Hui provides candid insights into Japanese society

Alex Smith writes about her experience and insights she gained as a participant on the Foundation's Leadership Network Japan Hui. She was part of a sixteen-member cohort who travelled to Japan to discus leadership and learn about Japanese culture and society.
A group photo of the Japan Hui participants

The cohort of sixteen Leadership Network members at a New Zealand Embassy event in Tokyo, Japan

With any cultural tour there is temptation to paint a sugar-coated depiction or highlight reel of the setting in question. The Foundation’s week-long Japan Hui was careful to avoid this, providing participants with a nuanced overview of Japanese society, including challenges that many would likely prefer remained hidden. In doing so, the hui provided valuable insight into how young New Zealanders can engage with –and learn from – Japan when it comes to tacking complex issues in the Asia-Pacific region.

The Japan hui provided opportunities to experience many traditions, including learning about Japan’s rich food culture with local chef Ozawa-san and Leadership Network member Sachie Nomura; the successful international outreach of Japan’s booming arts and culture sector with a presentation from a former Studio Ghibli and current Studio Ponoc creative; and the Japanese martial art judo with a training session at Kōdōkan (the largest group training session in Kōdōkan’s history).

The hui also provided valuable insight into key challenges currently facing Japanese society. We met with the co-founder of New Zealand-based NGO Just Peoples and fellow Leadership Network member, Christey West.

Christey talked in-depth about Japan’s clandestine yet sizable sex industry, which often involves high school-aged girls and considerably older Japanese men. She also discussed the prevalence of sex trafficking, which has seen the exploitation of both Japanese and Southeast Asian migrant women.

Christey outlined how her time spent teaching English in Japan on the JET programme first exposed her to the existence of Japan’s sex industry after learning that several of her female students were involved in transactional relationships with older men.

People chatting during a networking evening

The visit gave network members an opportunity to catch up with fellow members and share ideas on leadership

Christey’s time in Japan and her subsequent studies and travel throughout Asia eventually led to the founding of Just Peoples, a non-profit that aims to connect local problem solvers across Asia and Africa with funding to carry out a vast range of “micro-projects,” several of which are aimed at improving the outcomes and opportunities for women susceptible to exploitation.

Just Peoples illustrates how through collaborating with locally-based partners with expert knowledge, New Zealand-based organisations can have an effective impact in communities beyond New Zealand’s borders.

An issue that hit even closer to home is the continued marginalisation of Hokkaido’s indigenous Ainu population. We also learned about the opportunities that exist for collaboration when it comes to advancing indigenous rights.

Leadership Network members and fellow hui participants Josh Wharehinga, Will Flavell and Shannon Goldsmith had the opportunity to partake in a series of meetings with Ainu community groups and government officials through a previous Foundation opportunity.

They led an engaging discussion session on the history of the Ainu, who have fought an uphill battle for status and recognition in a society that frequently emphasizes notions of ethnic and cultural homogeneity as the basis of Japanese nationalism. 

Alex Smith: "My key takeaway was that opportunities for collaboration extend well beyond foreign policy and trade."

Shannon Goldsmith observed that there have been significant recent gains with the passing of a bill recognising the official status of the Ainu as an indigenous group. However, he says further steps are needed to ensure that such measures are not “merely lip service.”

Shannon also noted that in facing such strong political challenges at home, many Ainu have come to view Māori as natural allies. They have sought increasing engagement not only when it comes to gaining formal legal recognition, but also regarding the fight for policies that advance and promote indigenous culture and language education, and other targeted social policies. The discussion concluded with the message that Māori and Ainu face similar challenges, so it is vital that the channels for ongoing dialog remain open.

My key takeaway was that opportunities for collaboration extend well beyond foreign policy and trade.

Waiting at the Harajuku train station, the digital train timetable informed us that our next train would be delayed due to a “medical incident,” code for a suicide attempt.

Such unplanned, and often confronting, encounters remind us that despite obvious demographic differences, Japan and New Zealand face many similar societal challenges.

Dealing with mental health issues and suicide prevention is perhaps the most pressing of these challenges. Like the ongoing Māori-Ainu dialogues, there is scope for policymakers and community groups to share knowledge when it comes to forming social policies across a range of issues.

What also became apparent throughout the duration of the hui is that collaboration often begins by exploring the less pleasant sides of a society and gaining an awareness of its challenges and issues. It is only then that we can begin thinking about the ways in which we may be uniquely positioned to assist and learn from one another.   

Check out a few more reports from some of the Leadership Network members on the trip with Alex: