Tomorrow Girl’s Troop and the Power Parade across Japan

Tomorrow Girl’s Troop (TGT) don’t have the polish normally displayed by media savvy Western feminist groups who are used to a world in which discussions of gender and equality are the norm. This lends TGT a pure and unspoilt tone that sets them apart in an earnest call for gender equality that lacks anger or vitriol. They are an anonymous group of artist activists operating under pseudonyms and are globally active with members living in Japan, Korea and the US. They were recently involved in one of the first (if not the first) feminist art exhibition in Tokyo, Japan. ‘Feminist Fan in Japan and Friends’ was on show at the Youkobo Art Space from February 20th to 26th 2016 and, as part of the show which included multiple female artists, Tomorrow Girl’s Troop created an installation with their recent political posters, placards and videos. The work criticizes women’s representation in media, last year’s top court ruling preventing married couples to maintain their respective surnames, and urges that the equality of all sexes is key for a happier society.

The group of women represented within the ‘Feminist Fan in Japan and Friends’ show over these six days are blazing a feminist trail in a country where feminism has almost no voice and gender equality is very seldom discussed. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made ‘womenomics’ his area as he tries gallantly to push for women to take their place in Japanese business and industry in the face of a shrinking economy. He isn’t doing this, however, out of a burning desire for equality but for economic prosperity and so his rallying cry hasn’t included a conversation around broader gender inequality in Japan, men and womens’ roles, sexual violence, media depictions of men and women and the deep rooted separation of the sexes that leaves women and men blindly struggling to play their roles. His project is also failing quite badly as initial target goals for women’s representation in business are dropped drastically, Abe cannot get Japanese society to buy in to women’s equality en masse and until he can do so it is business as usual.

‘Feminist Fan in Japan and Friends’ was the creation of Australian artist Kate Just, who, upon invitation to host a solo show in Tokyo, invited some other feminist pioneers to join her. Kate Just’s ongoing Feminist Fan series comprises hand knitted renditions of her favourite self-portraits by women artists and artist groups across the globe including Frida Kahlo, Cindy Sherman, Yoko Ono, The Guerrilla Girls, Kate Beynon, Tracey Moffatt, Pussy Riot, Claude Cahun and China’s Feminist Five. Some of these works were depicted in the tragically short lived exhibition (running for just six days) alongside four Japanese artists and one from Hong Kong, Yu Shu Pui Bobby. The exhibition marked the culmination of Just’s two month residency at Youkobo Art Space and brought her work together with female artists that she had researched and connected with whilst in Japan. The show offered a rare insight into feminist practice in Japan and is a testament to one of the principles of Tomorrow’s Girls Troops, that of women coming together and making their voices louder by association.

Amongst the Japanese women represented in the show was Megumi Igarashi who has become well known for her works which seek to remove the mystery around female genitalia in Japan. Operating under the pseudonym, Rokudenashiko, or ‘bad girl’,  one of her works, a giant vagina kayak based on a 3D map of her own vulva drew a dramatic public outcry with the police frequently confiscating her works and dragging her through the bureaucratic Japanese legal system. The phallus is not so feared in Japan, in fact there are matsuri (Japanese traditional festivals) in which giant phalluses are paraded about town, but the vagina is treated as uniquely offensive. Igarashi’s work using her self-representation to challenge the cultural repression of women, of their sexuality and of their bodies.

Yoshiko Shimada (Japan), a major figure in Japanese feminist art, presented her 2012 video, “Becoming a Statue of a Japanese Comfort Woman,” which seeks to draw attention to the suppressed and silenced history of Japanese comfort women via a performance by the artist outside the Japanese embassy in London. The dark chapter of Japanese history in which many women from Korea, Japan and other countries were put into sexual slavery during World War II, forced to service Japanese military men in order to maintain their spirirts during wartime, has been controversially dealt with or rather not dealt with by the Japanese government over the subsequent decades and a formal acknowledgement of the number of women that were so treated has not been forthcoming.

The third Japanese artist represented, Kotoe Ishii (Akita, Japan), presented an untitled video work exploring her return to Japan- after a twelve year period living and studying overseas. In this new work, the artist struggles against inclement weather, a metaphor for Ishii’s attempts to process her residual feelings of displacement and frustration with traditional notions of femininity. Many Japanese women who spend long periods overseas (particularly in countries where feminism and gender equality are more prevalent) talk about this complex set of emotions they feel upon returning to Japan – trying to squeeze themselves back into a role they have outgrown and dealing with the complexities of belonging to a culture that doesn’t fully support all the variations of yourself that you see within.

Kasumi Iwama, also from Japan, was represented in this group show and similarly to Ishii, creates endearing sculptural work that contends with a dualistic cultural and individual sense of identity garnered from years abroad. Her endearing sculptural work, “Hello Kasumi” draws on Japanese female icon Hello Kitty’s easily won traits of both cuteness and ‘international flair’ as a means to construct an oblique and intimate self-portrait.

Yu Shuk Pui Bobby (Hong Kong) creates potent and humorous works in response to the incessant commodification of women in media, culture and everyday life. The artist seeks to impart an aspect of subjectivity to the female ‘object.’ To do so she casts her body parts, assigns them their own resume, and makes sexy publications featuring herself as the new “artist” type.

Despite the apparent differences between the artists in the exhibition, there are some commonalities between them. In all of the works, the body is pivotal to expressions of agency, subjectivity and change. Despite the challenges they face, these artists and their work seem to insist on a better and more complex tomorrow.

Now that the exhibition is over, what is next for feminism in Japan and for the Tomorrow Girls Troop. There are many ongoing projects that they are working on, one particularly touching idea is their Hidden Feminist Certificate. Tomorrow Girl’s Troop believes that one way to encourage the use of the word “feminism” and the spread of feminism’s ideals is by thanking the many “hidden feminists” out there, heightening awareness of how people can help support women and equality. They began the ‘ Hidden Feminist Certificate’ project to send out a certificate to people who they think contribute to women’s issues in Japan. Spread by social media, these certificates are left to people who are making a difference.

Midori Ozaki (pseudonym for one of the central figures in TGT) spoke to us about the issue at the heart of their work and the recent show – the rampant gender inequality in Japan, ‘Within the education system in Japan, they don’t teach feminism or system of discrimination at school.  People who understand these issues either took a gender study class at university, or they grew up or studied abroad.  You can’t expect Japanese people to understand a concept of discrimination except in the cases I mentioned above.  So, we need to educate people first to discuss anything about feminism or discrimination, that is not easy. I’ve never heard of any art school in Japan teaching feminist art or art and human rights.  In fact, the Japanese art market is dominated by misogynists.’

We discussed the beginnings of Tomorrow Girl’s Troop and how they have arrived at where they are today, Ozaki explained, ‘When I studied abroad in US and Canada, I realized how women’s life could be different from Japan.  People in North America don’t judge women by how they look as much, people appreciate women who have opinions, people don’t care about women’s age – well, much less than Japanese people do. When I had a baby in the US, I joined two moms groups, one outside of the Japanese community and the other one was within the Japanese community.  Then I realised the Japanese mom’s struggles were more serious than other moms.  For example, upper middle class Japanese moms in LA told me that they don’t even have time to go to the dentist or the hair salon.  So I recommended some good babysitters and house keepers.  But those moms felt very uncomfortable about the idea of getting help from anyone, because they feel they are not qualified to do so as a good mother.’

Ozaki continued, ‘Then I thought only feminism can help them.  I started to ask my friends if they were interested in making a feminist artist/ activist group.  And I found many people, male and female are feeling very serious about this issue and they immediately joined this group.  As the first project, we started “Be a happy girlfriend if you can” in April, 2015. Since then, we are constantly getting new members every month, male, female and LGBTs from Japan as well as a lot of different countries.’

The ‘Be A Happy Girlfriend If You Can’ project from Tomorrow Girl’s Troop was created in response to an article which ran in Vivi magazine in April 2015 in Japan. Vivi is one of the most popular and influential fashion and general womens’ magazines in Japan with a monthly circulation of 645,000. They ran an article entitled, ‘Be a Professional Girlfriend If You Can’ which was essentially a dos and don’ts list of ideal girlfriend behaviour from how to please your man with food, how to respond if he doesn’t like what you’ve initially cooked for him and how to respond when he is unfaithful. Demeaning to both men and women it was particularly insulting to the human spirit and TGT’s responded with a campaign to get Vivi to consider promoting advice to women that might encourage them to lead happy lives in equal partnership with their boyfriend/girlfriend.

This brought us on to the larger topic of womens’ rights and gender inequality in Japan in general. When asked what Tomorrow Girl’s Troop would like to see change in the country Ozaki responds, ‘We are not satisfied with any aspect of the current situation in Japan for women’s rights.  So we want to change everything.’ Can’t say much more than that.

Beyond the recent exhibition, the group followed up by joining another group, Chabudai Gaeshi Joshi Action, in their Girls Power Parade demonstration against gender inequality on Sunday 28th February in Omotesando, Tokyo. If more galleries are brave enough to reach out to the crop of budding feminist talent within the country then the future does not have to look so bleak for the next generation of women in Japan. It should, also, become impossible to talk about womens’ rights in isolation. A broader conversation is necessary both inside and outside of Japan around fixed ideas of gender that harm both men and women, ideas of sexuality that harm LGBT people and ideas of race that harm minorities in the country. Addressing all of these issues will certainly be good for Abe’s economic plans and will be good for general happiness levels of all.