International Women’s Day (IWD) recognizes the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women. Annually celebrated on March 8, the day also marks a call to action for accelerating gender parity.
According to the IWD website, the theme for 2020 is #EachforEqual: “An equal world is an enabled world. How will you help forge a gender equal world? Celebrate women’s achievement. Raise awareness against bias. Take action for equality.”
JAPAN Forward would like to reintroduce you to women and girls who are champions in their fields, and who have inspired us with their stories.
At a young age, Masako-sama lived in Moscow and New York with her parents, and then moved back to Japan when she was eight. Masako-sama is fluent in English, German, and French, and graduated from Harvard University with a B.A. magna cum laude in economics. After returning to Japan, Masako-sama studied law at the University of Tokyo and was among three women who passed the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs entrance exam. Masako-sama reigns Japan as the Empress, and is the mother of one daughter, Aiko-sama.
‘An Experience to Cherish’: Parade-Goers Celebrate Japan’s New Emperor, Empress
WATCH | Tokyo Streets Turn Festive as Emperor Naruhito Greets Citizens in Post-Enthronement Parade
WATCH | Thousands at People’s Parade Celebrate Japan’s New Emperor
Imperial Trivia: The Empress’s Tiara
SHOKO KANAZAWA, Calligraphy Artist and Philanthropist
Shoko Kanazawa is the most famous calligrapher in Japan, and she may even be the most famous calligrapher in the world. Ironically, she may not even know this achievement. Kanazawa has written three Kanji of the Year with JAPAN Forward, and her second piece for 2019, “Prayer,” was donated to Kumamoto University, which suffered earthquakes and landslides in 2016.
Stories Related to Shoko Kanazawa:
‘Wa’ — Harmony — is Shoko Kanazawa’s 1st Reiwa New Year Kanji for JAPAN Forward Readers
Shoko Kanazawa Donates 2019 New Year Calligraphy ‘Prayer’ to Disaster-stricken Kumamoto
Shoko Kanazawa: A Down Syndrome Child’s Long Road to the ‘Light’
‘Prayer’ is Shoko Kanazawa’s 2019 New Year Kanji for JAPAN Forward Readers
‘Shine Brightly’: Calligrapher Shoko Kanazawa Writes New Year Kanji for JAPAN Forward Readers
YOSHIKO SAKURAI, Journalist and President of the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals
Yoshiko Sakurai is a pillar in Japan regarding progressive action, particularly in governmental affairs. A journalist by profession, Sakurai established the think tank Japan Institute for National Fundamentals in 2007 with the view of re-addressing fundamental issues that Japan faces.
Stories Related to Yoshiko Sakurai:
Speak up Japan, the World is Listening
[Speaking Out] Deploring Japan’s Limited Sense of Crisis
DIALOGUE | Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Violinist Ryu Goto Find Common Resolve to End Abduction Issue
Japan’s Nuclear Power Industry Will Collapse If Government Doesn’t Step In
Japan’s Biggest Challenge: Urgently Amending the Constitution
Why Do We Let Japanese Textbooks Carry Debunked Propaganda From China, South Korea?
HIYORI KON, Female Sumo Wrestler
The key protagonist in the Netflix short documentary, Little Miss Sumo, Hiyori Kon is pioneering a movement in sumo wrestling equality in Japan, where she hopes to establish a professional level for female sumo competition. Kon, originally from Aomori, graduates from Ritsumeikan University in the faculty of International Relations in the spring of 2020, and will be entering a company where she will be part of the sumo team. It’s the first time a woman will be accepted into the company team.
Stories Related to Hiyori Kon:
INTERVIEW | Hiyori Kon, Matt Kay on ‘Little Miss Sumo’ and Whether Japan’s National Sport Is Ready for Women
Hiyori Kon Meets Matt Kay: The Making of ‘Little Miss Sumo’
SHEILA CLIFFE, Kimono Researcher, Author, Stylist
Sheila Cliffe was born in Plymouth, England, in 1961, and relocated to Japan in 1985. She graduated from Suzunoya Kimono Gakuin and received a special award from Minzoku Ishou Bunka Fukyuu Kyoukai for her work in spreading kimono culture. Cliffe wears kimono regularly, and has earned a PhD in the study of kimono trends. She studied kimono fabric dyeing under Sassa Reiko, and teaches kimono culture and dressing.
Cliffe has spoken in Japan and in many other countries on kimono culture, and has published a book and articles in many journals. She has worked tirelessly in events in Japan and abroad to increase cultural understanding of Japan through spreading knowledge of kimono culture around the world.
Stories Related to Sheila Cliffe:
Kanto Region Waiting to Be Rediscovered As Center of Kimono Production
[Kimono Style] Silk Weavers of Tango Peninsula Celebrate 300 Years of Their Craft
Here’s How to Add Christmas Cheer to Your Kimono, According to Sheila Cliffe
MICHIKO YUSA, Professor of Japanese Thought and Intercultural Philosophy
Professor Yusa is highly regarded for her extensive, in-depth studies of philosophy and the Buddhist or Zen Buddhist thoughts of Kitaro Nishida (1870-1945) and Daisetz T. Suzuki (1870-1966). Yusa is also recognized for having introduced the two influential Kanazawa-associated figures, their ponderings and accomplishments, to a broad international audience.
Yusa is the winner of the 2nd Kanazawa University International Award in Commemoration of Daisetz T. Suzuki and Kitaro Nishida (KUI), and is recognized internationally for her prominent academic accomplishments in the study of the philosophies of Daisetz T. Suzuki and Kitaro Nishida, two of the most prominent philosophers and thinkers of modern Japan.
Story Related to Michiko Yusa:
Professor Michiko Yusa Receives Kanazawa University Prize for Distinguished Japanese Thought
HINAKO SHIBUNO, Japanese Professional Golfer, Reigning Women’s British Open Champion
Nicknamed the “Smiling Cinderella,” Hinako Shibuno won her first international tournament by taking the cup at the Women’s British Open at the age of 20. All the more astonishing to golf fans in Japan and overseas was the fact that it had only been a year since Shibuno qualified as a professional. Her infectious smile has also won her fans throughout Japan, and all of the world.
Stories Related to Hinako Shibuno:
‘Smiling Cinderella’ Hinako Shibuno wins AIG Women’s British Open
Japan’s Champion Lady Athletes and their ‘Smile Power’
SUZUKO HIRANO, Actress, Model, and Hong Kong Supporter
Suzuko Hirano, 25, is a theater actress and kimono model living in Chiba prefecture. She has trained in Japan’s traditional arts of urasenke chado (Japanese tea ceremony), ikeno ikebana (Japanese flower arranging), garaku (Japanese imperial court music), and ryuteki (Japanese flute) performance. Hirano claims she was just a regular person, but on June 13, she felt moved to do something about the dire situation in Hong Kong, found herself taking part in a protest for Hong Kong. For several weeks, Hirano led more protests and gave encouraging speeches in Japan. “To everyone in the world: stand up and fight, for freedom, for the next generation.”
Story Related to Suzuko Hirano:
INTERVIEW | Japanese Actress and Model Suzuko Hirano on Why She Supports Hong Kong Protesters
Tokiwamatsu Gakuen Dance Team
Inspired by Malala Yousafzai, the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014, Tokiwamatsu Gakuen dance team’s performance at the 12th All-Japan High School Super Cup Dance Stadium in 2019 got the attention of many in attendance. The dance team began with the words, “We are Malala!” Then they danced with all their heart and soul, depicting Malala’s indomitable spirit. Tokiwamatsu’s team took on the challenging theme of the importance of independent thought and the freedom to express and communicate, regardless of age or gender.
Celebrating International Women’s Day: Japanese Women Who Have Left Their Mark on History
Since International Women’s Day was officially adopted by the U.N. in 1975, its interpretations have varied from country to country. Last year in Spain more than five million partook in a “feminist strike,” bringing trains to a screeching halt. Also in 2017, three New York City skyscrapers lit their spires in purple to commemorate the day. This year in Tokyo the day is set to be celebrated with a showcase of female artists and creators.
Anybody who has studied the history of Japan or looked at Japanese society under an anthropological magnifying glass will know that the place of women in the country is more often than not limited and stereotyped. Gender roles are very much defined, and those who walk beyond the boundaries are often marginalized.
That said, there are many women breaking stereotypes in Japan today, from those featured in the Celebrating Women in Japan project, to the Tokyo fempreneurs supporting women in business, to the courageous Shiori Ito who has become known as the face of the #MeToo Movement in Japan.
In honor of International Women’s Day, we’ve rounded up a list of five Japanese women from past and present who have earned a top place in their respective fields, and can serve as role models for the contemporary mind.
Shizue Kato: Leader of Feminist Movements
Born to a famous samurai family in 1897, Shizue Kato proudly led the feminist movements in Japan during most of the 20th century and is often compared to Margaret Sanger, who occupied a similar role in the United States.
Kato’s work heavily involved enabling independence for Japanese women, and some might remember her as the one who fought to make birth control readily accessible in Japan. She valued independence more than anything and believed that giving women control over their sexuality was an important first step towards achieving this. She also believed this was the key to solving Japan’s growing population issue, which was resulting in many children living in poverty.
In 1937 she was imprisoned for two weeks for opposing the government’s views on population growth, putting a temporary halt to her activities. But in 1946 she returned to the limelight. She was nominated as one of the first female members of the Diet and is in part responsible for giving Japanese women the right to vote that same year. She died in 2001 at the age of 104.
Toshiko Yuasa: Japan’s First Female Physicist
Japan’s first female physicist, Toshiko Yuasa lived in France and actively participated in the research of nuclear energy for most of her life. In 1944, she was forced to move from Paris to Berlin but was eventually ordered by the Soviet Union to return to Japan. Because conditions in Japan weren’t favorable to pursue her research, she became a professor until the war in Europe ended in 1945. Ten years later she returned to France permanently.
Yuasa’s role in Japan-France relations was so significant that her name was attributed to one of the laboratories at the Laboratoire de l’Accélérateur Linéaire (LAL), and after her death in 1980, Tokyo’s Ochanomizu University created a scholarship in her name that encourages women to go and study in France.
Chiaki Mukai: First Japanese Woman to Go to Space
Chiaki Mukai is admirable for accomplishing not one, but two dreams of a lifetime. In 1977, she graduated with a doctorate in medicine from Keio University, and in 1983 became the chief resident in cardiovascular surgery at Keio University Hospital after completing two residencies. Five years later, she earned her second doctorate, this time in physiology.
Her presence in the medical research field has been so significant that she was selected by the National Space Development Agency of Japan (NSDA) to be part of the team conducting research on antigravity. This work resulted in her being nominated as one of the payload specialists to board the space shuttle Colombia in 1994, making her the first Japanese woman to fly into space (at the age of 32), a trip she repeated aboard the Discovery in 1998.
She went on to serve as the director of the Space Biomedical Research office, and later as the director of Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Center for Applied Space Science Research. The Japan Times reported: “Mukai said she was ‘certain’ she would see a fully functioning moon colony in her lifetime and was itching to go back into space.”
Banana Yoshimoto: Stereotype-Breaking Novelist
Japan has an impressive list of powerful female novelists and poets who played an important role in the development of Japanese culture over the years. Fans of Japanese literature will surely know of Heian poet Murasaki Shikibu and her thorough portrayal of the period’s high-class society in The Tale of Genji. Lovers of contemporary literature will definitely have heard of Banana Yoshimoto, a female author known for her use of magic realism.
She changed her name from Mahoko to Banana in homage to banana flowers and because it gave her an androgynous edge. Her work breaks stereotypical gender roles for both men and women: “I think the way society is right now is ephemeral; reflections of what humans might be, possibilities, so I try to focus instead on the human soul, rather than how a person appears,” she said in an interview with The Hindu.
Her portrayal of contemporary Japan is one full of loneliness, anxiety and misunderstandings between people, and she claims to write to inspire the youth to live happily, no matter the standards others impose upon them.
Kimiko Yoshida: Feminist Visual Artist
Born in 1963, Kimiko Yoshida is a contemporary visual artist who left Japan for Paris in 1995 after feeling oppressed as a woman. In her own words: “I’ve turned my back on any ‘quest for identity’ and what goes with it: appurtenances and ‘communities,’ stereotypes of ‘gender’ and determinism of heredity. The self-portrait isn’t a reflection of oneself, but a reflection on the representation of oneself.”
The image of the ideal Japanese woman, though not completely without change over the last century, has remained virtually the same, which Yoshida found frustrating. Since 2001, she has built up a distinctive signature style in her artistic photography and art. Her work, mostly consisting of portraits in quasi-monochromatic colors, are joined by a singular thread: the female condition, and more broadly, the question of identity.
As Yoshida tell TW: “My work is a reflection upon the division between representation and meaning, representation and disappearance, representation and absence, signifier and signified.”