Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 15, May 2007

Connection and Collaboration:
Women's Centres and NGO Women's Groups in Japan

Laura Dales
  1. This article focuses on government women's centres, specifically their functions in and relationships with the state, its policies and non-government women's groups.[1] This focus reflects the Japanese development of women's centres as bridges between the state and citizens' non-government organisations (NGOs) engaged in effecting gender-related social change. Japanese women's centres reflect, inform and implement gender policy. An examination of women's centres therefore offers valuable perspectives on the interpretation of gender in social policy, as well as the effects of gender-related issues on contemporary society. In this article I draw particularly on fieldwork conducted from 2000 to 2002 at a large, prefectural women's centre I have called the 'Spring Centre,' and in NGO women's groups including an English language study group for women based in Kyoto, called 'Women's Projects'.[2] In this study, I consider the connections between these two organisations as illustrative of the potential links between government and NGO bodies.
  2. Adopting Jan Bardsley's four-pronged classification of the roles played by women's centres, I address the capacity for organisations such as the 'Spring Centre' to facilitate gendered reform through the production, collation and dissemination of information about and for women.[3] However, I argue that women's centres also provide a site for connection between the state and non-government organisations (and individuals). Ethnographic observations and interviews conducted with members of the women's group and workers at the women's centre reveal the perceived limitations of each form of organisation, and suggest a need for greater collaboration between the government and the NGO sector on women's issues.

    Defining 'women's centres' and NGOs in Japan
  3. The creation and promotion of government women's centres reflects Japanese and international policy developments on women's issues over the last thirty years, beginning with the International Women's Year in 1975. In order to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the Japanese government introduced a range of reforms and legislation addressing gender inequality and sexual discrimination, including the Equal Employment Opportunity Act 1985, and channelled public funds into the promotion of women's issues.[4] As Vera Mackie observes, the reform work begun in 1975 in Japan culminated in the creation of the Office for Gender Equality in the Prime Minister's Department in 1994 (shifting to the Cabinet Office in 2001), 'mandated with the formulation and overall coordination of plans for matters related to promoting the formation of a gender-equal society'[5] and the creation of the Basic Law for a Gender-Equal Society (1999).[6] The Japanese government's concern for gender inequality has also been apparent in the proliferation of women's centres. Indeed, between 1990 and 2004, 185 women's centres were established throughout the country.[7]
  4. The first model of a publicly established and operated women's facility in Japan was the National Women's Education Centre (which provides accommodation and training facilities), established by the Ministry of Education (Monbushō , now called the Ministry of Education and Science, Monbukagakushō ) in 1977.[8] Bardsley observes that the establishment of the NWEC 'represents the whole-hearted embrace of the UN Decade for Women'.[9] While it remains the largest women's centre in Japan, the NWEC can be seen to represent the tip of a pyramid of women's centres and services, funded and/or operated by national, prefectural and municipal governments.
  5. A 1997 survey commissioned by the Ministry of Education found 772 centres and facilities throughout Japan that could be classified as 'women-related centres and facilities'.[10] In analysing the data received from this survey, the NWEC divided these into three categories, based on factors including historical background, the establishing government department, and available facilities. Hataraku Fujin No Ie (Centres for Women Workers) and Nōson Fujin No Ie (Centres for Women in Agriculture) comprise 228 and 305 facilities respectively.[11] The third category used by NWEC, Women's Centres, is the focus of this article, although I have modified this definition slightly, as I explain below.
  6. There are 239 institutions in this category, of which 48.3 per cent are classified as publicly established and publicly operated, meaning that they are founded and run by the divisions of national or regional governments, or boards of education. Another 31.5 per cent are publicly established and privately operated, meaning that operation costs are paid for by corporations and other private organisations.[12] 'Private organisations' include foundations (zaidan hōjin) which are funded by government grants and often staffed by public servants, but are not strictly government bodies.[13]
  7. In addition to these larger institutions, I include women's affairs sections of local government councils in the women's centre category, as these represent the most localised form of official policy regarding women's issues. In practical terms, these women's affairs sections may involve only two or three full-time staff—all of whom are public servants without specialised training or experience—working within the council building. Compared to the large, custom-designed, prefectural women's centres, municipal facilities are generally meagre.[14] As the government at prefectural level is better situated to fund civic projects, the range of facilities, funding and activities among government women's centres is therefore vast. While the scope of the term women's centres may invite generalisation, I use this definition with the aim of drawing together those bodies funded by and ultimately grounded in government policy dealing with women's issues. While variance in size and organisation are significant within the group, there is nonetheless a need to distinguish these groups from those founded, funded and operated by citizens outside the state and bureaucracy. These organisations, including non-government and non-profit organisations, fall under the umbrella of 'civil society' which Susan Pharr defines as comprising the 'sustained, organised social activity that occurs in groups that are formed outside the state, the market and the family'.[15] Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and Non-profit organisations (NPOs) are another significant site for work on gender issues.

    NGOs in Japan: an overview
  8. While people's protests and strikes occurred throughout Japan as early as 1868, it was not until the 1960s that citizens' groups galvanised in a systematic way as a force to challenge state and industry.[16] The 1970s saw an upsurge in the number of environmental NGOs, particularly those targeting pollution and connected with the industrial lawsuits arising from issues such as the mercury poisonings in Minamata and Niigata.[17] Shifts in public attention from the environment to the economy and criticism of the welfare state saw a lull in citizens' activist groups in the late 1970s and early 1980s.[18] However, the sector began growing rapidly in the late 1980s, and in 1995 the Kobe earthquake saw a dramatic revival of citizen's activism, when 'nearly 1.3 million people participated in relief operations'.[19] In 1998 the government passed the Law for the Promotion of Specific Nonprofit Activities (the NPO Law), recognising the economic imperative to delegate certain functions to the third sector.[20] The third sector (or non-profit sector) is defined by Lester Salamon as comprising 'self-governing private organizations, not dedicated to distributing profits to shareholders or directors, pursuing public purposes outside the formal apparatus of the state.'[21]
  9. NGOs in Japan are categorised as incorporated or unincorporated. The former designation entitles a tax-exempt status, but few of the estimated 500,000 NGOs in Japan qualify for this designation.[22] To qualify, an NGO must be recognised as a 'public-interest corporation' (kōeki hōjin), which requires either capital assets of 300 million yen, or membership numbers deemed sufficiently large by the ministry with which the NGO is affiliated.[23] Frank Schwartz observes that by the end of 2001, 5,625 organisations had been certified under the NPO Law.[24] The functions and political presence of NGOs are therefore delineated and delimited by their size and funding. Yasuo Takao observes that the rise in NGO numbers reflects the increase in individuals' concerns about 'specific social needs in their immediate environment'.[25] While NGOs are well-placed to address such needs on a local scale, they nonetheless benefit financially from co-operative relationships with governments (at all levels) and industry.[26]
  10. Within this context, women's NGOs can serve both as a forum for information exchange and a platform for political and community action. As a site for the development of agency amongst women, women's NGOs can be compared to women-only unions in Japan, which, according to Kaye Broadbent, 'provid[e] training and education [and therefore have] significant implications for the form and configuration of social and welfare policies'.[27] The limitations of women's NGOs are also similar to those of women-only unions: both are relatively small and consequently relatively limited in their political strength. Nonetheless, the cumulative and potential flow-on impact of the act of organising by women suggests that both women-only unions and women's NGOs represent sites of political significance. Joyce Gelb and Margarita Estevez-Abe observe that the significance of women political activists cannot be gauged solely by electoral success, but that we should also recognise their increased political presence or voice, along with their bank of considerable local expertise.[28]
  11. Furthermore, as Robin Le Blanc's study of housewives engaged in political activism illustrates, the incorporation of women-as-actors into large organisations (such as unions) has a two-way effect. The authority of women who would otherwise be excluded from public or corporate power is legitimised, and organisations which would tend to be seen as hierarchical, impersonal and morally (or politically) corrupt are legitimised through the inclusion of women's voices.[29] By organising around issues such as childcare, mothering and paid work, women's NGOs highlight the ways in which individual experiences reflect broader social shifts and inequalities. The case study below of one women's NGO illustrates some of the potential roles of such organisations, and the ways in which they specifically connect with government-run women's centres.

    'Women's Projects': an (unincorporated) NGO
  12. 'Women's Projects' is run out of the Kyoto home of its founder, Tanaka Mariko, and has two main projects: English-language study, and the publication of a bilingual newsletter. The publication has about 600 subscribers in 87 countries, but only seven to ten members regularly attend the weekly meetings, which comprise English language study and discussion, shared lunch and magazine-related work. 'Women's Projects' requires membership fees, which fund the production and publication of the group's newsletter, and an attendance fee of 400 yen (for both members and guests) per meeting to cover the costs of lunch. Almost all regular members are married and aged from their late thirties to early sixties; of the married women, all but two have children.
  13. While 'Women's Projects' members do not uniformly self-identify as feminists for a number of reasons, the group develops praxis through promotion of feminist agency among members.[30] One means by which this development occurs is the creation of connection between members. Commonalities in experience of domestic roles - such as daughter, wife, mother, or daughter-in-law—can be seen to link women at a specific locus, without precluding difference in experience of other roles as student, worker or neighbour.[31] This connection allows 'Women's Projects' members to feel relatively free to share their experiences of family life without forcing a homogenous identity or position on the group.
  14. As a consequence, the group can be seen as a site for the promotion and implementation of feminist agency among members. Through discussion and debate, the members of such groups explore and extend what Laura Ahearn calls 'the socio-culturally mediated capacity to act'.[32] This can also be understood as the capacity not to act, for example where action is less effective than inaction in shaping group dynamics.[33] 'Women's Projects' member Akagi Kaori observes that the group is 'a kind of bridge,' a point which enables women to relate theory to practice, a connection which they might not have made before:

      When I started going to the group in 1992, it was an English discussion group [and there was no particular focus on women's issues]. Most of the women were interested in child-raising issues, so…articles [on these issues] were examined.[34]

  15. While English language-study is the official aim of weekly meetings, 'Women's Projects' members emphasise the social element as an incentive to remain with the group. For member Kano Yuriko, the group represents a place where she is able to openly discuss her experiences:

      For me, the first motivation was learning English, but after talking like this, [I felt] that here I could talk honestly about things that I couldn't talk about in my other friendships, about what I think and in my own words. And afterwards it wouldn't be a case of 'Oh, so and so said that!'[35]

  16. This openness encouraged members to share specific experiences of gendered inequality in the context of the workplace and the home. These experiences often segued into broader discussions, illustrating patterns and allowing for deconstruction or critique of gender norms. Discussions of mothering, for example, tended to focus on the inherent conflicts, compromises and struggles of having children, rather than replicating idealised constructions of motherhood.[36] Furthermore, such discussions facilitate exchange of information as well as emotional support between members. Discussions of gender inequality in the workplace and society were often sparked by articles read and translated in the meetings, but tended to be fed by members' relating experiences and stories from other sources. The progression from reading newspaper articles on women's status in Japan, to application of this knowledge (including, for example, statistics, commentary and policy description) in group discussions and 'Women's Projects' newsletter articles, reflects a process whereby abstract social issues are rendered into concrete personal experience and vice versa. This process is facilitated by the group's intimacy, related to its small size and history. Members of 'Women's Projects' are connected within the group and through the group to a wider arena of discussions of gendered social issues, both in Japan and overseas.
  17. As Schwartz observes, both NGOs and pre-existing civil society organisations (such as neighbourhood associations) serve a number of functions, with implications for the actors involved as well as the broader society and state.[37] In addition to 'encouraging civic engagement' among members of the community, the provision of information and support on issues of child-rearing, family welfare and eldercare is a considerable task in the context of an ageing, low-birth rate society.[38] As accessible and informal women-centred sites, NGOs such as 'Women's Projects' also function as an 'inexpensive means for delegating government responsibilities,' including the dissemination of information pertinent to women and women's issues.[39] However, in contrast with religious and international development NGO work, activism around gender inequality (and particularly that which targets child-rearing and reproductive labour) represents an issue of strategic economic importance to the Japanese government.[40] Government-run women's centres can therefore be seen as state instruments of support, connection and collaboration among women, as will be discussed in the next section.

    Women's centres: facilities and services
  18. Women's centres offer a variety of services which can broadly be broken down into three categories: counselling and support services, library and information, and space-provision and events (including seminars, festivals and symposia). While free phone and in-person counselling is available from many community centres, the services offered at women's centres specifically target women and women's issues. The centres refer to their service as 'feminist counselling' [feminisuto kaunseringu], and conduct courses for counselling professionals who wish to learn more about the women-centred approach and skills.[41] Counselling services in women's centres are heavily used and frequently understaffed.
  19. The collection and supply of information on women's issues represents one of the major roles of women's centres. The inclusion of Information Libraries in many centres reflects this role, and a distinction can be made between the nature of these collections and that of general public libraries.[42] Information contained in Information Libraries is expected to fall within the definition of 'women's information' created by the Prime Minister's Office (Section on Women's Issues), namely 'information to be used as a tool for solving any problems raised by clarifying the nature of issues related to women for the improvement of the status of women'.[43]
  20. In addition to housing information, women's centres also produce regular newsletters, distributed within the centres and also sent to schools, universities and interested organisations. These newsletters detail the recent activities organised by the centre, such as seminars and symposia. They may advertise performers or professionals who work on women's issues, and usually contain articles on the current state (locally or nationally) of certain issues pertaining to women. While these newsletters are Japanese language only, larger prefectural women's centres may also publish an English edition, for the English-speaking community in Japan as well as for international readers.[44] These editions may include book reviews, contributions by non-Japanese residents in Japan, and updates on local and international events, such as United Nations conferences and international human rights forums.
  21. The 'Spring Centre,' where I conducted my fieldwork, also includes in its (Japanese) newsletters an introduction of NGO groups that utilise the Centre - for example, the 'Rape Crisis Survivors Network, Kansai,' a group 'established in 1998 by the friends and mothers of two survivors of rape incidents,' which offers support and counselling, holds seminars (at the 'Spring Centre') on surviving sexual assault, and produces four newsletters a year.[45] The inclusion of these introductory pieces increases public knowledge of the work of NGOs, and supplements the promotional resources and activities of the NGOs themselves.
  22. The production and dissemination of regular newsletters thus supports the 'informative' limb of government-affiliated women's centre work. While seminars aim to educate their participants, newsletters and other publications aim to spread women's issues into the wider community, connecting state-sponsored and non-governmental organisations as well as individual citizens. In addition, newsletters publicise the government's involvement in issues which affect women (and often men) in the community. The production of English language newsletters extends this function, promoting the Japanese government's efforts to English-speaking communities inside and outside Japan.

    The 'Spring Centre': a government-funded women's centre
  23. The Prefectural Women's Centre, known by its nickname the 'Spring Centre,' was established in 1994, after ten years of campaigning and planning by the women of the prefecture and particularly those involved in non-government women's groups. The centre is funded and administered by the Prefectural Gender Equality Foundation, established by the Prefectural Government in 1994, with the aim of 'achieving a gender equal society in which women and men can cooperate in every field to create a more humane life'.[46] The Prefectural Gender Equality Foundation operates to implement the Law for a Gender Equal Society and related activities at a local government level.
  24. I became acquainted with the 'Spring Centre' through an internship, which I undertook with the aim of examining the primary functions and objectives of the centre, and the practical organisation of services offered. The internship, which ran from July 2000 to January 2001, generally involved a full day each week, with occasional participation in special (weekend) events and informal dinners. Placed in the events section, I was supervised by Yamazaki Risa, a woman in her early thirties who has worked at the 'Spring Centre' since its inception and is one of a handful of 'specialist staff,' who are not public servants but employees of the Centre. Prior to working for the Centre, Yamazaki-san was a junior high school teacher in an area with a high Korean-Japanese population. She credits her experience with these students as increasing her awareness of social issues such as discrimination.[47]
  25. The 'Spring Centre's' facilities include a concert hall, health and fitness club and meeting rooms of varied size, available for public hire.[48] In addition, the Centre contains an audio-visual studio and editing suite, in which sessions on film-making and video-journalism are held regularly. The rooms available for hire range from small classrooms to seminar rooms which can seat up to 40, all containing desks, chairs and whiteboards. There is also a multi-purpose room, with large tables, guillotine and a coin-operated photocopier, frequently hired (hourly) by groups planning events, collating information or producing newsletters.
  26. The 'Spring Centre' aims to address certain needs in its physical structure. The incorporation of a casual day-care room for parents attending meetings or lectures, for example, and a sound-proofed parents' room in the concert hall reflects both the ideal and actual composition of the Centre's users. While officially a space for both men and women, the majority of participants in lectures and courses are women, who tend to be more available during the (daytime and early evening) hours when most sessions are conducted.
  27. The attraction of these facilities is not to be underestimated. Casual childcare being an expensive and often inflexible option, the provision of a child-care service may be the deciding factor in women's participation in courses, as well as groups. This was an issue raised in discussion in 'Women's Projects'. Founder and organiser Tanaka-san reflected that a lack of child-care limits participation for some women:

      I get phone calls from women who want to come [to meetings], and asking if there is a childcare service. It's a shame but I have to say no. Or else I tell them about the local public childcare service which [another member] uses when she comes.[49]

  28. Another member, Nakane Yûko, laughingly explained her participation in a women's centre-run course (on economic independence) as mostly motivated by the free child-care service provided:

      About ten years ago I went to a lecture at Shiga Women's Centre and at that time they had a nursery room. I didn't want to go to the lecture, but I wanted to use the nursery room![50]

  29. The pull-factor of women's centres is therefore tied strongly to the facilities on offer, and the promotion of these among women in the community. Provision of childcare increases the usability of the centres, and promotes an image of the government behind the centres as aware of and sympathetic to women's needs.
  30. The issue of child care represents one distinction between government and non-government women's organisations. The provision of facilities such as child-care is directly linked to funding capacity and therefore generally beyond the resources of self-funded women's groups. In providing support services such as childcare, government-funded women's centres are able to widen their catch-pool of users in a way that exceeds NGO group capacity. While this can be seen as a limitation of NGOs, it is the restrictions of resources and facilities—and therefore member numbers—which allow NGOs to focus their work on selected issues, and in accordance with their specific needs. Thus, while government women's centres are required to provide a wide range of services to meet the needs of a large community, they are unable to cater to specific women's interests and/or needs in the way a small group might.

    Women's centres and NGOs: differences and similarities
  31. As Bardsley observes, women's centres are also sites for the production of knowledge and information about women, primarily through coordination of events such as seminars, festivals and domestic and international conferences.[51] The events offered by centres vary in size and nature, from courses on craft, dance and cooking, to seminars on assertiveness and leadership, business strategies for women and child abuse prevention.[52] In planning and promoting events, the centres appear to aim for a mixture of courses that explicitly challenge gender stereotypes and courses that seem apolitical or 'ungendered.' In my observations at the 'Spring Centre,' the term 'feminist' was almost never used in naming events, with the prominent exception of feminist counselling courses [feminisuto kaunseringu]. In the case of the 'Spring Centre' at least, this balance informally acknowledges the presence of the Prefectural Foundation (and prefectural government), which seeks as broad and non-radical an operational scope as possible.
  32. As concrete manifestations of the Law for a Gender Equal Society, women's centres' aims can be traced to the ideals espoused in that Law. As a government-funded or operated body, the centre must reflect relevant government policy—that is, the Law for a Gender Equal Society—while at the same time appealing to citizens and prospective users of the centre.[53] Yokohama Women's Forum, for example, interprets the law as involving five areas which are reflected in the planning of seminars: work, body, heart/soul, living, friends and lifestyle.[54] Similarly, the strategies of women's centres aim to address the specific needs highlighted by the law as essential to the creation of a gender-equal society. The 'Spring Centre' thus aims to promote a 'Three I' philosophy in its work: Identity (independence of women in society), Information (information network), and Internationalisation (international exchange).[55]
  33. As noted briefly above, Bardsley observes that women's centres in Japan perform four main functions, all related to the collation, provision and production of information.[56] Firstly, they gather 'information relevant to women's lives, especially by funding studies of gender issues and by building comprehensive data bases'.[57] Secondly, women's centres 'provid[e] easy access to this information, through library services and through the internet'.[58] Thirdly, women's centres 'build a national computer network of women's groups'. Finally, the centres 'initiate the production, exchange and discussion of information through domestic and international conferences'.[59] While Bardsley's conceptualisation focuses on the informative capacity of women's centres, I see more significance in the connective function of the construction, collation and dissemination of information. The connective capacity of women's centres is firstly played out in the physical spaces of women's centres, where women's groups meet and organise and where individual women participate in seminars and educational courses. In this context the centre is not just the site of production and exchange of information, but also enables this process to be shared by non-government and government bodies—namely the bureaucracy, NGOs and individuals. While the connection between centre and group may not be consciously or actively sought (at least by the group), it may nonetheless reflect common aims and concerns of the state (via the bureaucracy) and non-government sector.
  34. Moreover, women's centre websites provide a state-funded cyber-connection between individual women and groups and resources. The websites of women's centres such as the NWEC feature links to sites on national, prefectural and government bodies (including women's centres), policy and law, gender-related research, and services for women (including child-rearing support and counselling).[60] The website effectively links individual women to the resources of the state, and allows regional non-government groups access to information about related work and groups around the country. In this way, women's centres support the welfare state, providing services that supplement and complement those offered by neighbourhood-based civil society groups such as jichikai [neighbourhood councils] and chōnaikai [neighbourhood associations].[61]
  35. Through the connection of state to non-government sector, and more significantly through the connection between non-government groups, a critical dialogue is enabled on the status of women's issues and the forms and features of contemporary feminist action occurring throughout the country. As a form of intermediary between state and society, women's centres can be seen as a site for both government and civil participation in the provision of services.[62] While the centre may officially operate under government control and/or funding, the input and presence of NGO groups using the centre's facilities 'improves policy makers' knowledge,' supporting government initiatives to address gender inequality.[63]
  36. My interviews with women's centre staff represent an approach that Glenda Roberts terms 'studying sideways'; observing a system from the perspective of workers who use their knowledge to support and 'connect [individuals] to levels of power beyond their reach'.[64] The individuals who stand to benefit from the work of these staff are not only those women who attend seminars, utilise the library or participate in groups that occupy the centre's space. Women's centres theoretically target all women within their constituency, prefectural, municipal or local. However, in my observations of the practical operation of these centres, the users of centres represent a relatively narrow demographic of middle-aged to older women. The issue of attracting new participants, male and female, and particularly participants from younger age-groups, appeared to be an ongoing concern for staff at the 'Spring Centre,' for instance.[65] The issue is not simply one of practical access, although timing of courses and events represents one factor in (non)participation. Rather, because of their bureaucratic nature and operation, women's centres may lack the basic appeal to attract young women. This is due in part to the fact that women's centres do not utilise the same tools in attracting an audience that other (smaller) women-focused organisations such as 'Women's Projects' might.
  37. One significant criticism of government centres by women's groups (including 'Women's Projects') is their rigidity and subsequent inability to deal thoroughly or quickly with certain women's issues.[66] Staff of women's centres themselves recognise this limitation, and view it as an inherent weakness of the bureaucratic structure. Lack of expertise and/or experience among staff was also frequently identified by 'Women's Projects' members as a major weakness of women's centres. 'Spring Centre' staff such as Yamazaki-san acknowledged that women's centres are predominantly staffed by public servants without specialised training or expertise, who are rotated in triennial cycles.[67] 'Women's Projects' member Akagi-san was therefore critical of the 'lack of experience of people in charge of public women's institutions,' and suggested that this contributed to the gap between NGO and official perspectives on women's issues.[68]
  38. From my observations, however, the work performed by public-servant staff is largely administrative, related to the operation and promotion of the centre and its facilities, with some variation according to specific section.[69] These tasks appeared to be relatively straightforward and standard, and required little specialised knowledge of women's issues. Furthermore, within the events-planning section at least, phone reception, filing and other minor tasks were seen to be the responsibility of all available staff members, irrespective of rank. This was pointed out to me early in my internship as an explicit and conscious move made in the aim of creating an equitable and comfortable [hatarakiyasui] workplace. As in 'Women's Projects,' workers at the 'Spring Centre' appear to apply the principles of equity and women-centredness outwardly promoted in the institution's activities. In the 'Spring Centre' this represents a flow-on from 'gender-equal' to non-hierarchical, suggesting an effort by those in charge of the centre to apply the idealised egalitarianism of the grounding official policy.
  39. Uemura Shôko, one of the co-ordinators of the 'Spring Centre,' identifies the experiences of those in charge (as workers in NPOs and specialists in women's studies) as being one of the strengths of the centre, and recognises the financial limitations of NGOs as an area in which government assistance is essential:

      'Spring Centre' commits to work with nonprofit organisations, women's groups a lot. We try to educate them, we try to, you know, make them work more. We do have a programme called kyōsai, which means doing together, joint event. So…because coordinator came from non-profit organisation, we know their [NGO] needs. And we also know what the government job is. And we still have to make government rules, right, 'cos…they have tax money. So I think, you know, there is a job for government and also we need to help nonprofit organisations, because they don't have a history yet. They are lack of manpower, lack of money and lack of everything, so they need to be supported by government.[70]

  40. The planning and development of courses—including decisions on themes, speakers and format—involves senior general staff, with significant input by the three co-ordinators and the events chief. However, while general staff provide plentiful support on practical matters of administration and organisation, the onus appears to be on the specialist staff to ensure the ideological soundness of the Centre's functions.
  41. The specialist staff, including the events chief, are considered to be employees of the Centre rather than the prefectural government. Yamazaki-san, the events chief, liaises with the other chiefs, organises and oversees the centre activities, and is responsible for coming up with new ideas for events. She identifies the difficulty of her job as being related to workload, responsibility and the overlap of work with personal life:

      I work through everything—it becomes hard to draw a line between work and what I do at home for fun. And a lot of different strengths are required…Other places have a lot of people, a lot of staff like that, and lately I've looked around, broadened my perspective and made a network with those people. That's why I have so many friends. And as of this year, we get together and have little study groups and meetings.[71]

  42. The interaction between centre staff reflects the need for networks of support. In a relatively new field, the sharing of experiential information between centres strengthens the informal friendship network of staff, but also encourages problem-solving within the bureaucratic framework.

      There have been times when [other women's centre staff] are thinking about how to do something…and its not going well and they're not sure what to do, we talk about it. [That centre] and 'Spring' are different, but I'll say 'I did it this way or 'If it were me, I'd do this'…and that can be quite helpful, so then they modify it to suit themselves.[72]

    Indeed, my own research was facilitated by this network, as the women's centre workers I spoke to were introduced to me through my initial contacts within the 'Spring Centre'.
  43. The relationships between female staff in women's centres can thus be related to those among members of non-government women's groups. For the staff, as for the group members, the network serves as a source of information and support, and represents a means of increasing feminist knowledge for internal, as well as external, consumption. Yamazaki-san acknowledges the collaborative process as integral to the development of the 'Spring Centre,' a well as benefiting groups and members:

      Until the 'Spring Centre' was made there was no place [for groups], so they'd rent meeting rooms in public halls or citizens' study centres. Or they'd meet at coffee shops to talk. Since the 'Spring Centre' was built, all those people come to have meetings there and the events they organise are held at the centre. So gradually they get stronger, and then the 'Spring Centre' organises events like the NPO Organisation Development Seminar, to make them even stronger…and then [the groups] start to invite people to give talks and they ask the Centre to support the event - they bring events to us.[73]

  44. This collaborative relationship was evidenced by numerous symposia and seminars held over the course of my research period. In November 2000, for example, the group Working Women's Network held a symposium in the 'Spring Centre' concert hall, at which Alice Leonard, chief of the British Equal Opportunity Commission Legal Advice Section, spoke on indirect discrimination.[74] Uemura-san reflects on the separate roles of government and NPOs below.

      So I think, you know, there is a job for government and also we need to help non-profit organisations, because they don't have a history yet. They are lack of manpower, lack of money and lack of everything, so they need to be supported by government. So I think the 'Spring Centre' is sort of a co-ordination place, between government and nonprofit women's groups. And fortunately we do have a place, and we do have a programme, and we do have a budget to work together.[75]

  45. Negotiating between government and non-government perspectives, women's centres operate within twice-drawn guidelines. The expectations of the government sector on women's centres reflect the broader aims of city, prefectural and national administration and policy, and are underscored by restrictions of budget and bureaucratic red-tape. NGOs and grass-roots organisations ask women's centres to legitimise women's issues, through informal and formal (particularly financial) support, and to represent to the greater government the needs and circumstances of women in the Japanese community.

  46. Non-government women's groups represent a forum for focus on questions of gender and gender inequality in a personal context and in broader society. Within the group, women can discuss and deconstruct experiences and observations of gender inequality in Japan and internationally. In contrast with women's centres, these groups can be as focused, specialist and efficient as their members determine. While non-government women's groups encourage reform at the personal (particularly familial) level, government-funded women's centres in Japan implement official gender-reform policies with the aim of promoting broader social and structural change. Supported by prefectural or national funds, women's centres are able to address broader issues of gender inequality through the creation, collation and promulgation of information on and for women, and through the provision of services targeting women's needs.
  47. I have argued that women's centres play a vital role in connecting state and society, forming a bridge between government policy and the NGO sector which promotes the grass-roots provision of women's services.[76] Working within and sometimes beyond official (legislative and bureaucratic) discourses on family, reproduction and gender roles, civil society organisations such as women's centres connect government and NGO actors involved in women's issues. The rigidity and inefficiency of red-tape constraints on women's centres' work, acknowledged both within and outside the centres, leaves a particular niche for NGOs to fill in their own functioning, and allows for a symbiotic relationship between the two. It is in this connective capacity, and as markers of official support, that women's centres most effectively promote women's issues and feminist agency among women in Japan.


    [1] Many thanks to Vijaya Joshi, Vera Mackie and the anonymous reviewers of this journal for their insightful comments and suggestions in the development of this work.

    [2] 'Women's Projects' and 'Spring Centre' are pseudonyms, as are the names of individuals introduced in this article. Japanese names are given in the order family name followed by given name, except when citing English-language publications where English-language order has been used. Within the text of this article, individuals are referred to by family name followed by the honorific title -san. Translations are my own unless otherwise indicated.

    [3] Jan Bardsley, 'Spaces for feminist action: national centres for women in Japan and South Korea,' in National Women's Studies Association Journal 11/1(1999):136-49. Bardsley's classification posits that national women's centre activities operate in four ways: gathering information on women's lives, providing access to this information, building national networks of women's groups/services and producing and disseminating information through domestic and international conferences (pp. 136-37). Bardsley's study relates directly to the National Women's Education Centre in Saitama and the Korean Women's Development Institute in Seoul. However, I argue that her observations can be extended to larger (national and prefectural) women's centres throughout Japan.

    [4] Vera Mackie, Feminism in Modern Japan: Citizenship, Embodiment and Sexuality, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003, p. 178.

    [5] Mackie, Feminism in Modern Japan, p. 196.

    [6] Gender Equality Bureau, Gender Information site (English), URL:, site accessed 5 August 2006. The Council for Gender Equality and the Gender Equality Bureau were established in the Cabinet Office in 2001. Inoguchi Kuniko serves as Minister of State for Gender Equality and Social Affairs at the time of writing. Gender Equality Bureau, 'Women in Japan Today 2006,' URL:, site accessed 5 August 2006.

    [7] Yoko Amakawa, 'Women's Center affiliated information libraries,' in Yokohama Women's Forum 21 (2004), URL:, site accessed 1 August 2006.

    [8] Sumiko Yazawa, 'Current status and agenda of women's centres in Japan: core facility for the promotion of gender equality,' in Yokohama Women's Forum 13 (1999), URL:, site accessed 5 May 2006.

    [9] Bardsley, 'Spaces for Feminist action,' p. 140.

    [10] Yokohama Women's Association for Communication and Networking (ed.), 'Data on Women-Related Centers and Facilities in Japan,' in Yokohama Women's Forum 13 (1999), URL:, site accessed 1 August 2006.

    [11] National Council of Women's Centres (ed.), Comprehensive Study on Women-Related Facilities: Volume 1, Analysis, 1998, cited in Yokohama Women's Association for Communication and Networking (ed.), 'Data on Women-Related Centers and Facilities in Japan'.

    [12] National Council of Women's Centres (ed.), Comprehensive Study on Women-Related Facilities: Volume 1, Analysis, 1998, cited in 'Data on Women-Related Centers and Facilities in Japan.'

    [13] The 'Spring Centre' and Move, KitakyŪshŪ are examples of this kind of centre.

    [14] Exceptions to this rule are the more well-off cities, generally those with a larger population and closest to city centres like Osaka and Tokyo.

    [15] Susan J. Pharr, 'Preface,' in The State of Civil Society in Japan, ed. Frank J. Schwartz and Susan J. Pharr, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003, pp. xiii-xviii, p. xiii.

    [16] Robert J. Mason, 'Whither Japan's environmental movement? An assessment of problems and prospects at the national level,' in Pacific Affairs 72 (1999): 187-207, p. 188.

    [17] Mason, 'Whither Japan's environmental movement?' p. 188.

    [18] Mason, 'Whither Japan's environmental movement?' p. 189; Yasuo Takao, 'The rise of the "third sector" in Japan,' in Asian Survey 41-2 (2001): 290-309, p. 291.

    [19] Takao, 'The rise of the "third-sector" in Japan,' p. 291.

    [20] Takao, 'The rise of the "third-sector" in Japan,' p. 292.

    [21] Lester M. Salamon, 'The rise of the nonprofit sector,' in Foreign Affairs 73-74 (1994): 109-22, p. 109.

    [22] Takao 'The rise of the "third-sector" in Japan,' p. 293; Mason, 'Whither Japan's environmental movement?' p. 197.

    [23] Mason, 'Whither Japan's environmental movement?' p. 197.

    [24] Frank J. Schwartz, 'Introduction: recognizing civil society in Japan,' in The State of Civil Society in Japan, pp. 1-19, pp. 16-17.

    [25] Takao, 'The rise of the "third-sector" in Japan,' p. 308.

    [26] Takao, 'The rise of the "third-sector" in Japan,' pp. 308-09.

    [27] Kaye Broadbent, 'Pawaa Appu!: women's only unions in Japan,' in electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies 8 (2005), URL:, site accessed 6 May 2006.

    [28] Joyce Gelb and Margarita Estevez-Abe, 'Political women in Japan: a case study of the Seikatsusha Network Movement,' in Social Science Japan Journal 1-2 (1998): 263-79, p. 272.

    [29] Robin Le Blanc, Bicycle Citizens: The Political World of the Japanese Housewife, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999, p. 149.

    [30] Patricia S. Misciagno, Rethinking Feminist Identification: The Case For Feminist Praxis, Connecticut: Praeger, 1997. Rejection of the term 'feminist' is widespread, not simply in Japan but arguably around the world. For further discussions of the negative implications of 'feminist' in Japan, Singapore and Malaysia, see Sandra Buckley, Broken Silence, p. 187; Lenore Lyons, 'A state of ambivalence; feminism in a Singaporean women's organisation,' in Asian Studies Review 24/1 (2000): 1-23; and Rohana Ariffin, 'Feminism in Malaysia: a historical and present perspective of women's struggles in Malaysia,' in Women's Studies International Forum 22/4 (1999): 417-23, p. 422.

    [31] Diana Khor, 'Women's grassroots activism in Japan,' in Feminist Studies 25/3 (2000): pp. 633-61, p. 647.

    [32] Laura Ahearn 'Language and agency,' in Annual Review of Anthropology 30 (2001): pp. 109-37, p. 112.

    [33] Ellen Carol DuBois, Gail Paradise Kelly, Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy, Carolyn W. Korsmeyer, and Lillian S. Robinson, feminist scholarship: kindling in the groves of academe, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985, p. 39.

    [34] Akagi-san, Personal Correspondence, 23 August 2000.

    [35] Kano-san, 'Women's Projects' meeting,' 27 April 2001.

    [36] Fieldnotes, 'Women's Projects' meeting,' 25 May 2001; 15 June, 2001. Compare with, for example: Sumiko Iwao, The Japanese Woman: Traditional Image And Changing Reality, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993; Buckley, Broken Silence; Muriel Jolivet, Japan: The Childless Society? trans. A.M. Glasheen, London: Routledge, 1997.

    [37] Schwartz, 'Introduction: Recognizing civil society in Japan,' p. 18.

    [38] Margarita Estevez-Abe, 'State-society partnerships in the Japanese welfare state,' in The State of Civil Society in Japan, pp. 154-72, p. 170.

    [39] Schwartz, 'Introduction: Recognizing Civil Society in Japan,' p. 18.

    [40] This is supported by Gelb and Esetvez-Abe's studies of the Seikatsu network. See Gelb and Estevez-Abe, 'Political women in Japan: a case study of the Seikatsusha Network Movement,' p. 267. For contrast, see Kim Reiman, 'NGOs, the State and international norms,' in The State of Civil Society in Japan, pp. 298-315, p. 315. For a discussion of religious organisation and state regulation see Helen Hardacre, 'After Aum: religion and civil society,' in The State of Civil Society in Japan, pp. 135-53.

    [41] While some centres such as Yokohama Forum offer counselling to both men and women, the emphasis remains on gender-related issues such as violence and sexual discrimination.

    [42] Yokohama City Women's Association (ed.), 'Dōnaru Jōhōka Jidai no Josei Shisetsu' [What will happen to women's facilities in the information age?], in Josei Shisetsu Journal 2 (1996): 6-29, p. 8. The Information Libraries stock fiction and non-fiction books, videos, CDs, journals and magazines related to women's issues such as childrearing, women in art, women's health and feminism. The libraries of the 'Spring Centre' and the Yokohama Women's Forum, for example, subscribe to women's magazines from the United Kingdom, United States of America, France, Germany, Spain and India, in consideration of the large non-Japanese population in those prefectures. In the 'Spring Centre', where I undertook fieldwork, this facility was described as the jōhō raiburarii [information library].

    [43] Amakawa, 'Women's Center Affiliated Information Libraries.'

    [44] The 'Spring Centre' sends its English-language newsletter around the world, from Iceland to Argentina, Burundi to Bendigo. Fieldnotes, 12 September 2000.

    [45] Prefectural Women's Centre, Spring 15 (2001), p. 8.

    [46] Prefectural Women's Centre, Spring (1997), p. 12.

    [47] Yamazaki-san shared these autobiographical details with me over the course of my internship, and also in the formal interview conducted at the 'Spring Centre,' 9 December 2001.

    [48] Although in full use during the time of fieldwork, the health and fitness hall, including swimming pool, were closed in 2003 due to lack of revenue.

    [49] Tanaka-san, Interview, 15 June 2001.

    [50] Nakane-san, 'Women's Projects' meeting, 25 July 2001.

    [51] Bardsley, 'Spaces for feminist action,' p. 137.

    [52] Yokohama Women's Forum (ed.), 'Josei no Kigyō wo Shien Shimasu' [We Support Women's Businesses], in Newsletter of the Yokohama Women's Association for Communication and Networking 12 (2001), p. 3.

    [53] The meeting rooms are available for hire to individuals and groups engaged in activities unrelated to the 'Spring Centre's' agenda, while the library is open to all.

    [54] Yokohama Women's Forum (ed.), Josei no Kigyō wo Shien Shimasu, [We Support Women's Enterprises], 2001.

    [55]'Spring Centre', Josei Enpawāmento Fōramu 2004 Hōkokusho [Women's Empowerment Forum Report], 2005, p. 67.

    [56] Bardsley, 'Spaces for feminist action,' pp. 136-37.

    [57] Bardsley, 'Spaces for feminist action,' p. 136.

    [58] Bardsley, 'Spaces for feminist action,' p. 137.

    [59] Bardsley, 'Spaces for feminist action,' p. 137.

    [60] Kokuritsu Josei Kyōiku Kaikan [National Women's Education Centre], NWEC Links, 2004, URL:, site accessed 5 May 2006.

    [61] Estevez-Abe, 'State-society partnerships in the Japanese welfare state,' p. 161. In this discussion Estevez-Abe refers to seniors' clubs and intermediate associations, but I extend this observation to women's centres, which operate outside but in conjunction with these administrative partners in welfare.

    [62] Schwartz, 'Introduction: recognizing civil society in Japan,' p. 13.

    [63] Estevez-Abe, 'State-society partnerships in the Japanese welfare state,' p. 170.

    [64] Glenda Roberts, 'Bottom up, top down and sideways: studying corporations, government programs and NPOs,' in Doing Fieldwork in Japan, ed. Theodore C. Bestor, Patricia G. Steinhoff and Victoria Lyon Bestor, Hawaii: University of Hawai'i Press, 2003, pp. 294–314, p. 298.

    [65] Following one seminar, Mizutani-san gave a speech about its success as the first ever 'Spring Centre' presentation which limited entrance to (that is, focused on) people under 30 years of age. She then urged all participants in the seminar to make full use of the Centre's resources. Fieldnotes, 20 January 2001.

    [66] One illustration of such rigidity may be read from the experience of one woman, who sought counselling at a women's centre for help with sexuality issues. After a session (for which she had waited some time) she told me that she felt that the counsellor was closed-minded about sexuality, and thus she chose not to continue with her counselling.

    [67] Yamazaki-san, Interview at 'Spring Centre,' 9 December 2001.

    [68] Akagi-san, Personal Communication, 23 July 2000.

    [69] For example, workers in the information library process resources, while staff in the counselling section, take appointments for counselling sessions. These tasks (and others requiring specialised skills) involved on-the-job training rather than particular experience.

    [70] Uemura-san, Interview at 'Spring Centre,' 11 December 2001. Unlike other interviewees quoted in this paper, Uemura-san chose to conduct the interview in English.

    [71] Yamazaki-san, Interview at 'Spring Centre,' 9 December 2001.

    [72] Yamazaki-san, Interview at 'Spring Centre,' 9 December 2001.

    [73] Yamazaki-san, Interview at 'Spring Centre,' 9 December 2001.

    [74] In this case the speaker's costs (including airfare and accommodation) were borne by the NGO group Working Women's Network, while concert hall and publicity costs were shared between the group and the 'Spring Centre'.

    [75] Uemura-san, Interview at 'Spring Centre,' 11 December 2001.

    [76] Estevez-Abe, 'State-society partnerships in the Japanese welfare state,' p. 172.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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