by Chelsea Szendi Schieder

Note: Following Japanese conventions, Japanese names are listed family name first.

I met Professor Andrea Peto (CEU) in fall 2018 in Budapest, when I had reached out to her while on a research visit to hear about the fate of Central European University and particularly of gender studies as an accredited graduate school program in Hungary. Gender studies in Japan has its own embattled history, and as I talked with Prof. Peto about her experiences and the strategies of the intellectual communities in which she worked in Europe it made me think about how our contemporary global politics of national populist chauvanism or “illiberal democracy” or, perhaps, the “polypore state” (as Prof. Peto has put it) actually operates through transnational networks. What can tend to remain provincialized, at great expense, are networks of scholars, particularly networks of scholars working in such a contentious, contested, and inherently political field as gender studies.

When I met with Professor Ikoma Natsumi, the director of the Center for Gender Studies at International Christian University (ICU), upon my return to Tokyo, she shared my sense of urgency and worked to make a symposium possible at ICU, which we envisioned as a way to carve out time and space to discuss the state of gender studies and academic freedom in Japan, and to stimulate the formulation of new networks across generations of scholars, and across scholar and activist networks. We invited Prof. Peto to give a keynote to frame our discussions. The result was an event on 8 June 2019 in which many scholars met each other in person for the first time, and discussants shared stories about the longer history of gender studies as a discipline and a political project in Japan, discussions about its current issues and internal conflicts, and also reflections on the increasingly precarious nature of university work in Japan and elsewhere that presents another threat to gender studies as an intellectual endeavor. Our discussants included Adachi Mariko (professor emeritus, Ochanomizu Women’s University), Sonja Dale (independent scholar), Okano Yayo (professor, Doshisha University), Shimizu Akiko (professor, University of Tokyo), Grace En-Yi Ting (Assistant Professor, The University of Hong Kong), James Welker (professor, Kanagawa University) and myself (associate professor, Aoyama Gakuin University). Prof. Ikoma served as chair.

For those interested more broadly in gender studies and gender politics but unfamiliar with the Japanese case, I would emphasize three aspects of our discussions at the event based on my notes, which also reflect ongoing debates within gender studies and feminist activism in Japan: 1) that gender studies has been an established field of study since the mid-1990s in Japan, but has faced a series of political challenges often known as the “backlash” since the early 2000s; 2) there has been a certain level of feminist mainstreaming in Japan, but it has produced its own issues and conflicts about exclusions and co-optations; 3) there are ongoing battles that involve both gender activists and gender scholars, which may give examples of new strategies for political struggle and also require international recognition and support.

Gender Studies in Japan and the “Backlash”

Prof. Adachi Mariko was involved in the establishment of Japan’s first Institute for Gender Studies, at Ochanomizu Women’s University in 1996. In this early phase of creating a center and establishing post-graduate training, institutional funding and support was critical to forming a gender studies program. Gender studies subsequently became an influential field in Japanese academe, with several journals and academic associations including the Gender History Association of Japan, the Japan Association of Gender and Law, and the Japan Association for Feminist Economics.

From 2008, however, Ochanomizu University’s administration announced that the Center was to drop the term “Gender” in favor of “Women’s Education” or it would lose its budget. At the time, Adachi and Tachi Kaoru, the two professors in the Gender Research Center, decided to insist upon the name “Gender Research Center.” In response, the university reduced the budget allotted to the center to zero, but, as Adachi noted, the incredible support from outside the university and also from abroad – the strong consciousness at the time of the importance of “gender” studies and external funding – made it possible for them to attract funding and continue the program as “Gender Research.”

In April 2015, Ochanomizu University’s administration announced that it would reorganize the Institute for Gender Studies to become part of a “Cultivation of Global Women Leaders Research Organization.” As such, it was actually granted a large budget and a large staff. Adachi was dismissed. This arc – from a center for gender research to one to “cultivate global women leaders” – traces a shift from an interest in gender studies as a critical mode to understand social dynamics to a more neoliberal, pro-diversity rhetoric of female empowerment at universities in the service of economic growth.

We should understand this new, ostensibly feminist rhetoric in its historical context. Many of the people mobilizing the language of women empowerment actually participated in the first systematic, national-level backlash against gender studies and feminism in Japan in the early 2000s. Current Prime Minister Abe Shinzo now promotes a policy of stimulating the economy through female empowerment – “womenomics” – although he declared gender equality a threat to Japanese culture and family values during his first turn as Prime Minister in 2006-2008. The “backlash” began as a response to the 1999 introduction of the Basic Law for a Gender Equal Society, and was built on the conservative political infrastructure that developed around promoting revisionist, nationalist history textbooks in the late 1990s. On paper, at least, since Japan’s 1980 ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the nation has been legally committed to gender equality.

That politicians such as Abe who spearheaded the “gender backlash” are now seemingly embracing feminism should alert us to an underlying continuity between early conservative reactions to feminist gender studies and current policies that co-opt the language of feminism. The actual Japanese terms for many of the bureaucratic offices and initiatives translated into English as “gender equality” actually do not include the term used by academics for “gender” (jendaa). For example, the literal translation for what is now officially rendered in English the “Gender Equality Bureau Cabinet Office” is actually “The Cabinet for Male-Female Joint Planning Office.”

Feminist Mainstreaming: Exclusions and Co-Optations

The current administration of Prime Minister Abe Shinzô’s embrace of the rhetoric of “creating a society in which women shine” – a strategy that hopes to harness female labor to the motor of economic growth – appeals to many women who feel frustrated in their attempts to crack the glass ceiling. However, it remains silent on the issues that face women – single mothers and the elderly – increasingly vulnerable to issues at the root of a worrying trend toward the feminization of poverty in Japan. And it necessarily excludes those who trouble a clear gender binary.

At the symposium, Shimizu Akiko brought up how current trans-exclusionism in the Japanese twitter sphere can be “understood as an unexpected but at the same time predictable legacy of the feminist reaction to the backlash fifteen years ago.” In autumn 2018, one of Japan’s leading women’s universities announced that it would begin accepting transgender girls,[1] which prompted accusations on social media and beyond that such a move would invade women’s space and undermine women’s hard-earned rights. In the early 2000s when many mainstreaming feminists faced political attacks as “gender-free extremists,” they often emphasized that they were not denying or questioning sexual difference, and they thus failed gender and sexual minorities. Shimizu emphasized that this strategy embraced by many pro-gender mainstreaming feminist activists and scholars of the “gender backlash” battles at the time has not been worked through, and that unresolved discussion haunts feminism in Japan today and fuels trans-exclusionary claims.

We also discussed the ability of the university in Japan as a place to support diversity and inclusion across gender and sexual identity. Several participants in the June 8th event noted the stress of an increasingly precarious academic work environment for many younger scholars. Sonja Dale discussed recent cases of violence and discrimination at Japanese universities, which included sexual assault, rigged entrance examinations, and harassment of sexual minorities, to which the institutions failed to mount meaningful responses. In 2015, at Hitotsubashi University, where Dale was employed at the time, a law school student committed suicide on campus, apparently because he had been outed as gay by a classmate. In the wake of this, Dale and a colleague attempted to create safe spaces and to promote more queer visibility on campus, but met with indifference among faculty. Some of these issues are structural: the neoliberal university environment demands production and consumes a great deal of time on administrative and promotional activities. But these structural issues can leave grosser, more deliberate abuses unaddressed. While universities employ the language of “diversity,” there is little in place to protect students who face homophobic verbal and physical abuse.

To overcome these challenges, there is a need for more connections between activists and scholars, and more networks for exchanging information.

Ongoing Battles: Activist Scholarship

In a novel strategy, feminist scholars in Japan are taking legal action against those who undermine their work online.

Okano Yayo discussed her current participation as one of four plaintiffs in a lawsuit against Sugita Mio, a member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Okano and her co-plaintiffs charge Sugita with defamation following Sugita’s remarks on Twitter and in online videos that the scholars misused research funds. At issue in the suit is a research project entitled “Bridging and Networking between Academism and Activism in the pursuit of a Gender Equal Society” from April 2014 to March 2018, funded in part by The Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS). Their project focused on how to bring together scholars of gender studies and feminism with local activists, many of whom were involved in movements critical of the policies of the current administration, such as the 2015 legislation that allows for Japan’s Self Defense Forces to participate in “collective self-defense” for allies overseas, the construction of the US military base at Henoko in Okinawa, the restarting of nuclear power plants, and the revision of the Japanese constitution to overturn Article 9 (the “peace clause”) and strengthen the family system. Okano’s research has also long considered the historical case of Japan’s system of “comfort stations” at which women were forced to do sex work for the Imperial Japanese Army, a history much contested by conservatives in contemporary Japan.


Image of four women at a desk, three seated and one standing up speaking into a microphone
Image description: Professor Okano Yayo and co-plaintiffs in defamation suit. Photo credit: Nakayama Kazuhiro.

Representative Sugita has attacked the researchers and their research by name, accusing them of funneling a research grant to political activists, and describing their research as “fabrication,” “against the national interest,” and “anti-Japanese.” Sugita had also been in hot water in October 2018, for an article she published that decried what she perceived to be high levels of support for LGBT issues, arguing that same-sex couples were “unproductive.” Sugita subsequently apologized for any misunderstandings, but did not retract her comments. There is often a kind of politically charged dance around conservative lawmakers’ comments, which in recent memory have included calling women “baby-making machines” (then Minister of Health, Labour and Welfare Yanagisawa Hakuo, 2007), heckling a female lawmaker about her marital status (lawmaker Suzuki Akihiro, 2014), and admiring the tactics of Nazi constitutional reform (Deputy Prime Minister Aso Tarô, 2013). Such remarks are often described as “gaffes,” frequently prompt a pro forma apology about any misunderstandings, and are only sometimes accompanied by a resignation.

The defamation lawsuit now undertaken by Okano and her fellow scholars insists upon accountability by pointing out the very real effects of lawmaker Sugita’s claims. It is particularly worrying that a politician would target research that is generally supported by the academic community as “fabrication.” It is also chilling to imagine that lawmakers understand the role of scholarship as something that must organize itself to support the national interest, and thus avoid criticism of current policies or the status quo in general.


The emergency symposium provided an opportunity for sharing such stories among scholars and activists across generations. It highlighted the institutions and networks that already exist in Japan, as well as some of the problems scholars of gender and feminists need to address. The history of gender studies and the early-2000s “backlash” confirm the importance of forging solidarities and communities of support, even as they come with caveats: feminism in Japan needs to reflect upon its own set of exclusions, and must consider how it can be co-opted and deployed to perpetuate the neoliberal economy and university as the golden child of a certain version of “diversity.” While the formation of gender studies in Japan and the social and political structures it critiques require an analysis of its specific history and context, in many ways the struggles are shaped by shared trends: contemporary inflections of nationalist chauvinism share masculinist, heteronormative understandings of power and authority across borders, and the rise of the neoliberal university is a global phenomenon. We hope that events like the June 8th symposium can stimulate new connections to forge shared strategies of resistance.

This blog post is part of a series of posts on transnational anti-gender politics jointly called by the LSE Department of Gender Studies and Engenderings with the aim of discussing how we can make sense of and resist the current attacks on gender studies, ‘gender ideology’ and individuals working within the field. 

Portrait of authorChelsea Szendi Schieder is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Economics at Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo, Japan. She writes about protest, women, violence, and Japan for academic and general audiences. Her book on the gendered dynamics in the campus-based New Left in Japan, entitled Co-Ed Revolution: The Female Student Activist in the Japanese New Left, is forthcoming with Duke University Press.


[1] Young people not yet legally recognized as adults – under 20 years old in Japanese law.