Kasumi Iwama is a multidisciplinary artist/feminist/activist whose work responds to and reflects on issues such as globalization, borders, and feminism through her perspective as a bi-cultural millennial who grew up between the U.S. and Japan. She has a BFA in Fine Arts from the School of Visual Arts in New York, and is currently a graduate student atLa Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar majoring in cultural studies and researching on feminist art activism in Latin America. She has participated in group and solo shows in the United States, Japan, Europe, and South America, and residencies at No Lugar (Ecuador) and Mas Els Igols (Spain). Feminist (art) activism is a part of her artistic practice, and she participates in public performances, campaigns, and has been a guest lecturer in Japanese universities. She was recently a part of the curatorial team for the group show “Prisión, gesto, cuidado: arte colectivo feminista” in Museo Universitario Central del Ecuador (September-November 2019), a group show of collectives in Latin America that bring healing, justice, and support to women of vulnerable groups through artistic processes. Kasumi also manages Artoka, an English/Japanese translating company specializing in art-related texts. She currently lives and works in Quito, Ecuador.
様々なメディアを用いてグローバル化、国境等のあらゆる境界、フェミニズムなどのテーマをアメリカと日本の間で育ったミレニアル／ゆとり世代目線で表現する。ニューヨークのスクール・オブ・ビジュアル・アーツを卒業後ニューヨーク、東京、ヨーロッパ、南米などで制作と発表活動を続ける。アーティスト、アクティヴィスト、フェミニストと共に活動もしている。現在アンディナ・シモン・ボリバル大学院エクアドル校でカルチュアラル・スタディーズを専攻、ラテンアメリカのフェミニストアートアクティヴィズムについて研究中。2019年秋にはエクアドルの国立中央大学美術館（MUCE）でキュラとリアル・チームの一員としてグループ展「Prisión, gesto, cuidado: arte colectivo feminista」を企画・実行。「翻訳・英文作成 アトカ」の代表として美術・芸術専門の日英翻訳も行っている。2017年よりエクアドルの首都、キト在住。
Annie: Why did you become an artist, researcher and activist? Is it important to you that these roles are interlinked and why?
Kasumi: There isn’t a very dramatic story behind it. I always loved art since childhood, and was very lucky enough to be able to attend art school after high school to pursue my interests. Since I had come from a conservative (white, evangelical Christian) environment, going to art school was a huge and much needed change for me to grow as an artist.
The summer I graduated college, the Occupy Wall Street movement erupted. I was living in New York at the time, and maybe because I was directly facing the uncertainty of stable employment, the movement resonated with me. It was the first time I saw people marching and protesting with my own eyes. Witnessing OWS was maybe even more exciting than anything I had experienced directly in art school. That feeling stuck with me for a while but I couldn’t figure out what to do with it. “Activism” wasn’t as trending as it is now. Fast forward to about a year later, and there was a short documentary about child soldiers that became viral on social media and then drifted into mainstream media: KONY 2012. I didn’t watch the actual short-doc myself, but the effect it had on social media was massive. I think that was the first moment I began to question the idea of “raising awareness” and what it meant to actually make a difference. The KONY video was shared millions of times on social media, but I doubted that anyone did anything more than simply share the video, in regards to actually doing something about the problem (and it seemed many others had the same doubts or cynicism according to some tongue in cheeks memes I saw about the documentary and its virality). I thought that there must be more to activism than just sharing content on social media, but I had no idea how, and had no role models in that field. But I do remember trying to come up with a project that respondedto this whole phenomenon (never did it, but it was the first idea where I consciously connected art to social justice in my mind). A couple years later I lived briefly in Barcelona, in an apartment with two men who I got in contact with through a mutual friend who let me occupy their extra bedroom. They had been activists for almost as long as I’d been alive at that point, and their stories enabled me to visualize and understand what activism was in practical terms. It was very inspiring and I went back to Japan with a new energy. I think it was maybe this experience in Barcelona through which I was able to truly envision a future as an artist and pursue it, even if I had a “day job”.
Yes,I do think these roles are linked for me, and don’t think it would work otherwise. I wouldn’t say I was always a researcher, and I think even now that term would be a generous assessment of what I do, but I see it as part and parcel with being an artist and/or an activist. I think it is difficult, and arrogant, to attempt any kind of effective activism without properly understanding the issues, its history, universalities and particularities (in addition to personal commitment).The same goes for art production too: although the work might come from a very personal experience or emotion, it strengthens the work when there is more knowledge about the subject from outside one’s own perspective. I think this helps to situate oneself in their own perspective too. Research is also a skill one can learn and develop, so I hope that with practice I’ll improve my research skills and make it a more effective foundation for everything else I do.
I am currently undertaking my first “real” research which is my master’s thesis on art activism in South America. The motivation comes from my personal interest and need to reflect critically on my own practice, as well as understand just on a factual level how different forms of activism function in different contexts. I hope that the final product of the research will be a helpful tool for others who are involved or interested in the topic.
Annie: Why inspired you to do these projects, Hello Kasumi, If I were Chinese, I’d already know that, and Difficult Women?
Kasumi: Hello Kasumi was a piece I worked on when I was in Barcelona. This was the first time I lived in a foreign country (I lived between Tokyo and New York until then, but neither are actually “foreign” to me). Living in a country where I truly had no roots allowed me to think of my identity outside of the usual framework, which was that I never quite fitting in to either country that I grew up in. In NY I was always seen as “Japanese” (and I’m not quite a hyphenated, “Japanese-American” either), and in Japan people always focused on the aspect that I grew up overseas and spoke English. The idea of people immigrating and growing up in countries where they might not look like the majority shouldn’t be a strange thing for us, yet it seems to throw people off when an Asian is speaking fluent English and such. Being a “true” foreigner in Spain gave me the chance to look at myself a little more from outside my own perspective and that’s when I realized that Hello Kitty, perhaps the biggest star to emerge from Japan, also “lives abroad” because her official profile says she lives in London, which was the western city that many Japanese people admired back when Hello Kitty was created. So the work was my way of reflecting on the Western complex that Japanese society has, and relating my identity with that of Hello Kitty.
If I were Chinese, I’d already know that was my first big work I made in Ecuador. Again it is about identity but this time in relation to being a woman, and the broader issue of harassment that I think many women can relate to, whether they are a racial minority or not. It caught my attention that one of the most common ways that men harass me in particular is just saying “Chinese girl” as we walk past each other. That is where the title comes from, because it seemed strange that of all the things they could say, it was this. As if I wouldn’t know my own nationality and needed some random creepy male stranger to tell me. But the silliness and uselessness of men saying “Chinese girl” to me on the street was also one of the ways which made it really clear to me what harassment is: It’s not men trying to be friendly or helpful, but attempting to assert presence or power on the other. And since my Asian appearance makes me stick out like a sore thumb over here, I usually end upas an easy target,and sexist harassers are most likely racists as well, so “Chinese girl” it is.
I also wanted to convey that street harassment in the form of unwanted comments isn’t harmless just because there’s no physical residue. It sticks with the victim anyway, and eats away at energy that they could be spending on something else. So I wrote the words on my body because I experience the verbal harassment as a physical thing, and took the photos in the exact locations where those words were hurled at me. Since my audience was going to be mostly Ecuadorians, and specifically people in Quito, the idea was that they’d recognize some of these locations, and understand that it is such a part of everyday life.
Difficult Women was a workshop series I participated in, where women in the arts came together to discuss feminism in Ecuador and create work based on our discussions. The two mediums used were ceramics and embroidery, which have a strong connection with women in Latin American history. I find that structural inequality is often made visible through personal experience and therefore wanted to use my body. The ceramic piece is a ceramic cast made from a plaster mold. Since we had to make it within the workshop period, I couldn’t develop the idea as much as I wanted, but that enabled me to enjoy or focus the aesthetic process more than usual and I loved the idea of capturing the form of my body at that moment frozen in time forever. Maybe I would like to repeat this at various stages of my life so I can see the changes of my body.
Kasumi Iwama, Hello Kasumi (2015)
Ceramic and glaze, mixed median
Annie: What do you hope to achieve with these projects with regards to the audience, the public? What has been the most surprising or important discovery from doing the project?
Kasumi: I think the common thread among a lot of my works is the personal experience that allows us to see a bigger social or structural context/issue. Thinking about immigration, or gender, violence, the objectification of women, can be difficult as they can appear to be very big or abstract ideas, but the personal brings it closer to home and also makes the idea into something concrete. In that sense, I hope that the work resonates with the audience and shows ways in which gender and identity are experienced in everyday lives.
The most surprising thing is perhaps the reactions I got to the series If I were Chinese, I’d already know that. The first director/videographer I hired was a man, and he was very offended by the script I handed him (for the video “How not to be a street harasser”). His point was “not all men” so I told him we’re not compatible and quickly found a feminist director and actor to help me out.
This series was also recently shown in a group show at a university as part of a week-long conference on gender violence in academia. I arrived on the final day for the round table talk, and the curators approached me and looked very uneasy. They said, “don’t be alarmed, but someone put one of the red dot stickers from your map (from the same series) and put it on your body on one of the photographs. We carefully peeled it off, but we thought you should know.” I assumed it was a male student that also was offended by the video and decided to do this, or maybe it was just a prank with no deep thought. But after the round table, a fellow artist and I were walking around the show and two young female students were writing “feminism is cancer” on the interactive comments board. My fellow artist friend attempted to talk to them, but their talking points were all typical troll-like things (like “feminazi” and “oh you’re SO oppressed aren’t you”) and nothing of substance or constructive criticism. I knew in my mind that not all women or not all Gen Zs are necessarily feminists, but it was the first time I came into real life contact with people who were vehemently against feminism without a grasp of what it was. And it was disappointing that it was coming from young girls who have the privilege of attending university. These experiences really made me realize that we live in a society that is fundamentally machista, and that it seeps into the way people are raised, how it is so normalized.
Annie: How have making these projects impacted you as an artist and a person?
Kasumi: These projects are some of my favorites, and as an artist they helped me to relax more about making art. I think that, for me, being involved in social justice causes or activism sometimes makes me put pressure on myself that my work has to be theoretically or ideologically indestructible and consistent, which can hinder me from diving in and just starting it. But doing these projects helped me relearn that making art is also an intuitive process too. Not every aspect needs to be understood by me every moment. Sometimes the aesthetic aspect is the driving force, but that doesn’t mean it’s conceptually faulty. This process of breaking free from logocentrism is an exercise I have to continuously practice, but I think it’s necessary, otherwise I might just get caught up on creating something conceptually bullet proof and lose some of the authenticity that is important to me.
Kasumi: Japanese feminists often get asked this, but I don’t think it is, or ever was, a matter of whether feminism was established or not, yes or no, before and after. The question assumes that feminism isn’t established in Japan, but is that so? And moreover, when is feminism “established” in society?
There were moments in Japanese history when there have been movements and change, and there have been setbacks and backlash. Conversely, I don’t think that just because feminism exists in western countries, that it’s been a linear progress from then on. As someone who grew up in the U.S., I don’t see a real or complete separation between church and state in government, and I think it’s apparent in how structural problems (racism, sexism) still exist today. Is feminism “established” in Western countries? If it is, or was, it can easily be undone, as we see with the waves of far-right conservatism sweeping the country.
There were clear moments of feminism being alive in Japanese history:
In the early 1900s, there was a magazine in Japan called Bluestockings (Seito) of feminists who published ideas that were radical for the time. Their office was the target of harassment and sometimes physical attacks.
In the late 60s throughout the 70s, there was a women’s liberation movement which produced a lot of literature, actions, and political figures.
1985, a law was put in place to prohibit gender discrimination in employment.
In the early 2000s, there was huge backlash against “gender” and incorporating it into public education, but I’d like to also think that the magnitude of backlash is reflective of how potent the ideas and movements were.
Of course that is not to say there aren’t deep structural issues that hinder the kind of further change needed. But movements that were effective in the past aren’t necessarily going to reproduce the same results in the present either.
The difficulty is that now the issues aren’t simply giving more freedoms or systems that affect only women. For example, to illustrate in a very simple way, in the case of women’s suffrage, it was simply about extending that same right to vote to women. But now, in the case of employment or career, a topic that many women see as a huge problem, there is no one step solution such as hiring more women or giving them higher salaries or promotions. Because it involves the issue of childcare, which has to do with male participation in it, which relates to the problem of long (and often meaningless) work days of overtime work, whether paid or not. Long work hours for male employees is part of the feminist issue. The whole value system or work ethic system which is the motor of the current working/professional world needs to be reevaluated and changed. In that sense, a variety of social issues are interlinked which can add to the difficulty in understanding feminism and creating a movement.
That said, I do recognize that Japanese society is still an incredibly difficult place for women to speak up about their experiences or social problems faced. Shiori Ito, the journalist who spoke out against her rapist with a lawsuit, literally could not live in Japan anymore and had to move abroad to feel safe and maintain her emotional well-being.
The way Japanese people find ways to speak out is different from other countries and societies. There has been a “flower demo(nstration)” movement in many regions, not limited to major cities, where women and victims of sexual abuse and harassment gather in public to express their anger and show solidarity. This has a different energy and visual aesthetic/expression than the women’s march in the US, or #vivasnosqueremos in Latin America, or the recent “A rapist in your way (Un violador en tu camino)” that started in Chile. But I think it’s important that people find their own voice and their own way to participate in a movement. Perhaps feminism is “established” but has a much different look than the hegemonic imagery of “feminism” that we tend to think of, which is transmitted by western societies.
Annie: Do you think feminism is important and what do you think it can do for Japanese culture, politics and society? What do you think is most needed from feminism for Japan?
Kasumi: Yes, I do believe feminism is important, since it has already accomplished so much for Japanese women and society in the past. As I mentioned in the example above, I think feminism will contribute greatly to Japanese culture for its capacity to question social norms regarding traditional labor and family structures. Even if the Abe administration doesn’t give a shit about women, changing work culture and allowing for diverse family structures and lifestyles will expand the economy, as is widely known through research of other societies that have been able to accomplish that. And people already want it anyway. Younger parents are already wanting to spend more time with their kids and commit to work, so it should be a win-win solution for both the people and the government.
Feminism would also affect how Japanese society looks at immigration, the traditional marriage system, the LBGTQ community, education. I think the potential of feminism lies in its capacity to change all aspects of society, not just women’s needs.
Contrary to popular opinion, Japan is not a homogenous society. There have always been large historic communities of Asian immigrants (for example, Korean and Chinese), relatively newer immigrant communities of people from other parts of the world, and mixed race families. Even in a Japanese community, there have been LGBTQ people, people with handicaps and special needs, people of varying socioeconomic classes, and people like me who are ethnically Japanese but have grown up in other cultures with other native languages. But the country has been run by one demographic, that is: cis-hetero, able-bodied, wealthyJapanese men. This privileging of one group made the others invisible. Based on this, I think what is most needed from feminism for Japanese society is to make this existing diversity visible through advocating diverse needs and supporting the prosperity of these demographics just as much as the currently dominant group. A feminist perspective and movement on gender, labor, immigration (and the marriage system), health, and education, is a step towards helping marginalized communities thrive.
Which reminds me, something that is “traditionally” feminist, is the advocacy for women’s health and reproductive rights. This is severely lacking in a (supposedly first world) country with such a robust national healthcare system and maternity/paternity leave programs. I think feminism canobviously contribute in this field, by advocating for better accessibility to anti-contraceptive methods and improvedabortion methods(current Japanese practice uses methods that are considered in other countries as outdated, risky, and unnecessarily painful). Ideally this would open up the conversation to not just about not having kids, but to creating strong social systems so people can proactively decide to have kids, when they want, and how many they want. Also protecting trans people’s reproductive health rights as well, like getting rid of the forced sterilization requirement (among a slew of other requirements needed) to change the sex on legal documents.
Annie: What do you think is needed to strengthen the movement for change? What does it take to create real structural change in terms of feminism and LGBTQ+ communities? What do you think is needed to strengthen the movement for change?
Kasumi: Recently, Huffington Post Japan began an online series on feminism but invited an anti-feminist with a large twitter following as their first guest. This guest obviously generated a lot of misinformation and bad-faith interpretation of feminism in the interview and fed the twitter trolls. This incident shows that even where there is good intention, such as on the part of HuffPo, the execution could be sloppy and backfire on the feminist movement. (It was also probably not well thought of on the part of HuffPo, and they probably came up with the series without proper research to gain more clicks and views).
So we’re entering a phase where feminism is profitable (even in Japan) to some degree, and a lot of mainstream entities are jumping of the bandwagon without much commitment to the actual movement and message. Taking advantage of this momentum to educate the public or at least provide solid information can strengthen the movement. Also if the media would do their homework more and give the microphone to activists who are doing hands on, on the ground work.
In Japan, structural change would probably require a shift in numbers. More women and marginalized people in decision-making positions. Obviously there’s always women and marginalized people who might not side with their communities and instead support the patriarchal system in order to advance themselves, but I think that’s all the more reason to get gender parityin numbers (and better demographic representation in general)—if there’s 100 women and 100 men to begin with, let’s say, then it won’t be that detrimental if one woman is misogynist (since one of the 100 men might be a feminist too!). But for example, in the current dominating political party, there are very few women and those women are oppressive misogynists themselves so it doesn’t help.
(But I take my own above comment with some critical skepticism. I don’t believe that gender parity, especially in the political realm, is a surefire way to achieve all the change we want. I think it is important and effective to some extent, but more than anything, it’s really only a start, which is of relevance in a country like Japan. “Gender parity” is also a very tricky idea, because the assumption here is cis-gender parity. For example, how do we ascertain that trans* people are part of this initiative without them having to disclose their trans* identity against their will? How do we create a society in which disclosing trans*/gender identity does not put people at risk? That is only one of the things that needs to be better considered when we talk about gender parity. Also, at the end of the day, for any institution/community/industry to change, it takes more than just inserting women or marginalized people into it. There needs to be an overhaul of all systems, and we need to abolish ones that are created from the beginning with the objective to oppress and colonize, starting with obvious ones like the prison and military industries. I could go on about this topic, but what I want to make clear is that numbers are merely a small start of an extensive process of needed change.)
Trans* Studies had a big impact on me as a feminist, and made me critically reflect on my own errors as well as in feminism in general. We tend to assume that feminism goes hand in hand with LBGTQ+ issues, and in many ways it does, but probably most often with “LGB” which can still have a very cis premise. Trans*communities are often neglected or included as an afterthought into feminist movements that havea cis-gender premise, and as a result, trans* communities don’t receive the specific attention or benefits they need. For example, including trans*people in the discussion of reproductive health rights, including abortion, would expand the topic and help to dismantle the “pro-life” vs pro-choice scheme that ithas fallen into, and urge a more comprehensive debate instead of the reductive oneof “abortion or no abortion.”
Annie: Is there is a difference between “Asian’ feminism and western feminism, what is it? Is such a distinction useful?
Kasumi: I’m going to limit my answer to feminism in Japan because Asia is too big of a region that includes varying economies, religions, cultures, and circumstances that I can’t speak on behalf of.
So that being said, it’s funny because after living in South America for the past few years, I begin to see that there is actually much more in common between Japanese feminism and Western feminism, compared to the feminism I experience in South America (and maybe Latin America in general). I don’t want to reduce it to simply a difference between “first world (or northern) feminism” versus feminism in the global south, but I do think that it has at least something to do with how perspectives are constructed. The feminism in Japan (which in recent years takes a lot from feminism in US/Northern Europe) echoes liberal feminism, capitalist and market driven, striving to give women the same power that men hold currently, whether as CEOs, politicians, or in the workforce. Lots of focus on what celebrity feminists have to say, and a lot of expectations that diversity in the media will directly catalyze diversity in everyday life. I’m not saying these are bad things.
In South America, the feminism I encounter is more anarchist, I guess, to put it simply (I won’t rule out the possibility that it might just be the people and movements I gravitate towards, and thus am more aware of). I think I lean more towards this perspective. There needs to be a bit of good faith as you read this, since this topic can be an entire thesis paper itself…based on my experience, the feminist activism I encounter in South America seeks to dismantle the entire capitalist system to begin with, because capitalism is perhaps the vehicle that allows patriarchy to thrive. While it does seek changes in politics or the justice system, because these changes will help vulnerable women now, the big change they want to see is the entire structure of society being brought down, so that not only people, but the environment will stop being victim to exploitation. There is a lot of feminism surrounding the natural environment and land, which also goes in hand with indigenous movements.
I think such distinctions are useful in that each context must be carefully considered, especially now, when the Internet makes it easier to just want to replicate what is happening in the first world, or western world, to other contexts.
Forgive me for continuing to bring up “Un violador en tu camino” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aB7r6hdo3W4) but it’s a very recent example so I think it’s relevant. This “feminist hymn”/performance started by the feminist collective Lastesis was replicated in various countries around the world, and was also done in Japan. The group who led it in Japan were young feminists. They did the performance in Shibuya, and it was open for anyone to join. But the song was done in the original Spanish, and there wasn’t much information that passersby could refer to about what the performance was, or what the lyrics meant, as far as I could see from the video posted to twitter (I apologize if I’m wrong). I wouldn’t say that the lyrics had to be performed in Japanese (as a professional translator I know how difficult it would be to try and translate a song to match the tempo and motions and timing and all) but it would have been helpful and more effective to have someone maybe hold up a translated version of lyrics on a large poster board, and another person with an explanation of the original performance and why it was important. Or as fliers they could hand out to passersby.
Since this kind of performance/protest is not common in Japan, without proper contextualization, I don’t think many people in the public understood what it was. And I think this perhaps didn’t occur to the group organizing it because they were an “international” group of young Japanese and foreign students who speak English and have access to understanding different incidents abroad. These kinds of international communities tend to forget that maybe not everyone has the same privilege to access information from around the world, so they replicate what happens overseas without paying attention to effectiveness in Japan (I make this comment/observation as someone who also comes from this type of “international school” background, and is something that I’ve had to be conscious of and avoid doing myself). If the audience/public could understand what the performance was, then perhaps it would have been more meaningful, and maybe even opened the way for Japanese social movements and groups to start utilizing performance or other visual elements into their activism. We already know that the Japanese public is responsive to visual and performative action as long as it is understood, because SEALDs incorporated musical performance in their protests (SEALDs is a now disbanded youth organized group that mobilized around the proposed changes to the constitution back in 2015-ish).
I guess everything in moderation is best. There are, undoubtedly, differences that need to be recognized and respected, otherwise we’d just be repeating the same colonial strategies of the past. But we don’t want to focus too hard on differences and end up exotifying each other either (which, based on my personal experience, I see happen all too often), because we share the biggest commonality which is that we’re human, and at the end of the day, we all want the same things: a fair and just world for everyone, without the fear of discrimination and persecution. At the same time, it is imperative to understand that this will be achieved by taking into account the particularities of society and culture, and doing so will make things more effective.
This interview was undertaken as part of my research residency in Tokyo in 2020, which was kindly supported by Tokyo Arts and Space (TOKAS), Diverse Actions and National Arts Council Singapore.
The Diverse Actions Leadership Bursary is a Live Art Development Agency (LADA) programme as part of Live Art UK’s Diverse Actions initiative to champion culturally diverse ambition, excellence, and talent in Live Art. Diverse Actions is supported by an Arts Council England Ambition for Excellence grant.