Okitama Farmer's League: Japanese Farmers Engaged in Global Outreach
Sunday, May 21, 2006 Posted: 11:05 AM JST
(by Jean Miyake Downey) - Meditating on the latest reports on discrimination and xenophobia in Japan, I had to refresh my look at the significant grassroots counterforces of anti-racist social change throughout the archipelago.
One of the most brilliant examples of Japanese NGOs involved in transnational anti-racist and anti-sexist social change is the Yamagata Okitama Farmers' League, given the Japan Foundation Prize for Global Citizenship in 1993.
These farmers have partnered with farmers in the Philippines, sharing integrated organic farming techniques with them.
American anthropologist Darrell Moen has researched and written about their ecologically sensitive and broadly counter-hegemonic programs in detail, "NOTES FROM THE FIELD: Radical Actions by Radical Farmers: Regional Revitalization in the Okitama Basin of Yamagata Prefecture."
I found the farmer wives' use of local media to create even wider influences of change through raising awareness and building solidarity especially powerful:
Because this was the first women's group of its kind in the Okitama area, the local newspaper asked if interested members of the group would submit articles about how they experienced patriarchy in the farm household they married into, and what they, as individuals, were doing to overcome the deeply ingrained attitudes that perpetuate gender-based discrimination.
Although some of the husbands and almost all of the parents-in-law objected to the idea of the women writing about their experiences of being yome in farm households, five of the wives submitted articles to the newspaper. After the first article was published, the paper decided to run a series and ended up publishing six feature articles in five months. Area women apparently liked these candid articles and the farm wives became celebrities of sorts.
By courageously airing their views in a newspaper read by almost all Okitama area residents, they hoped to encourage other area women (and supporting men as well) to resist and overcome sexist attitudes and behavior. This provides yet another example of how cracks in the system (in this case, having free access to the local mass media) can be taken advantage of by an alert citizenry to further the counter-hegemonic project.
The area newspaper also carried reports on events organized by the Okitama Women's Group in the early 1990s. These well-attended events included a concert in 1991 by two women singer/activists from the Philippines, who sang and talked about the social transformation then taking place on the island of Negros, where entire villages were being revitalized by incorporating integrated organic farming techniques learned from visiting Japanese organic farmers; the presentation of an award-winning documentary movie called "Ariran no Uta" (The Song of Ariran), which depicted the cruelties of Japanese colonial rule in Korea and Okinawa, using historical footage and interviews with former "military comfort women" (sex slaves) of the Japanese Imperial Army; and a slide-show and lecture, in 1993, concerning the trafficking of women from Southeast Asia, who are forced to work as sex slaves at thousands of locations throughout Japan. As one of the Okitama Women's Group members explained:
"We'd decided that it was important for people to be given a chance to see 'Ariran no Uta' since it's such a moving story and it's antiwar message is so effective. But we were worried that we would end up going into debt because the cost of renting the movie was so high and we needed four hundred people to attend just to break even.
Well, eight hundred people ended up coming to see the movie. Women of all ages attended, war veterans attended, high school students attended, it was wonderful.
After the movie ended, we asked if anyone would like to offer comments on what they saw, and more than twenty people (mostly in their sixties and seventies) stood up and talked about some of the experiences they'd had during the war that had led them to take an antiwar position. Hearing fellow villagers share such personal experiences with the rest of us I think made us all feel closer to each other. There was a real sense of community.
In 1993, when we invited a woman lawyer from Tokyo involved in the legal support network in Japan to speak about the migrant women workers from Thailand and other Third World countries working in Japan as forced prostitutes in brothels and hostess bars, we were again worried whether anyone would attend the lecture and slide presentation, and more than four hundred people showed up. It was very encouraging."
This women told me that she had assumed that the local people, mostly farmers, had enough of their own problems to worry about and did not have the time or energy to spare to listen to the plight of others. With no charge for admission, this event raised more than 300,000 yen ($3,000) for the legal support network from donations alone. One farmer in his late fifties told me that he, as a farmer, was familiar with the tactics used by labor recruiters looking for migrant workers to work in the construction industry during the off-season. He stated:
"Hearing those women describe how they were promised this and that by the labor recruiters in Thailand and the Philippines only to find out when they got here that they'd been fooled, made me think about my own past experiences with the yakuza-connected labor recruiters. They're all a bunch of crooks! And because of the yakuza [organized crime syndicate] connection, everyone's too scared to try to run out on a contract.
To tell those women that they'll have good-paying jobs as office workers or whatever in Japan only to force them into prostitution after they're here is criminal! They should lock up all the people who allow this to happen including the politicians, the Japanese police and immigration officials, and the business owners, along with all the gangsters!"
That people living in rural villages in Japan can relate to the struggles of farmers in the Philippines; that they can have strong antiwar sentiments and feel compassion for those who suffered under Japanese imperialism; and that they want to reach out to help foreign-born women who are being victimized by Japanese men involved in the sex trade in Japan, indicates that people in general have humanitarian instincts, and are repelled by acts of violence and by exploitative social relations.
The antiwar component that is so strongly embedded in the overall framework of the Japanese organic farming movement— because of the connection that has been shown to exist between military alliances and the internationalization of agriculture —and the transborder solidarity the movement has engendered by the establishment of direct farmer-to-farmer exchanges with farmers in the Third World and alternative trade relations between Third World villagers and Japanese consumers enable the participants to broaden the scope of discussion to include all forms of social injustice and human equality, and allow them to work together to create nonexploitative human relations.
Jean Miyake Downey is a contributing editor at the Kyoto Journal: Perspectives on Asia (www.kyotojournal.org), an award-winning English-language quarterly published in Kyoto, Japan. She covers multicultural and transnational issues. Drawing on her background as a sociologist and lawyer, she takes an interdisciplinary look at the nexuses between historical and contemporary hybridity and fusion; global cultural trauma and historical healing; the revival and survival of traditional and indigenous cultures; and global human rights movements.
- Links to sites about human rights in Japan
- The Japan Foundation: Prizes for Global Citizenship
- Diene Report on Discrimination and Racism in Japan (pdf)
- Japan Focus: The Diene Report on Discrimination and Racism in Japan
- Critical counter report by William Wetherall (see site)
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