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Independent women lead social change in Japan

- - Tuesday, August 2, 2011

NIIGATA, Japan — Onstage in front of about 5,000 ecstatic fans, Nic Endo unleashes a torrent of beats and shouts to help Japanese vent their feelings about their recent disasters.

"We need to release our subdued feelings," she told The Washington Times in an exclusive interview after a frenzied performance by her pioneering digital hard-core band, Atari Teenage Riot, at the Fuji Rock Festival on Sunday night.

"Japanese are not very outspoken and open about their feelings. But it's not healthy to just swallow everything," said Miss Endo, 35. "Many people here said it's a good thing for Atari Teenage Riot to play here now, to help people let their emotions out."

Known for her avant-garde musical creations and radical makeup, Miss Endo — who was born in Texas and raised in Germany by a German father and Japanese mother — is among hundreds of women with Japanese ancestry who play important roles in the global entertainment scene.

Whether onstage or at the largest protests here in 40 years, women also are increasingly at the forefront of movements for social evolution in Japan, where men vastly outnumber women in boardrooms, in government and especially in the nuclear power industry.

Mizuho Fukushima, the diminutive leader of the Social Democratic Party, has won many supporters for her straight talk about Japanese politics and her unambiguous stands for policies that support women, young people and workers.

After the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, a group led by mothers from hard-hit Fukushima province gained public attention by going to Tokyo to dump soil from Fukushima in front of the Education Ministry to demand more testing of children and stronger measures against rising levels of radiation.

Even before the disasters, Japanese women earned a global reputation for adopting alternative lifestyles and calling for progress: Outspoken underground artist Yoko Ono married John Lennon and became perhaps the most famous woman ever from Japan.

An icon of the anti-war movement in the United States in the 1960s and '70s, Miss Ono remains at the forefront of the peace movement in Japan and often leads festivals in Japan showcasing a younger generation of performers.

Over the weekend, Miss Ono spoke at an international symposium about peace and abolition of nuclear weapons, attended by 700 people at a conference center in Hiroshima. She said the people of Fukushima, where nuclear reactors have melted down, could walk the same "road of hope" as Hiroshima atomic bomb survivors.

Also in Hiroshima, actress Sayuri Yoshinaga, 66, made news in Japan last weekend by publicly criticizing nuclear power. "People often talk about using nuclear power in a peaceful or harmonious way, but to me, that sounds like a vague platitude," she said.

Inspired by Miss Ono, women have long dominated the underground music scene in Tokyo, Osaka and other cities.

In the mid-'90s, outrageous all-girl bands such as Shonen Knife, Super Junky Monkey and Melt Banana blazed trails for hundreds of other female artists in Japan, where current bands such as Molice, Bo Peep and Lazy Guns Brisky continue to gain cult followings among foreigners in Japan and overseas.

Tokyo-based pop star Kat McDowell, 27, said she used to draw strange looks when she was the only female worker in a guitar store in New Zealand, where she was raised by her expatriate Japanese mother.

But when she returned to her native Japan at age 21, she was amazed to see so many women working in music stores, studios and bands.

"There are lots of women doing music here. In New Zealand, I felt there was more of a stigma that girls don't play rock music," she said. "In Japan, it seems very natural to have all-girl bands."

Miss McDowell said many Japanese women are drawn to the entertainment world by their passion for creativity and fashion and because they often feel shut out in the male-dominated corporate world.

"There doesn't seem to be much of a gender thing here when it comes to music," she said. "Female Japanese musicians are respected by their male peers. It's really nice."

She said Japanese women have come a long way from the old days when women were the bosses at home but not in the office. "The [stereotypical] image of the meek Japanese girl is not so strong in my mind anymore. I've definitely seen Japanese women become more independent."

Like Miss McDowell, Miss Endo of Atari Teenage Riot said the younger generation has learned the value of independence from their mothers, who had to endure strong social pressure to forgo career ambitions and become young housewives.

Miss Endo kept her mother's maiden name as her stage name to honor her mother's courage to live outside Japan, far from her native Shizuoka province southwest of Tokyo.

Miss Endo said her mother, Yasuko, 62, was even more upset than she was about the Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s handling of problems at its reactors in Fukushima that were damaged by the tsunami.

"My mother was so angry about what she calls 'the Japanese mentality,' " she said. "I was fascinated by how people behaved. Their calm was inspirational. Their feeling was 'Let's not cry about it. Let's make it work.' "