In July this year, an economics professor at the University of Tokyo turned heads when she hit the campaign trail in the parliamentary elections in Japan. Ayumi Yasutomi, a transgender, ran on the promise of “saving our children”.
In July this year, an economics professor at the University of Tokyo turned heads when she hit the campaign trail in the parliamentary elections in Japan. Ayumi Yasutomi, a transgender, ran on the promise of “saving our children”. She lost the election, but professor Yasutomi’s campaign has now emerged as a major documentary movie in Japan, adding a fresh voice to film-making and rights of the sexual minority.
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Reiwa Uprising, the four-hour film on the national campaign for a seat in Japan’s Upper House, was one of the major highlights of the recent 32nd Tokyo International Film Festival. Directed by acclaimed Japanese film-maker Kazuo Hara, the film takes its title from a new political party that allotted a seat to professor Yasutomi, the only known transgender university professor in Japan, to run in the election.
In Reiwa Uprising, which was also part of Japanese Cinema Splash — a Tokyo festival for independent Japanese films — its director Hara follows the cross-dressing candidate of the political party, Reiwa Shinsenguimi, in the election to the Upper House of Diet, the Japanese parliament. Founded only three months before the parliamentary elections by actor-turned-politician Taro Yamamoto, the party went on to win 4% of the total votes, securing two seats. Hara, described by US documentary maker Michael Moore as his “soul brother” in Japan, turns his camera on professor Yasutomi as she hits the campaign trail. “I didn’t want to become a member of parliament,” Yasutomi told FE on the sidelines of the Tokyo film festival this week. “I wanted to talk to the people about saving our children, which must be the basic principle of a society.”
Last year, she ran for mayor of Higashimatsuyama, a city in Japan’s Saitama Prefecture, also on the campaign to prevent child abuse. “The basic problem of our society lies in the mistake of hampering the spirit of our children,” says professor Yasutomi, who teaches at the Institute for Advanced Studies of Asia in the University of Tokyo. She lost the mayoral election too.
When the new Reiwa party was formed, Yasutomi was impressed by the selection of its candidates, who were mostly activists. The party campaign platform talked about shutting down nuclear plants, LGBT rights, animal rights and raising minimum wages. “Yamamoto selected activists, not people who wanted to be politicians,” she explains. One of the candidates was a low-wage worker and another a homeless man. When Reiwa won two seats in parliament, Yamamoto named two disabled people — Yasuhiko Funago and Eiko Kimura — for the parliament.
Now a famous politician in Japan, Yasutomi — who went to the London School of Economics as a foreign research associate after securing her PhD degree in economic history from Kyoto University — believes contemporary society is suppressing the human spirit. “I call it ‘colonisation of the soul’,” she adds. “I want to decolonise the spirit. It is in this context that I took lessons from Mahatma Gandhi and his satyagraha,” she says.
“Satyagraha is about holding the truth in one’s heart. The most important teaching of Gandhi was to hold onto the truth. The truth, for me, is that I am a female, not a man. Therefore, I hold onto my own truth, it is satyagraha for me,” she explains. “We must learn from Gandhi because we Japanese are very good at weaving the truth. There is a basic morality for the Japanese.”
When she came out as a transgender four years ago, Yasutomi thought she would be facing hard times. Instead, she became an instant celebrity with television studios queuing up to host her. “I never expected I would become famous. In fact, I thought I would be kicked out,” she says. “But people wanted to hear from me. After that, I became optimistic about society.”
Yasutomi’s celebrity status, however, doesn’t indicate equal rights for transgender people. “Japan has a tradition of transgender community, for example, as seen in the Kabuki theatre. But it is still shocking for Japanese people to see a man dressed in female clothing,” she adds. She is not sure if Gandhi would have liked transgender people. “If he were born in this age, he would have followed this thinking.”
Demo Tana, the editor of Reiwa Uprising, believes the film is an important statement because it is about a “miracle-like revolution” in Japan. The film crew shot 2,000 hours of footage in one month, finally cutting it to 246 minutes after three months of editing. “Professor Yasutomi has a dream to revitalise oppressed children through changes in the education system,” says Yoshi Yatabe, programming director of the Japanese Cinema Splash programme of Tokyo festival. “I felt the responsibility to support this film and freedom of expression,” he adds. Yasutomi also has another dream. “I want to go to Gujarat, to Gandhi’s birthplace.”
The writer is a freelancer