“The one and only way to bring about positive change in the world is through love.”
Journalist and social activist Kitamura Toshiko, one of the honorees at the Woman Human Rights Activities Award (or Yayori Award) ceremony held in Tokyo this past Saturday afternoon, revealed that she was able to arrive at this seemingly simple understanding only after a period of profound soul-searching.
"At one point in my life, I was driven almost exclusively by anger. After reaching a point where my work was no longer sustainable, however, I turned to spiritual pursuits including meditation and yoga. Only then was I able to realize what was missing in my approach."
In her work with numerous social issues, including child abuse, homelessness, youth bullying and suicide, Kitamura has deeply probed corners of society where love is often painfully lacking.
Her selection as this year's Yayori Journalist awardee was in recognition of her tireless commitment to these issues—as well as her recognition of the interconnections therein. In fact, her understanding of the common thread between all forms of discrimination and suffering—and her ability to look past surface-level social categorizations in order to connect with the common humanity that we all share—has often led to uncomfortable moments with others who do not share her vision.
"When some members of the women's movement heard that I was working with homeless people in Osaka's Kamagasaki district, they reacted by saying they couldn't understand why I would want to spend that much time with 'a bunch of lewd men'," she said. "Similarly, when I began a correspondence with a youth who was jailed after killing a homeless person—telling him that I believed in him and his capacity to change—I was harshly criticized by some of the other Kamagasaki volunteers as having betrayed the life-affirming work that we were trying to do there.
"In fact, violence is something that we are all capable of. Instead of immediately condemning someone for committing a violent act, then, we must seek to understand what particular constellation of factors caused that person to act in the way that they did," she emphasized to Saturday's attendees—most of whom (including myself) were in tears as her gentle and yet powerful words traveled straight into our heart-centers. "It is only when we calm our rage with love that we are able to have compassion for others and encourage them to change in positive ways."
Also speaking at Saturday's event was documentary filmmaker and human rights activist Tairah Firdous, who grew up in Kashmir amidst constant turmoil as India and Pakistan have continued a decades-long power struggle over the region. She received the Yayori Award in support of her forthcoming documentary, which will focus on Kashmiri survivors of rape and torture.
"The Indian government has declared Kashmir a 'disturbed area', and implemented an Armed Forces Special Powers Act that essentially gives state officials free license to do whatever they feel like," Firdous explained to Saturday's audience. "What this means in terms of actual experience are continuous human rights violations including forced migration, searches without warrants, arbitrary arrests and detention, torture, and rape.
"My own work with these issues began when my family was forced to leave our home after my father was arrested and tortured on six different occasions, even though he had absolutely nothing to do with the conflict," Firdous told attendees. "Completely innocent peoples' lives are being shattered within this political climate, and so I intend to expose the killings and other unreported human rights violations so that the rest of the world will know what is really happening."
New to the 2010 awards lineup was a special prize given to Kanda Kaori, a kodan (traditional storytelling) performer whose work focuses on issues connected to war and other forms of institutionalized violence.
"After I finished the obligatory three-year period of apprenticeship and was able to start my own career as a professional performer, I went on vacation in Saipan to celebrate," she told Saturday's crowd. "I was completely unprepared, however, for what I saw: a sunken U.S. military ship and other lingering remnants of World War II, which seemed so completely out of place amidst an otherwise idyllic scene of beauty. After I got over my shock, it became clear to me that I must use my craft to communicate the personal suffering unleashed by wars."
Kanda followed her acceptance speech with a brief kodan performance detailing the painful final hours of a Yokohama family after a U.S military jet crashed into their home in September 1977, badly burning their two toddlers, who died several hours later. Again, there were few dry eyes in the room at her emotional interpretation of the tragic event, memorialized in a bronze statue in a Yokohama seaside park titled Ai no boshizou ("An Image of a Mother's Love"). The statue represents the two small boys with their mother, who also died four years later from complications sustained in the crash.
Ai no boshizou ("An Image of a Mother's Love")
Saturday's event was held at a small chapel located on the same grounds as the Women's Active Museum on War and Peace (WAM), an institution founded by the Violence Against Women in War Network (VAWW-Net) that was spearheaded by the late Matsui Yayori (from whom the Yayori Awards have been bequeathed). The museum is presently housing an exhibition commemorating the tenth anniversary of the Women's International War Crimes Tribunal on Japan's Military Sexual Slavery that took place in 2000. Following the ceremony, a separate memorial was held in remembrance of the of the so-called "comfort women" who have died before having attained full justice for their suffering.
More information about the Yayori Award program may be read at this previous post. For full profiles of the 2010 (and past year) awardees, see the official website.
Text by Kimberly Hughes
Photos by Ando Makiko