Japanese politician forms a heart with his hands as campaigners for sex law reform make the equal sign (courtesy: Kanoko Kamata)

Lisa Goldman

Journalist, editor and policy analyst

Japanese lawmakers voted this year to amend the nation’s sex crime law, which had remained unchanged since 1907. For this “Meet the Mobiliser” I spoke with Kanoko Kamata, a leader of the campaign and co-founder of Community Organising Japan.

The sex crime law amendment expands the definition of rape, mandates longer minimum sentences for convicted rapists, and removes the requirement that only the victim may press charges. A grassroots campaign inspired by similar efforts around the globe but customised for Japanese cultural sensibilities prompted lawmakers to act.

Kanoko Kamata, a former environmental consultant who studied campaign organising at Harvard’s Kennedy School, is the co-founder and executive director of Community Organising Japan (COJ), which provides coaching sessions for grassroots civil society campaigns. In 2017 she helped organise the movement that successfully advocated for a change in the Criminal Code of Japan — for the first time in 110 years.

“I myself am a survivor of sexual assault,” Kamata told MobLab. She recounted how, as a young professional, she experienced sexual assault at the hands of her superior at work. “For 15 years,” she said, “I did not realise that I was a survivor.” Like 95 percent of Japanese rape victims (according to Cabinet Office data collected in 2014), she did not speak about or report the incident.

Only upon studying gender issues years later, did Kamata realise that Japan’s outdated sex crime law, which defined rape narrowly as sexual contact coerced by physical force and verbal threat, could have been one of the reasons she “internalised the experience and didn’t talk about it for so long.”

How do you define goals and successes when you are organising a campaign?

When we started the campaign to amend the law on sexual assault, we narrowed things down to strategic goals — that is, concrete things we wanted to accomplish with this campaign. Then we established two types of goals: a minimum expectation; and an aspirational goal. The minimum was to get legislative reform passed.

The aspirational goal was to have the legislation include amendments on how to address potential loopholes in the wording of the new law. Specifically, we wanted the law to include a definition of rape that included non-violent coercion — in other words, sex coerced through an imbalance of power and manipulation should also be defined as rape. We achieved that goal. We got a legally binding amendment that required the law be reviewed within three years of its having been passed, to make sure it was working.

What is the biggest challenge you face right now?

Lack of funding is a big challenge. In Japan, civil society campaigning is supposed to be voluntary work. Foundations can cover the expenses for a specific event, but it cannot cover the cost of an organisation’s office rental and other expenses. So a movement must sustain itself with a staff that is all-volunteer. This means campaigners have two full-time jobs — the paid profession, and the unpaid volunteer work for the movement. Campaigners are stretched thin and run the risk of burnout.

We try to raise money through grassroots efforts and from paid workshops, but these resources are limited. Japan does not have a strong culture of philanthropy; for example, tax exemption status for non-profits has only existed since 1998, and it’s very difficult to obtain.

What is the one tool you cannot work without? Why?

My tool for teaching is the five practices of leadership for organising, as defined by Dr. Marshall Ganz of Harvard Kennedy School. Those five practices always get me back on track:

  1. Build relationships
  2. Connect to the heart
  3. Have a strategy
  4. Move to action
  5. Create structures that support collaboration
Is there a new campaigning tool or tactic you’re testing right now? What do you think of it so far?

Our outreach to college students is very innovative in Japan. People would say “we want to work with young people” but they never reached out to them. Our practice of reaching out to students has scaled up the grassroots movement by recruiting movement members through the workshops that we held on university campuses.

The workshops are about consent; they are designed to promote a healthy masculinity based on sexual consent. Each workshop is based on a couple role-playing, with a woman who is not ready to have sex while the man is trying to coerce her. In three months we educated about 300 students, who went on to lead their own workshops, which spread across campuses. The students who went through the workshops joined the movement and helped to lobby politicians. In Japan it is quite unusual for students to come to the Diet to lobby politicians.

Let’s talk about tactics. How did you overcome the ingrained resistance Japanese have to creating controversy?

We tried to make this a campaign about everybody’s issues – not just women. For example, under the old sex crime law, men could not be considered victims of rape. But of course men do experience sexual assault — especially (but not only) LGBT men.

We also made the appeal by pointing out that even if you personally haven’t experienced sexual assault, then perhaps your girlfriend, mother or sister has. We looked at the storytelling in the campaign more as a means of empowerment and inclusion than victimology. We asked ourselves and others: What kind of society do you want Japan to be?

We also used storytelling when we spoke to politicians. Individuals who had experienced sexual assault told their stories in the Diet. We found the politicians were compassionate listeners.

In Japan, ordinary citizens have very limited contact with politicians, so one of our challenges was how to obtain access. We started by securing a few introductions via an expert who knew politicians that were interested in the issue of sex crime laws. We were also able to obtain introductions to politicians through alumni of the Kennedy School, which is a powerful network in Japan. Those politicians we met with initially then introduced us to others.

We also recruited some celebrities to support our cause.

And we used dance. We launched an action campaign where we encouraged people to express themselves through dance poses and share them via Instagram and Facebook, or send them to us. For example, we asked people to pose with an “equal” sign. Social media postings led to questions from friends, which in turn raised awareness. We also created a dance, filmed it and posted the video online. When we met politicians we asked them to express an idea through movement —  which they did.

When we submitted our petition to the legislative committee, everyone in the group posed with an equal sign. We asked a committee member (one of the politicians) to pose while forming a heart sign with his hands, and he did. We wanted to make it something joyful, because sexual violence is something dark that people don’t want to talk about. We wanted to enjoy ourselves and to make the movement seem more approachable.

What are three things an activist should be, have or know?
  • Passion is an essential quality. When I see that a leader has passion, I don’t worry about that person.
  • Vulnerability. If you give the impression of being infallible you don’t create a space for people and you don’t create relationships on a deeper level — both of which are essential in a successful social movement. You have to be vulnerable in your relationships and also in your work. Work can be very challenging and you are at risk of burnout. So you have to be open and vulnerable to your colleagues and your fellow leaders.
  • Transparency and honesty. This is kind of related to vulnerability. Don’t hide. That’s the last thing you want to do in a social movement. If you want to maintain trust, you have to be very open and transparent. Without trust you cannot build a movement.
What book did you read most recently or are you reading right now?

I am reading Anatomy of Dependence, by Takeo Doi. I wanted to understand why it’s so hard to raise a voice in Japan and why dependence is such a theme in Japanese society. In the western world, people try to be independent and individualistic. In Japan, maybe because we have to live in small communities,  or engage in communal farming, we are inter-dependent. So independence is not part of our culture. Community is more important  than individual.

Is there an ongoing campaign you find particularly interesting or inspiring?

I’m interested in Indivisible, the grassroots movement to resistance against Donald Trump. So far they’ve been really effective, I think. But I don’t see any definition of a shared vision, which is a problem. It seems the Left in the United States does not have a shared goal, whereas the Right does; so I’m curious to see how Indivisible reaches its goal of mobilising collective action without a shared vision.

The Left in the U.S. is also weakened by a lack of community organising and building. This is something that cannot be done through email. The far Right has done really well in building support through community building, while the Left has a huge online membership that is reached only through email.

Do you have a favourite podcast?

I don’t listen to podcasts. I want to develop a list, but I haven’t had the time. So I am looking forward to your recommendations!

Who do you follow on social media for campaign news and insights?

I use a Facebook a lot. I don’t feel comfortable addressing a mass unknown audience via Twitter. So I use Facebook because it’s better for one-on-one communication. On Twitter I follow people who have an “opposite bias” —  like right wing conservatives, because my Facebook friends are like-minded people. But I have to be careful: comments from right wing / conservative people could hurt me.

What is it about your work that inspires or excites you?

Achieving tangible success is really inspiring and meaningful. I also like watching people grow and develop leadership skills. I am really happy to see this. In Japan it is very hard to just be yourself; you have to follow society’s strictures. I have had the privilege of finding my own voice, and now I want others to know they can be themselves and say things that are maybe “not good” for society. This is coming from my own experience of silencing myself about my sexual assault for 15 years. I should have spoken out but I did not.

Meet the mobiliser