of masculinity and sexual assault. Matsuoka also said that she was hopeful that a new generation of social and political activists, especially women, can rise to the challenge of this particularly fraught political climate.
“I came away from it very hopeful and really inspired by these young women,” Matsuoka said. “Japan is a country that is very patriarchal, culturally and politically, in every sphere of life. So, for young women to be stepping up into that to make change is pretty extraordinary.”