Meet Momori Hirabayashi, Jazgul Kochkorova, Yuki Nakao, and Kristin Wilson: co-founders of WomEnpowered International. They met at the University of Tokyo’s Graduate School of Public Policy where they shared their concerns over the lack of women’s empowerment group in Japan. Read our interview with our co-founders as they detail the inspiration behind the organization, the organization’s upcoming plans, and more!
What was your motivation to join/start this organization?
Momori: “Growing up, living in developing countries exposed me to myriads of social issues, one of which was gender inequality. I knew the importance of educating and empowering women and how it could have a significant positive impact to those communities as a whole. So when I moved back to Japan, I was shocked to see the wide gender gap and lack of awareness of gender inequality despite the fact that Japan is one of the advanced countries in tackling social issues. Addition to that, the lack of initiatives and organizations for women’s empowerment on UTokyo campus was my biggest motivation to start this organization. My friend, Natalie and I created a facebook group to see if other women on campus would be interested in the idea of creating an organization dedicated to women’s empowerment. I got myriads of interests and positive feedbacks from professors, students, and people from outside of the UTokyo community where I realized the demand and importance of starting this organization. It’s a great feeling that many people support us and it has been my continuous motivation to work hard for this cause.”
Yuki: “I had never identified myself as a feminist or an activist, until I came back from the US and returned to University of Tokyo. But when I think about it now, I had been privileged to have libraral-oriented individuals, enlightened with norms of gender equality, around me. I found out that Japanese society and UTokyo need extra push to transform the gender norm. I believe that having an organization like WE Int. helps to bring gender issue on the table, in the first place. Hopefully, more Japanese people start talking about gender issues, because of WE Int. activities.”
Jazgul: “Coming from a country, where gender equality and violence against women have long been societal problems, I was already aware of the necessity to raise voice for women empowerment. I thought that Japan with its high technological development must be well advanced in gender issues. But seeing mostly mothers taking care of children and doing chores, and men coming on the train from work, it was such an imbalance. Moreover, this imbalance extended to the academic culture even at Todai, where a lot classes are taught by male professors even though the orientation was given by females, and to student bodies with plenty of male-dominated sports clubs without any specific ones geared for female students. That’s when I felt the strong need to create a space, where students would be comfortable talking about gender-related issues and benefit from various learning opportunities.”
Kristin: “I come from the US, so we have a bit of a longer history with women’s empowerment. Women’s issues were always important for me, and when I came to Japan and taught at an all girls’ high school for 4 years this became solidified. I noticed the gap between how young women in Japan and young women in the US viewed the possible trajectories for their lives. I had so many wonderfully bright and ambitious students who were worried about the larger messages society was telling them about what they could achieve and the limits they saw. Coming to the University of Tokyo and entering the Graduate School for Public Policy, I saw an opportunity and a real platform to possibly have an impact.”
Why do you think WE Int is necessary?
Kristin: “WE Int. is necessary because Japan is nowhere near a gender equal society. We are now in the 21st century and this must change. I think we must first start with awareness. This is something you can see lacking on our campus--a general lack of acknowledgement and awareness of gender issues. However, I think this is slowly changing. The second thing you need is momentum and organizations, because they can combine the resources and talents of so many people. Women are underrepresented at our university and in leadership positions in Japanese society. In order to make changes, we first have to organize so we can speak with a louder voice and have greater impact. WomEmpowered International aims to do just that, and so I see our presence as very necessary if we hope to contribute to advancing gender equality in Japan.”
Momori: “Unfortunately, gender bias is still deeply embedded in the Japanese culture. As a result, many women face various levels of discrimination and abuse that prevents them from playing a full part in society and decision-making. Solving such issues are complex, and no simple answers exist. But I believe the key is to harness inclusiveness, which is what WE Int. is doing. It’s crucial to have diverse group of people involved and raise awareness of gender equality to tackle the issue together. There are many international members as well as Japanese members in WE Int. who are passionate to make a change. The committed and active participation among our members has already built an interconnected, inclusive, and sustainable community that could potentially disrupt the Japanese society in a good way. I hope WE Int. will show the value in empowering women and more people would want to be part of this active change to create a society where more women can make a difference in Japan, and also globally.”
Yuki: “Lack of organizations focused on women’s empowerment allows reproduction of the male-centric culture and institutions at UTokyo and in the Japanese society. WE Int. will appear subversive from the standpoint of many “mainstream” Japanese people. But certain subversiveness or loudness is needed to get attention. WE Int. is necessary precisely for this purpose -- to make sound, to get attention.
Hopefully, WE Int. continues to exist and members from our generation can be role models for future members. Currently, there is a difficulty in Japan finding a respectable, kind, and relatable female role models. I hope WE Int. becomes a new platform where future role models can grow and prosper.”
Jazgul: “University of Tokyo produces future leaders in politics, academia, science, and business, who will be shaping the discourse of the society, therefore, establishing WE Int. at Todai was crucially important to shape a generation that is aware of gender-related issues, supportive of women empowerment and active in pushing gender-sensitive policies. Our determination to work together with other passionate students within our community and beyond was largely influenced by participating at the 5th World Assembly of Women and W20 joint conference on March 23-24, 2019. Seeing a lot of Japanese and international leaders at WAW encouraging women’s and girls’ empowerment was very inspiring and triggered the launch of the WE Int activities. It was important to start at this level to empower young women who are future colleagues, wives and mothers how to fight for their rights and to be equally successful professionally, academically and in their private lives. Moreover, we envision WE Int. as an avenue that could bridge Japanese and other cultures and strengthen the ties between the international and local community.”
What are the biggest challenges you faced / experiences in gender inequality?
In Japan, and in the world in general, people tend to shy away from strong women. Double standards abound and we are judged more harshly for speaking out and being ambitious. This can be a huge challenge in the attempt to change norms and attitudes regarding gender, but it should not deter us. Women make up a full half of humanity. It is a matter of justice that we should be able to speak and demand equal rights.
What's the most important things we're working on right now?
We are in the initial stages of our organization, so it’s an exciting time. It is also difficult as we are still figuring out our own power, capabilities, and what we can become. I think the most important thing for our group at the moment is to correctly and distinctly identify those issues that we hope to tackle, trying to understand the nature of the problem, and figuring out how we can mobilize our resources and talents to solve them. We are also trying to forge connections with the greater movement for women’s empowerment in Tokyo and Japan, which is essential. It is also very uplifting to see how many women are keen to join in this fight.