March 2018 Monthly Meeting Recap: Celebrating Women as Change Agents in Post-Disaster Tohoku
In honor of International Women’s month and the 7th anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake, we welcomed Megumi Ishimoto, Executive Director of NPO Women’s Eye, and Dr. Jackie F. Steele, a political scientist at the University of Tokyo, to share the stories and challenges of the amazing women change agents in post-disaster Tohoku.
Neither Megumi nor Jackie originally set out to explore and engage with women in post-disaster contexts. It was each of their personal experiences following the March 11 Great East Japan Earthquake that spurred them to action and fostered their passion on this important issue. What began for Megumi as a one month disaster-recovery volunteering project evolved into her founding an NPO focused on female empowerment in post disaster contexts through grassroots activities and projects. Jackie’s experience as a new mother living in the affected area and having to relocate highlighted the importance of understanding disasters from a feminist lens.
Megumi and Jackie are both advocates of challenging conventional attitudes about the role of women, especially following the March 11 disaster. Despite the devastation, the events of March 11 provided an opportunity for change for the women of Tohoku.
Both speakers spoke about learning to recognize and seize opportunities as one of their first lessons. Megumi recounted how she got her NPO off the ground by first going to New York to seek international support. She revealed the reality and magnitude of the marginalization of the voices of Tohoku women, and how she took on the challenge of a new role, even hosting delegates in Tohoku. Her perspective is to say yes to opportunity—despite initial hesitation, you will always figure out a way to rise to the occasion.
Jackie also spoke about her experiences working with women in diverse, non-traditional roles in Tohoku. Following the March 11 disaster, these women were not concerned about ‘asking for permission’ to take on new roles, but in fact created their own local businesses and positions in order to help others and achieve their own goals and dreams.
Megumi also explained the importance for organizations to gain financial stability and effectively communication their mission to enact change. She accomplished this by knowing how to communicate to her audience. When first pitching her organization, she realized that some local organizations were opposed to the terminology of “Feminism.” However, she appropriated the language of Womenomics, and the language of the local government to sell her ideas. She realized that instead of clashing with the system head on, she and the women of Tohoku were able to usher in change and gender equality by using the language of the government to further their goals. Jackie also came to realize that the changemakers of Tohoku found innovative ways to leave their traditional spheres and create their own path by redefining models of “leadership” and “womanhood” in Japan.
Megumi and Jackie recounted how women in Tohoku are supporting other women, such as through social entrepreneurship and even organizing local festivals in their communities for women to exchange ideas, share their business and services, and connect as working women and working mothers.
Jackie also emphasized the importance of self-care in building resiliency for Tohoku women. Though traditional Japanese notions of femininity had been tied to self-sacrifice, women who take time for self-care and even have the ability to say ‘no,’ helps them remain resilient.
The meeting concluded with a moving poetry performance by Kaede Nagashima from Fukushima. She recited the poem, “The Spirited-Away Town,” (1994) by Jotaro Wakamatsu, illustrating the emotional, cultural, human, and social impact of the devastation caused by disasters. Her performance demonstrated the importance of art and philosophy as an outlet to coping as well as sharing the difficult stories of those affected by disaster.
Thank you to Jackie, Megumi, and Kaede for sharing their wonderful insights and to everyone who joined!