#Metoo made of magazine cut out letters

Pushing resistance theory in IR beyond ‘opposition’: The constructive resistance of the #MeToo movement in Japan

This article was written by Mona Lilja
This article was published on

Mona Lilja discusses the key points from her new article in BISA journal Review of International Studies (RIS). The article aims to contribute to debates concerning dissent within the scholarship of International Relations (IR), through elaborating the constructive qualities of resistance. Mona draws upon the case of the #MeToo campaign in Japan. The #MeToo movement in Japan should not only be viewed as a ‘non-cooperative’ form of resistance – that is, resistance that breaks norms, rules, laws, regulations and order, typically in public and in confrontative ways; rather, the #MeToo movement should be regarded as a ‘constructive’ form of resistance, which produced new resistance figures, movements, narratives as well as established new expressions of resistance.

Why Constructive resistance?

Composite and fruitful stories concerning resistance against power have flourished in IR and studies of the ‘global’. However, as discussed in the paper in Review of International Studies, there has been a trend to embrace resistance as simply opposition and it has been described primarily in terms of, ‘counter’, ‘contradict’, ‘social change’, ‘reject’, ‘challenge’, ‘opposition’ ‘subversive’ and ’damage and/or disrupt’. In addition, the abundant production of IR literature on mobilisations can be understood as divided into more or less distinct subfields. While one major trend has been to analyse collective and organised actions, this trend during the last decades has been supplemented by research on ‘hidden agency’ as well as research on the relationship between power and resistance. Although this bulk of research is novel, the scope of resistance studies within the field of IR still needs further engagement. So far, ‘surprisingly little’ has been written about ‘… initiatives which not only criticize, protest, object, and undermine what is considered undesirable and wrong, but simultaneously acquire, create, built, cultivate and experiment with what people need in the present moment, or what they would like to see replacing dominant structures or power relations.’ Through an analysis of the #MeToo movement in Japan, I argue that it is time to add to the IR scholarship by further elaborating on the ‘constructive’ modes of resistance.

The #MeToo movement in Japan

The #MeToo campaign against sexual abuse began in the United States (US) and spread virally across the world during 2017. On a global scale, the resistance practices of the #MeToo movement produced new – although still discursively anchored, and thereby intelligible – narratives of sexual abuse. The movement connected people to each other, it decided who should be regarded as victims or perpetrators and contributed to the creation of communities of belonging – in which some people experienced that they fitted in, whereas others did not. This indicates that the resistance of the #MeToo movement should not only be viewed as a ‘non-cooperative’ form of resistance; that is, resistance that breaks norms, rules, laws, regulations and the order, typically in public and in confrontative ways. Rather, the #MeToo movement should be regarded primarily as a ‘constructive’ form of resistance, which, I suggest, produced new resistance figures, movements, narratives and established new expressions of resistance.

More generally, the #MeToo movement created a sense of belonging on a global scale, given that individual resistance was practiced as a serial phenomenon. Single acts of resistance were undertaken by loosely connected individuals who shared similar interests or experiences, which produced and conveyed the campaign’s collectiveness. However, in Japan, the journalist Itō Shiori was often referred to as the only figurehead for the #MeToo campaign. Given this, Itō Shiori not only came to experience the punishments that are distributed for resisting sexual violence but her entire identity as a ‘Japanese woman’ was questioned. Moreover, certain frictions emerged between Itō Shiori as a ‘resister’ and the (re)appearing Japanese figuration of the female resister, who publicly targets issues such as food that contains additives, the application of pesticides in the environment and the use of nuclear energy, typically to protect their children and those of others.

The #MeToo movement as a form of constructive resistance

As stated above, the current take on resistance in IR, while being novel and rich, is still somewhat restrained. Taking this inte account, I would like to argue that an analysis of the #MeToo movement in Japan illuminates some aspects of the productivity of resistance. I suggest that Itō Shiori and other #MeToo profiles in Japan contributed to, firstly, producing new narratives in Japan that place (society-defined) women in the context of power networks and sexual violence (narratives that are now being maintained and advanced by organisations such as Flower Demo, Spring or Voice Up Japan). Secondly, Itō Shiori came to embody a new figure of the resister, which others have performed in her wake. Finally, she and others contributed to establishing a specific configuration of resistance – the hashtag has become a symbol in Japanese society that is currently filled with other political connotations; for example, in the #KuToo and the #WithYou campaigns. Below I will shortly address these bearings of the Japanese #MeToo campaign.

New narratives of the #MeToo movement as a form of constructive resistance

The #MeToo movement worked through narratives that inspired new narratives; it was resistance that generated new resistance. Doublings and (re)repeated stories gave rise to (re)experiences, (re)constructions and the upholding of the #MeToo discourse. Such narrating appeared as an unstable process whereby discourse became a source, an instrument and an effect of resistance. In many venues, the stories of sexual abuse produced new discourses and could, therefore, be understood as a constructive form of resistance. Accordingly, my respondents (as well as other scholars) have concluded that the #MeToo movement has made sexual abuse increasingly recognisable in a Japanese context. The narratives of the #MeToo campaign were not generally discursively intelligible in Japan once the movement reached the country. Rather, the campaign appeared, by many, to be untrue, irrelevant, insane or excessively shameful and thereby displays sexual abuse as situated outside of the boundaries of the (prevailing) discourses. Regardless, by time, the narratives were established and today, the #MeToo narrative is recapped and reinvented in Japan by organisations such as Voice Up Japan, Spring or Human Rights Now and Flower Demo.

A new configuration of resistance

As I indicated above, new, yet unstable, truths were constructed by the #MeToo campaign. To this, it can also be added that the specific configuration that the #MeToo symbol composes has been instituted in Japan as an established yet alternative form of resistance. Using the sign of the hashtag has become a recognisable way of protesting against unequal gender relations. Flower Demo has, for example, complemented the #MeToo hashtag with the sign #WithYou, which is meant to support the #MeToo campaign. Moreover, the #MeToo campaign’s formula has also been adopted, although filled with a new and alternative meaning, by the feminist #KuToo online movement, This movement objects the dress code for high-heel shoes, which is mandatory for many Japanese women in the work force. The #KuToo resistance lends distinguishable elements from the ‘original’ resistance through references to it, while, at the same time, being contextually distinct from it. Such replication makes us re-experience the configuration, while still loading it with new political messages. The new repetition of the specific configuration of the #MeToo movement depends on both sameness and differences, in addition to creativity and variation.

The reinvented hashtags are not simply passive containers of different meanings and do not simply represent discourses, but also partake in the ongoing processes of establishing different truths and norms, while at the same time, drawing attention to, and in some senses repeating, the #MeToo discourse. Taking stock of recognised symbols to establish new discourse of resistance is a powerful strategy of constructive resistance.

The new campaigners

The above discussion reveals how the configuration of the #MeToo hashtag has been re-used, re-designed and re-filled with new meanings. Of further note is that even if it is not a widely held perception, Itō Shiori ultimately has contributed to advancing an alternative figure of resistance. Resistance in Japan is sometimes understood as a caring practice through which mothers attempt to fight against food producers, the state and multinational farmers. The pattern of women resisting has been prevalent since the 1960s and is linked to the image of women as self-sacrificing and altruistic. Overall, political subjectivities and resistance in Japan sometimes become entangled with, and emanate from, discourses of care-taking. From the above it follows that discourses of ‘femininity’ (regularly connected to the private sphere) fuel another subjectivity of activism and public involvement. As a form of resistance, the #MeToo movement appeared to ‘fit’ poorly, if at all, with this strand of resistance and activism. One of the respondents argued:

"We have been working with consumers cooperative and women/mothers are actively taking part in our activities. They are concerned about the society, not only the healthy food for their own families, but many of them are joining anti-nuclear movement or anti-war/peace movement [for their kids' sake]. However, I see that feminism or the #MeToo movement is not their main concern. Why? One reason that I think is their status as house-wives."

Concurrently, the resistance of the #MeToo movement contributed to the establishment of alternative resistant figures, such as Ishikawa Yumi (who has been tweeting the hashtag #KuToo) or Itō Shiori, who stand in stark contrast to the ‘mothering’ dissent that is played out by many house-wives. In addition, the #MeToo movement has provided the seedbed for a new type of organisation(s), among them: the Flower Demos, Spring and Voice Up Japan, who all of them bring up issues such as sexual abuse, women politicians or gay marriage and are run by young women and students. This indicate that while the #MeToo movement did not gather many followers at the time, it can still be understood as a form of constructive resistance that led to a new generation of young people launching new political paths in Japan. New subject positions and organisation have been created in the wake of the transnational movement, as well as Itō Shiori’s and other’s struggles, to obtain redress and justice.

Concluding discussion

Summing up, the IR vernacular on resistance has contributed with several insights regarding different forms of resistance as well as the crossroads between power and resistance. Still, as argued above, one weakness of the scholarship on resistance in IR is the rather limited focus so far. Among other things, there is a conspicuous absence in most studies in IR on the entanglements between more individual expressions of resistance and collective mobilisations. In addition, few scholars have pursued a route over the ‘building’ aspects of resistance. This side-stepping opens up a gap for IR scholars to fill; we must expand the boundaries and content of the study of resistance within IR. Dissent is not simply in opposition to, destructive against or critical of the prevailing order, but also has a constructive mode.

By analysing the #MeToo movement in Japan, my aim has been to illustrate the richness of constructive resistance. The campaign provides a significant example of how new discourses may move transnationally through the power of repetition and in Japan it was producing new discourses, activist subject positions and configurations. Still, I would like to argue that this resistance also carried non-cooperative elements, which challenged established social norms, laws and legal processes. Thus, many practices of resistance contain both constructive and non-constructive elements, and these indeed work together to undermine systems of domination. Sometimes, constructive resistance is ‘more’ constructive and less in opposition; it is a sliding scale. This and some mechanisms of constructive resistance are further elaborated in my paper in Review of International Studies.

Moreover, it could be argued that the constructive resistance of the #MeToo in Japan, unfolded in different interlinked steps. Firstly, the #MeToo discourse as it was established abroad and then repeated in Japan, came to establish a new discourse on sexual abuse and ‘new’ resistance subjects. In a second step, however, the discourse was re-interpreted and begun to take new forms (for example, #WithYou) in the specific Japanese context; that is, the terrain in which the hashtag was negotiated and re-interpreted. When assumed and negotiated locally, the movement came to be the hotbed of new configurations of resistance as well as a new generation of resistance organisations that, in turn, appear to have remaked Japanese Feminism. The above implies that the reinterpretations and the (re)invented repetition of the #MeToo discourse, which emerged through contextual (de)coding processes, have been important parts of the constructive resistance of the Japanese #MeToo movement.

Want to know more? You can read the full article at DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/S0260210521000541

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