Japanese women are challenging the three-year-old Shinzo Abe government with "constitution cafes" and street protests.
MAIOKA — In a small room in the town hall of Maioka in outer Yokohama, 20 women, most of them mothers, sit on tatami floor mats listening to Keiko Ota. A member of the Yokohama bar association, Ota teaches the group about the country's 1947 constitution.
"The constitution is too often perceived in Japan as a gift from the government to the people, rather than as an expression of citizens' rights and popular sovereignty," the young attorney explains.
The subject of the constitution is all the rage in Japan nowadays, as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe continues his efforts to rid the document of its pacifist provisions. The meetings in Maioka form part of a growing trend of initiatives launched by Japanese women since Abe came to power three years ago. Across the country, women are meeting in cafes and restaurants to learn about the constitution and debate the politics surrounding its revision.
Local media has dubbed the phenomenon "constitution cafes" — kempo kafe in Japanese. They are at the heart of a social media-driven movement organized by women to engage in national politics. "This movement of political consciousness was born after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011," says Ota. "Like me, many mothers worried about the health of their children, and we slowly realized all the lies the government was telling us."
"Revising the constitution to allow Japan to become a full-fledged military power is another issue that worries mothers," she adds. "This is why they try to understand what's going on. They're asking why Shinzo Abe blindly follows the Americans and wonder if military service will become mandatory."
Voices of reason
Ota says that men are "prisoners of their work lives" and therefore don't have the same kind of political awareness as women. To wake men up to the evolving political situation, the lawyer started organizing "constitution bars" on Sundays where women bring their husbands along. "Women intuitively feel the gravity of the changes that are going on in society," she says.
Some believe debating isn't enough and have begun protesting instead. On June 20, 15,000 women dressed in red surrounded the parliament building to protest against the constitutional revision. Their color choice was a reference to the feminist "red socks" movement in Iceland in the 1970s.
Despite her deteriorating health at the age of 93, the novelist and female monk Jakucho Setouchi gave an impassioned speech to the crowd. "I am on the verge of death, but I do not want to die without warning against an atmosphere that reminds me of the 1930s and 40s, when the government tried to limit freedom of expression," she said.
The 1947 constitution granted women the right to vote and stand for public office. But there are few women in the Japanese parliament, which ranks 114th out of 140 countries in the world for female participation, according to the 2015 report by the Inter-Parliamentary Union. At the same time, women have often been at the center of grassroots movements, leading the fight in the 1970s, for example, against pollution and against Japan's military alliance with the United States.
The political role of Japanese women is neglected by the mainstream press. But over the past few months, women's weeklies have begun paying more and more attention. After years of focusing on princesses, cooking and health, the weeklies realized that their readership desired more political content.
In 2014, the fashion magazine Very published an article on the constitutional revision and the state secrets law rammed through parliament. Readers continue to demand this kind of writing, and political articles feature among the most read in such magazines.
"Many women are standing up to the Abe government and its sexist tone. Many more men than women support Abe. This is a gender gap that didn't exist in the past," says Mari Miura, a political scientist at Tokyo's Sophia University. "In Japan, femininity is associated with benevolence, maternity and non-violence, and this is the basis on which women participate in politics."
"Abe's Liberal Democratic Party is trying to redefine the idea of a good mother as one who supports a strong state," she adds. "If women participate and express their opinions more, the impact on national politics will not be negligible."