January 17, 2004 Action Alert, Fact and Background
Mariko Mitsui, a renowned Japanese women's rights activist and journalist, and the director of STEP, a city-sponsored Gender Equality Center in Toyonaka City, Osaka, is now facing the likely dismissal from her position, as a result of harsh backlash from a far right-wing political group and some far right-wing politicians. I am writing to request that you assist in preventing this grievous wrong, by sending letters of protest to the city government. The receipt of protest letters from abroad would send a very significant message, and exert powerful pressure on the city council to reconsider its direction.
Please send your protest mail to the Toyonaka city Mayor: firstname.lastname@example.org
If the city has stopped accepting protest mail from this venue, please send it to STEP,Gender Equality Center under the title “To forward to Mayor of Toyonaka”:email@example.com
For more background, please read the information below.
Thank you for your solidarity. If you have any questions on this matter, please feel free to contact me.
Tomomi Yamaguchi, Ph.D.
Women's Equality Organization (WEO) — Japan
Mariko Mitsui, a long-time women's rights advocate and journalist in Japan, is now the target of a current backlash against women's rights. She has worked as the Director of STEP, a local Gender Equality Center, since 2000. The city that sponsors the STEP foundation is planning to dismiss her. They have no grounds to fire her so this will be accomplished by amending STEP's Constitution at a specially called board meeting on February 1, 2004. The amendment says that STEP will eliminate the position of Director beginning April 1, 2004.
Japanese women's rights advocates are now writing letters to the board members and the city mayor urging him not to fire her under such a dubious pretext. They insist on the importance of Mariko Mitsui not only for the center but also for the city and even for Japan. Toyonaka City, like other Japanese cities, is very sensitive to opinions from abroad. Please send your message in English to the Mayor at the above email address, mentioning that you have heard this news from your friends in Japan. If you are a journalist, it would be effective if you could request a phone interview with the Mayor or any other person concerned, on this matter. Your comments will surely be translated into Japanese. Please write your “professional” title which will attract the mayor and bureaucrats' attention.
Her case is not an exception in Japan. After the Gender Equality Law was enacted in 1999, local municipalities have been expected to make (1) gender equality ordinances, (2)gender equality action plans and (3)gender equality centers. However, the reality is that the average percentage of women representatives in Japanese local municipal governments is less than 10%. Those specifically concerned with women's rights are represented in even smaller numbers. It seems that almost all the local city councils are dominated by anti-feminist members. For example, on the Toyonaka city council, 16%, of members are female, while the majority political party includes a number of particularly extreme right wing members. Since 2001, together with “The Japan Conference” (Nihon Kaigi), an extreme right wing national organization, right wing politicians have been fighting to eliminate women-friendly policies such as the Gender Equality Law, and are continuously putting pressure on local bureaucrats to weaken equality ordinances. Their anti-feminist political actions are on the national level and systematic. And some of them have been successful.
Toyonaka has been one of their targets since 2002 when city politicians presented the draft of a Gender Equality Ordinance to the city council. STEP, the Gender Equality Center, was established in 2000 and it has become a space for active women and men. But right wing council members, who disliked STEP, often raised questions about it such as “I visited STEP and saw many books at the STEP library encouraging divorce and single mothers,” or “The color of the women's toilet and the men's is the same at STEP. People can't tell which is which. STEP is trying to make society gender-free.”
Mariko, as the Director, also has been the target of extreme right wing anti-women's rights politicians. They have slandered and defamed her since 2002. The so-called citizens' groups connected with right wing politicians passed out flyers in front of city hall that said “Mariko Mitsui does not listen to citizen's voices or opinions.” On one occasion a man who appeared to be working for an organized crime group visited STEP and asked the receptionist whether she knew of Mariko Mitsui's questionable past or not (note: it is not uncommon in Japan for members of organized crime groups to be used to intimidate and slander in this way). On another occasion an organized group of women from a right wing organization attended one of Mariko Mitsui's lectures and asked several personal questions which were not related to the content of her lecture and were designed to disrupt her lecture and ridicule her, such as “What you said is not normal. Have you ever been married? Do you have any children?”
The discussion of the draft of the city's gender equality ordinance was then postponed in 2002 and brought to the council again in the autumn of 2003. At that time, they spread a groundless rumor about Mariko. They accused Mariko of having said at the Director's lecture, “Housewives are people who can't do anything but housewife chores because their IQ is so low.” The vice-chairman of the city council recounted the same unfounded rumor to the bureaucrats. Some citizens who had attended and listened to Mariko's lecture were surprised to find that city bureaucrats who had attended the lecture didn't alert the vice-chairman and other right wing politicians of the truth.
It seems that the bureaucrats in Japan are in the hands of this right-wing organization and they want to fire Mariko Mitsui in order to quiet this right wing pressure. According to the present regulations of STEP, it is very difficult to fire the director without any proper reason, so they are now trying to change the Center's Constitution instead. The Center's budget comes from the city, and in the proposed new Constitution there is no director, the position that Mariko has held for these three years.
Mariko has been the director of the Center since 2000. She is the only Director of a center like this in Japan who was selected from a field of many candidates. The position was open to the public, which is extremely rare in Japan. Therefore, the media coverage of her inauguration was quite extensive (public or semi-public positions in Japan are generally selected from a list of well-known persons, and never open to the public. In fact, she herself has always started her speeches, “Ladies and gentlemen, you are looking at a rare species, becausec without the democratic manner of open recruitment used by Toyonaka City, a woman like me could never have worked as Director of the center.”) As Director, she planned and organized very attractive events and seminars. Many guests from foreign countries have visited the center and her events with foreign visitors have been successful and have inspired large audiences. A dynamic organizer, she herself found outside funding for these events. Her events have often been covered by the media, and she has been very visible not only in the Osaka area but all over Japan, which has made her a special target of right wing politicians in the Toyonaka City council. Some resent these international activities and have advised the center not to conduct many international events. But the reality of STEP's everyday activities are focused on domestic issues, such as counseling women victims of domestic violence (very very few other venues or shelters exist in Japan to help such women), holding a fathers' cooking class, seminars on how women can find part-time jobs in Toyonaka, etc. International gatherings have been held once or twice a year.
Thank you for your time and attention.
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