Fighting exploitation of Asian women

Issue 

MATSUI YAYORI is a journalist and co-founder of the Asian Women's Association, which is conducting a program on Women and Development to raise the consciousness of people in Japan on the realities of women in other Asian countries. Matsui is the author of Women's Asia, recently published by Zed Books. Below are extracts of an interview with her published in Ampo Japan Asia Quarterly Review.

My first involvement in Asian women's issues was the campaign that we started against kisaeng tourism — that is, Korean women serving men sexually.

We were really shocked to find out that as many as half a million Japanese men per year had been visiting South Korea mainly for sex. After we uncovered this reality, we began a campaign at our end in Ganeda airport, handing out leaflets to embarrass or shame these men.

Soon after that I attended the Asian People's Conference which was held in Tokyo in 1974. The participants were largely men, and they didn't pay any attention to this kind of sexual abuse of other Asian women. So after the conference, the women participants decided to form a small group, which is now known as the Asian Women's Association.

Through this campaign we realised that we didn't know anything about our relations with other Asian women.

In the case of Japan and other Asian countries, it can be said to be one Asian cultural area, but economic development has changed their relations. Frankly, most Japanese feminists are not yet aware of this issue. That is why our Asian Women's Association tries to look at these problems: economic inequality or exploitation is combined with sexual abuse or sexual exploitation.

In Asian countries in the '70s there was no strong women's/feminist movement. It was only in the '80s that these groups were formed under the influence of the United Nations Women's Decade from 1975 to 1985.

My observation is that for the past 20 years the situation for women in Asia has only gotten worse in many ways, but the consciousness of women has been awakened. More and more women realise their situation, even as the situation is getting worse.

[In Japan] there is a growing minority of women who are increasingly more conscious of their rights and situation. But the general society is still backward. Look at the housewives; they can hardly question their situation, the reality of their family relationships.

I'm proud to tell you it is middle-aged women who are speaking up against the system [in the anti-nuclear movement and in support of the Socialist Party]. But there are two problems. One is that it is still a tiny minority: often they are isolated. Another thing is that they are not necessarily feminists. They try to be nice wives. They want to go home as soon as possible, to cook before their children and husbands come home. They are not really prepared to change their lifestyles.

The first wave of Japanese women's political activism was aigns in the early 1970s. It was really the women who took the lead to organise anti-pollution campaigns all over the country, and many were very strong in the local areas. This is what led to many of the so-called kakushin jichitai [progressive local governments].

[In other countries] in the 1970s export-oriented industrialisation was promoted as the new type of development, and more and more women were brought into the employment of the transnational factories. They were pushed out from the rural areas to the industrial zones. This transition was partially positive, because these women have a little more freedom than in a rural community under the traditional control of their parents, without any money or economic power. Even though what they earn is extremely little, still it is their own money.

Now as factory workers, they are under the control of a different kind of men, the managers and owners. They have to face sexual abuse on top of the economic exploitation. Housing is sometimes much worse than the rural life because they have to live in squatter areas.

We also have to think about the change in agriculture to agribusiness, which results in more women having to work on plantations growing bananas or other cash crops.

Also being commodified at an enormous rate are women's bodies. The sex industry has grown in almost all of these countries. The number of prostitutes has grown to four, almost five times what it used to be. Thailand's urban development has been remarkable, while the rural poverty is the same if not worse. This poverty pushes women into prostitution.