Ten pictures from Women En Large were recently displayed in an exhibit entitled Gender: Beyond Memory at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, in an elegant new shopping and recreational center in Tokyo, along with work by Hanna Wilke, Carrie May Weems, Masumi Hayashi, Hung Liu, Trinh T. Minh-ha and several other artists. {The exhibition and trip happened in September and October of 1996.}

Laurie's pictures were spectacularly displayed. They were in a room with huge four-to-six-foot-high black-and-white male nudes by John Coplans on the walls, and her pictures were on four small triangular pillars (the ten photographs and two pieces of text made exactly twelve surfaces), giving you the sense of intimacy that the pictures require, and contrasting them beautifully with the splashier work on the outside walls. Debbie's new essay and a selection of quotes from the book (in Japanese) gave the work a social and political context. The rest of the exhibit was as spectacularly chosen and displayed as Laurie's work.

The exhibit was the first exhibit on gender or women's issues to get major mainstream press attention and publicity in Japan; Ms. Michiko Kasahara, the curator, has been mounting exhibits on this theme for many years, but this was clearly her breakthrough. The opening reception was gratifyingly crowded and popular, with close to 400 people in attendance. Many of the guests were reporters and critics, and others were museum directors and art world luminaries of various sorts. There was a formal time for speeches, in which the museum director and two or three other people spoke, and all of us were introduced (all in Japanese).

Laurie couldn't get to Japan until the day of the reception (Debbie had come the day before), so she missed the formal speeches. She arrived in the middle of the event, with our two most passionate Japanese supporters, Takayuki Tatsumi and Mari Kotani. Mari, in particular, has been a supporter of Women En Large since the earliest days, and she has been solely responsible for introducing our work to Japan, including introducing the work to Ms. Kasahara. She is really the reason that all of this has happened, and we couldn't be more grateful.

Three days after the public reception, the museum held a symposium featuring two of the artists, followed by a more intimate artists' reception in the museum coffee shop, where Laurie and Debbie got to meet an assortment of feminists from the Japanese art world, many of whom spoke remarkably good English and were eager to talk about feminism and body image politics. This reception was followed by a private party for us, hosted by Mari Kotani and Takayuki Tatsumi, where we had a further opportunity to talk to Japanese people (many of them academics, critics, or students) about their impressions of self-esteem, body image, feminism, and other topics in Japan.

The following Monday, Laurie and Debbie gave a presentation at Ms. Crayonhouse, the Tokyo women's bookstore. Ms. Keiko Ochiai, the moderator for the evening and one of the proprietors of the bookstore, had been described as "a famous feminist of Japan." She is a 51-year-old feminist, who apparently started out as a disc jockey and achieved truly movie-star-level fame, and then quit to write feminist books and help found Ms. Crayonhouse. She talks and writes freely about her background - she is the daughter of a single mother (in Japan in 1945!). She has written a book called In My Mother's Garden, about her experiences with her mother. It has been translated and she is trying to get it published in America.

The bookstore itself is quite remarkable -- large, beautiful, comprehensive. Given the immense cultural resistance to feminism in Japan, one would think such a place was impossible. However, the women who founded this one built a successful and thriving children's bookstore, and then added a very feminist women's bookstore onto the top floor -- a remarkable example of ingenuity working against odds.

The presentation was scheduled for 6:30 to 9:00. The prepared talks and slide show took about an hour, including the translation time. After the slides, Ochiai-san joined Debbie and Laurie and the three of them had a round-table discussion with audience questions which ran 45 minutes over (!), a rare event in Japan. They discussed everything from mother-daughter relations to estrogen-replacement therapy to the effects of childhood sexual abuse on self-esteem and, of course, body image and what the Japanese call "fat feminism." The questions, both from Ochiai-san and from the audience, were well-thought out, often written out before being asked, long and detailed, and very sophisticated, though some were intensely personal. One sober-looking woman really was concerned about whether or not beauty is a legitimate concept for feminists, since it is not a commonly-perceived goal of men. Isn't the life of the mind a more reasonable place to look for self-worth? she asked. Our answer, that beauty is important for everyone, male and female, and doesn't exclude a life of the mind, seemed to be interesting to her, yet she kept coming back to the question.

The rest of the stay was taken up with interviews (from major national newspapers to alternative weekly magazines), as much touristing as could be fit in, and more chances to meet and talk with Japanese feminists. In one particularly interesting interview, the interviewer brought samples of Japanese diet advertisements, and Laurie, Debbie, and she spent a lot of time comparing how American and Japanese ads differ. (For example, in the Japanese ads, the "fat" women are much, much smaller than they are in the American ads, and instead of being photographed as blurry or out of focus, they are photographed as static and unmoving.)

The exhibit, and Women En Large, attracted a lot of press and public attention, virtually all of it favorable. The issue of body image is getting very important in Japan for several reasons. Laurie and Debbie both noted that fat people are much rarer in Japan than in the United States, but they do exist, within boundaries that are even narrower than in the US. In a day of walking around Tokyo, and looking, you usually see one or two people who are bigger than what Americans would call "midsize." Midsized women are "fat" in Japan. The current generation of children benefit from forty years of improving nutrition, have different eating habits and different nutritional choices. Consequently they are bigger and taller than their parents, and more of them are fat. Their epidemic of anorexia is at least as bad as ours.

Laurie and Debbie are already trying to figure out how they can go back and continue to do more good political work with the fascinating feminists of Japan. We welcome anybody's experiences with Japan, or with body image work in other countries; please e-mail us your stories at lte@candydarling.com.

Laurie Toby Edison
P.O. Box 77370
San Francisco, CA 94107
Email: Laurie Toby Edison

Last Update
January 10th, 2002

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