Today The Global Spotlight talks with Kazuna Yamamoto, founder of youth activism group VoiceUp Japan. Gaining the attention of national news outlets and major celebrities in Japan, the youth-led organization boasts an impressive 20K Instagram following. Addressing issues such as gender-based violence, women in politics, and youth leadership, VoiceUp Japan stands as one of the premier examples of modern youth activism in Japan.
Welcome Kazuna, thank you for speaking with us today! You began your activism work in 2019, gathering signatures for a petition against a rather "unique" college ranking system.
Yes, in January 2019 I was on my way home from a meeting when I saw a tabloid magazine that released a "sex ranking" of universities with "easy access girls." It listed 5 university names, done not even with a questionnaire or data. Instead, it was a guy that managed a dating app that published this ranking out of his own perception. I was shocked. I've seen so many things in Japan, you know, like the sexualization and objectification of women, but at that moment, I felt that society didn’t know where to stop. I was frustrated, and I knew I had to do something about it.
That's why I decided to start a petition, which exploded! I got about 40,000 signatures in three days. I think it got a lot of attention because it was a wake-up call. People realized that they had been accepting this sexist kind of behavior in society and contributing towards a society that tolerated the extreme sexualization of women. A lot of people, even older women, joined me and the movement.
Many of the topics that VoiceUp Japan addresses are sometimes considered taboo in Japanese society. Have you received any backlash from your community, and how do you respond?
Sometimes, I feel like Japan isn't even ready for the word feminist. People kind of have this allergic reaction to the word. It's like people are attacking us and the idea of change. So yes, we definitely receive backlash and we shouldn’t have to tolerate it, but we can’t do much at this moment. As an organization, we try to give resources to our members so that they can focus on self-care because, in the end, the hate is unavoidable. I guess the bigger takeaway is the community of people we can rely on. People we can ask for help, a key in activism work, which is something we try to provide as VoiceUp Japan.
Your publication of information in both English and Japanese stood out to me when I first came across your page. Can you speak on the importance of creating a bilingual resource?
We try to make sure that our members speak at least English or Japanese. We have a lot of bilingual people as well, but we don't want anyone to feel left out just because they don't speak the other language. We have a group of translators and proofreaders to make sure anything that is released by the organization is done so in both languages.
After returning to Japan from Singapore, I grew up attending International School in Japan. It’s very difficult being a kikokushijo (person who returns to Japan after being away for many years) because sometimes you're not fully accepted or integrated back into the Japanese culture, and I always felt left out. That's why I wanted to make sure that VoiceUp Japan would be a place that accepts people from different backgrounds. And I think that really helped to attract a lot of different people: we have many people from mixed ethnicities and a lot of Japanese people who aren’t living in Japan as active members. Our organization is like a huge melting pot.
Using the power of the diverse VoiceUp Japan network, what do you hope your long-term impact to be?
I think personally I hope that VoiceUp Japan opens doors for people and empowers them to use their voice. Looking at Japan, there are few opportunities for people to exchange opinions with people outside so instead, people have to accept and tolerate what is going on. You know, it’s kind of sad. When you grow up in Japan, you're told to be silent. You’re told to stay silent. You're told to kind of tolerate whatever happens, even if it's sexual assault. And I've realized that almost all of these youth-led organizations that focus on social issues are found by people that have spent time abroad. So, I hope that through what we are doing, VoiceUp Japan empowers individuals who’ve never left Japan to help them realize that what they’re facing is wrong and that they’re allowed to raise their voice.
Throughout our conversation, I love that you've been using “voice up” as a verb. Is that something that's spreading?
I think yes, inside the VoiceUp community it has spread! And it’s being used more, definitely.
Any advice to our readers who might be interested in starting something similar?
A lot of people will tell you to not do something or to do something, but no one will take responsibility for your life. You can choose what you want to do with your life and if you don’t do what you want to do, you will regret it. So do what you want to do, you don’t have to listen to everyone around you.
What is an issue that you are passionate about that you hope will gain more traction?
It’s a topic we haven’t explored much as Voice Up Japan, but I’m interested in women in tech, finance and entrepreneurship. I am an entrepreneur and an investor in the VC/finance world, which I've found to be a very male-dominated industry. The amount of funding for female founders is growing, but still very little, and the finance world lacks diversity. Because I know that this is an area I want to continue pursuing a career in, I'm very interested in diversifying the finance, tech, and startup worlds, through female empowerment.
Finally, you interact with a lot of Japanese government officials and national organizations. What is a message you would like to communicate to those people?
My only message to all of those people, especially those with decision-making power, is to please stop telling us they’re going to listen, and to stop making promises they don’t keep. Instead, include young people in the discussion. They often tell us they want to deliver our voice, but we don’t need someone to deliver our voice for us. We need to be there, you know, to be able to deliver our own voice. So, to anyone reading this, please stop saying you want to help the youth, but instead help build a path so that we can be there, at the ceremonies and conversations where actual decisions are made.
THANK YOU FOR YOUR CONTINUED SUPPORT. WE LOOK FORWARD TO BRINGING YOU THE VOICE OF MORE INSPIRING ARTISTS AND CHANGEMAKERS IN 2022.
Interview conducted and written by Naomi Segal