Interview with Wakako Fukuda, feminist and member of SEALDs 1, about social media activism and responses to (sexual) online harassment.
1. You were very active in SEALDs, could you tell us what motivated you to join and how the activism looked like with regard to the use of social media?
First there was SASPL (Students Against Secret Protection Law) from December 2014 until December 2015 and I was a member there and so were most of the core members of SEALDs. Anyway, I was always interested in politics but never really ‘participated’ in any way before. The media started talking about the secret protection law back in 2014. I didn’t know what to do and also didn’t have the right to vote because I was only 19,2 so I decided to join a protest in front of the Parliament but found that there were only old people there. SASPL was established in the same year in December, one of the members, Aki Okuda, found me on Twitter and I got to know there was an organization by students, joined their second demonstration and became a member. It was very different from what I’d seen so far and it fit me well since there’s hip-hop music, well-designed flyers and most importantly, all those were done by university students just like me. One of the differences is that we used social media like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and even tumblr as some of our biggest tools. That was the easiest and fastest way to reach out to those of the young generation like us. It made us look more like ‘just every other student you can see in your campus or anywhere’ and that was important in order to fit in the society and speak our mind at the same time. Also, after Fukushima we have the impression that the media don’t really do their job like they’re supposed to anymore.
2. In SEALDs many women and girls were not only very active but also very visible. What could be the reason for this?
That is also one of the biggest changes in comparison to the movements in the 1960s – I think it’s simply because there was no hierarchy whatsoever in SEALDs, there was no leader, no boss. Everyone just did what they could do.
3. Could you tell us how feminism is important to you, and why? Is there a connection for you between feminist awareness and being a female activist?
Like most other societies, the Japanese society is very male-dominated and what’s disappointing is that Japanese women don’t really seem to be bothered by that. But I am, I was wondering why women have to wear makeup when men can go out without even doing their eyebrows when I was only 10. As you already know SASPL/SEALDs used social media a lot and I used my own Twitter account to talk about whatever I wanted. As the attention from media and society grew bigger, the bashing directed towards me got worse as well. I don’t even remember how many times I experienced slutshaming just because I am the girl who speaks her mind. Male members also got bashed a lot but still, compared to female members there was much less (almost no) sexual harassment towards them. That made me realize this society is so brutal to women in many ways. I got so stressed that it even physically affected me but what saved me from those moments were books written by the feminists that I have the most respect for. For me it is impossible to separate feminism from my life in order to stay strong and not to be tamed by anything. So you could say there’s a connection between feminist awareness and being a female activist, but again, I see the difference towards men and women here as well because, how many people call a man who joins the protest ‘a male activist’?
4. What kind of harassment did you experience?
There were tons of tweets, comments, websites etc. which can’t be called anything but online harassment. There are two types of harassment, one uses racism and the other sexism. Especially female members had to suffer from both, including me. I never knew there were so many racists and sexists on the Internet, and the Internet world is literally filled with lies and rumors. I often was called ‘Zainichi’ or ‘Chon’. Zainichi literally refers to foreigners who stay in Japan but when it’s used to bash someone, it tends to mean Koreans. Chon is the word only used by racists when they talk about Koreans. I am not Zainichi but by denying it (by replying or commenting) I would have made it seem like being Zainichi was something bad so I didn’t say anything. But by not saying anything it looked like I admitted it so either way I couldn’t do anything about it. Those websites that were made just to bash me and other members [of SEALDs] are still on the Internet. If you google main members’ names, only made-up stuff pops up. The people who did this try to somehow ‘prevent us from getting a job’ and that was another problem because that can easily push young people even further away from participating in political situations. The sexism is mostly directed towards female members; there was countless stuff that almost made me throw up just by looking at it, starting from the ‘I wanna have sex with you’ or ‘I wanna ask you out’ type of comments to pictures of a naked woman with my face attached having sex with a horse or something. Also comments saying that women can’t say anything better than men or shouldn’t participate in the political situation because they are too emotional for that. I mean, how stupid can you be, really? Also, female members tend to be picked about their looks more than male ones. I don’t remember how many times I’ve been told that I shouldn’t dress like that (however I was dressing) because people wouldn’t take me seriously if I didn’t dress ‘properly’. This kind of comments were was not just from haters but also from the ones who join the SEALDs demonstrations. It is so bad that we women are judged by our appearances before our words, but that’s also a serious part of sexism, I guess. The biggest shock was a death threat that came twice to one of our most known members.
5. What helped you to get through these experiences, and how did you respond to them? Do you know people who had similar experiences and how they could help each other?
If there was no SEALDs and I had been going through all those experiences alone, I don’t think I could have. Having members/friends who are going through the same or similar things always helps in any situation. I used to respond to those messages, but after I realized that by reacting I was giving them what they wanted, I stopped. Simply because I rather spend time doing my thing than wasting it on those who don’t deserve it at all. Since the Internet has become a big part of our lives nowadays, I don’t call it a total fake and it needs to be changed to a better place. For grown-ups it might not matter, but kids can see all the unhealthy stuff there and that is frightening. Also, I was always seeing something bigger than whatever those who try to bring me/us down said, I knew nothing can be changed within a day. A lot of people told me that whatever is happening on the Internet is not a real thing. Yes, it is important not to be too entrenched to that world behind the computer, but there’s always someone who is, no matter how hard you wish they weren’t, as real as you. But I knew what I was doing as a member of SEALDs and as a feminist.
1 SEALDs (Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy) is a group of activists who became famous for the organization of widespread protests against the reinterpretation of Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution (the so-called Peace Article).
2 In Japan, all citizens aged 20 years and over have the right to vote.