Manazashimura: Social Justice in Japan

The emergence of Social Justice internet vigilantism in Japan parallels the Westーthis is the story of its first victim

Foreword by the Translator

Over the last three years, I have followed the culture debate in popular media as well as the broader discussion of ethics, censorship, politics, feminism and social justice which my community is now inextricably tangled in.

Among the participants of the this discussion, there is one misconception that I consistently encounter. When interacting with English-speaking netizens, I find that many believe that Social Justice is a uniquely western phenomenon. For them, something similar could never happen in Japan, and what they perceive as a more traditionalist mindset among Japanese people should immunize us to radical feminism and Social Justice.

Surprisingly, this perception of Japan is not limited to the side of the culture war which denounces Social Justice. Dina Abou Karam, the former community manager for Comcept, memorably wrote that her workplace was plagued by the ‘trademark underlying sexism of Japan’ during her time in Tokyo. Even Anita Sarkeesian is alleged to have said that Japan is incapable of producing modern feminists because Japan was “bombed back to traditionalism” in World War 2. For good or ill, it appears that many western advocates of Social Justice were quick to write off Japan as barren earth from which radical feminism cannot flower.

To dispel this jointly-held misconception of a social-justice free Japan, I have reached out to “Vanquish”.

Vanquish is a young STEM researcher in Japan who unwittingly became the first target of Japanese Social Justice Warriors in 2013. The people who publicly excoriated Vanquish are commonly referred to on the Japanese internet as the “Manazashimura”, a loosely knit group of radical feminists who congregate on social media to denounce “the male gaze”, or the way in which men view women as sexual objects. For the Manazashimura, the presence of the male gazeーapparent or perceivedーrepresents a form of sexual harassment. This includes cases when the subject accused of evoking the male gaze is a fictional character, or simply reinforces traditional gender roles, as was the case with Vanquish.

The following are Vanquish’s personal recollections of being targeted by the Manazashimura, which I have translated with his permission. This article concludes with a short interview.

Introduction

In December of 2013, I was a student. I was studying mechanics and artificial intelligence, and sometimes attended the meetings of the Japanese Society of Artificial Intelligence, which this story is about.

One day, I happened to receive an email inviting me to look at the Society’s latest journal issue on their website. There, I saw the cover for the first time.

I thought that it looked nice, so I tweeted it.

“I think that the new cover of the Japanese Society of Artificial Intelligence is nice”

My tweet got a lot of RTs. By the next day, it was a hot entry on Togetter (a popular Japanese tweet consolidation website). By the day after that, the discussion occurring in my mentions had turned into an all-out war on the subject of the sexual portrayal of women.

The first of hundreds of replies Vanquish received: “Is that so? As a normal person, I have a very difficult time understanding what a young female robot holding a broom (cleaning?) has to do with an academic journal called “Artificial Intelligence”. So, you must be of the opinion that house cleaning robots must be constructed to appear like “young” “women”, is that right?” ーusername: ”working auntie”

Since then, I learned of a similar controversy over the mascot of a rural town in Mie Prefecture. I’ve also seen a similar flare-up involving the Tokyo Metro’s mascot develop on my Twitter feed.

While I think that having a dialog about the issue of sexual portrayal of women is important, and that this is a good chance to do so, I wonder: did the people who participated in these controversies really do so in the interest of promoting women’s rights or steering Japan in a positive direction? Are these people not merely trying to satiate their own need for validation? That is the topic which I will address at length in the following paragraphs.

Hardship

First of all, the furor over the A.I. Society’s Journal Cover was a horrible experience for me.

Artificial intelligence is my field of study, and it was an academic community which I was actively engaged in. And so, I was terribly regretful for the trouble that I caused by making my academic community a topic of public discussion in a way that I had no intention to.

On Twitter, “the magazine cover incident” is already considered old news, but I sometimes bring it up.

“When I was in the middle of the Magazine Cover maelstrom, I was really distraught by the trouble I caused my peers. I received tons of strange replies and DMs. The controversy was even used to mock me at a major academic meeting. Afterwards, I threw up in the bathroom from stress. It was awful.”

This is what my life was like after tweeting that journal cover.

It’s true that I am a member of the Japan Artificial Intelligence Society, and I am involved in the research of AI, but just by tweeting that journal cover I received all sorts of messages telling me that I was a misogynist, that I was the shame of Japan, and that I “should think more carefully about what I tweet”. This wasn’t limited to Twitter, as my email was also flooded.

To everyone involved with the AI Society, I am terribly sorry.

Isolation

At the height of the of the controversy, the people who were attacking me readily attacked my character as well as the quality and content of the cover illustration itself.

On Japanese Twitter, it’s what we refer to as dragging people into replies. In other words, people would RT my tweet with the intent of leaving hateful replies, then openly discuss the nature of my character and the quality of the drawing while leaving me tagged.

So, any tweet that had my username in it would also send a notification to me.

More recently, because of changes to Twitter, even tweets that have the URL of my tweet in them send me messages when they are retweeted. As my email address and private messages are open to the public, these people would also experiment with sending me disparaging messages in long-form.

At any rate, any and all criticism, from complaints about the drawing itself, to gender-related complaints about the academic institutions of Japan, to personal attacks about my tastes, hobbies and views on women, were all directed at me personally.

By contrast, it was rare that I heard the voices of people who were trying to support me. This is, ironically, because many of them chose methods which didn’t send notifications to my account out of courtesy. At best, these gestures of support usually took the form of “criticizing the criticizers” or “standing in defiance of the horde”, and so I was rarely even aware of their existence.

The only support I was really cognizant of came from a few close friends who kept telling me that “this isn't something you need to worry yourself about”.

From abroad, I received a few supportive emails in English. Usually, they went something like, “About the kerfuffle, I personally like this kind of art. I wish that there was more like it. LOL”. It was encouraging, but I could count the number of emails like this on one hand.

When you become the target of internet vigilantism, you start to see enemies everywhere. I started to doubt myself. As a fledgling scholar and engineer, what was the point of going to academic conferences related to those fields if I would just be whispered about as “that guy who caused all the trouble”? Wasn’t that what everyone was thinking about me? Every day, I was filled with distrust of the people around me.

Consideration

On the internet, what passes for “discussion” or even “criticism” are neither. What really occurs on the internet is something else: the people who participate in this kind of behavior come into contact with the target of their ire in only the most superficial and spontaneous of ways. They don’t interact with their target.

With their own discontent as their motivating force, they only seek to put themselves forward and satisfy their compelling need for recognition from their peers.

When I first saw that AI Society Journal cover and thought “I like this”, I did so with the natural understanding that others might not like it, and that they might try to bring their opinion into a collision course with my own. At times, I too find myself disapproving of the art, music, culture, behavior, speech, conduct, institutions and systems which surround me.

So, where should we direct that sentiment of disapproval?

I thought that this was obvious, but I have come to learn this is not the case, so I’ll say it: not your own social media account. And if someone feels an overwhelming need to complain, and they also feel a need to get other people involved in that complaint, then they need to be selective about what or who the target of their complaints are.

To use the case of the rural town mascot as an example, aren’t the people who are criticizing it grasping for someone to blame? In doing so, they also attack innocent people under the pretext of “calling out” what they see as a denial of your emotional rights and a source of personal discomfort?

Who is really denying their emotions? The planners? The person or organization who approved the design of the mascot? The illustrator? Society as a whole? The target of their criticism can grow in scale arbitrarily.

Because of that, it is important to consider the importance of choosing who to appeal to in what social setting, as that is what largely determines how such discussions progress and what their outcomes are.

Additionally, it is necessary to have a specific goal in mind when engaging in criticism.

It is important to be able to clearly express what result you hope to bring about through your actions and speech. If your only intent is to vocalize your displeasure at something, even a baby chimpanzee can do that.

At a glance, it would seem that the world changes according to a critical current. But that current also produces many distortions. And in time, people will simply abandon an idea after it has become distorted beyond recognition.

Until very recently, there was a time when even I was eager to trash the way that my company was structured. I got yelled at by my boss for it. Even then I asked, “but isn’t the way we’re doing this wrong?” to which he replied, “then why don’t you make a better suggestion.” and it was at that time that I realized I didn’t have one.

The only actions and words which have any worth are those which intend to change someone or something for the better.

A company with all of its constituent parts is a much bigger entity than one person. It’s complicated, and in the face of something so large we tend to resign ourselves to being unable to change it. Instead, we just hurl our small criticisms at it in an exercise of satisfying our own self-validation. By doing so, we are only satisfying our need to pretend that we are thinking and engaging in a discussion and to share that pretend discussion with others. It’s not enough to simply post on social media. Those sentiments need to be conveyed to the originator.

It’s not enough to simply become emotional. Those emotions need to be accompanied by convincing arguments with a basis in expertise and academic results and conveyed with tempered words.

It is only that which can change a person’s mind.

Conclusion

This may sound like a cliché, but people should ask themselves if they’re perfect before they criticize others. They should use me as a cautionary tale.

This is just a bit of personal advice, but if you ever find yourself in the middle of a social media storm, I advise you to turn off your notifications. An experience like mine can poison the soul. In the worst case scenario, you can live without the internet. It’s OK to delete your posts. It’s OK to make your account private. It’s OK to move to a different social media network.

There will be plenty of time after that to reflect and consider whether there was anything you could have done differently. But, the very first thing you should do is stem that flow of poison into yourself.

Don’t hesitate to turn to your friends for support.

Finally, in the course of writing this essay I took the time to check the various tweets and web pages of the AI Society. One tweet which had accumulated 3,000 retweets at the height of the controversy was now down to only 1,150. Many of the harsh replies and articles which the Society received had also disappeared.

It may be that the people who sent those tweets have been suspended from Twitter due to their own actions. But, of course, they may have just created new accounts.

As for me, this experience may have left a bad taste in my mouth, but I am perfectly fine and very much alive.

A Short Interview with “Vanquish”

When and how did the controversy occur, exactly?

Vanquish: It happened on December 25th 2013, and continued on into the new year. At the time, I was a member [of the academic society in question], so I received a notification of their new journal issue via email and tweeted the cover.

Have you faced any additional backlash since the time when your tweet exploded into a controversy?

Vanquish: There was no ongoing harassment, although that may be because of what I would personally consider to be “harassment” or not.

For example, in cases of community revitalization projects or advertising campaigns catching heat for “sexism” because they use a Japanese anime girl as a mascot, the scientific journal’s cover illustration is often dug up again and paraded as pretext by people who misunderstood it.

In the immediate aftermath of the controversy, there were cases where the same person or people would send me dozens of DMs and emails every day, but recently that has ceased.

Was the journal cover changed due to the controversy?

Vanquish: No changes were made to the cover due to the controversy. The academic society announced their decision to keep it several days after the controversy began. To my recollection, the way that the society itself handled the issue was exemplary.

I understand that other illustrations met similar controversy in Japan, but is it true that the academic journal cover controversy was the first?

Vanquish: Other posters and illustrations have caused controversy, but the artificial intelligence society’s journal cover was the first.

What has your life been like since the controversy?

Vanquish: I faced some hardships in my college years, but I worked hard and concentrated on my studies. Above all, I strove to conduct my research without bias. In academic inquiry, there is no place for prejudice.

I went on to work as an engineer while attending graduate school, and now I am working in corporate research and development in a field related to artificial intelligence.

Thank you very much for your time.

You can follow Vanquish on Twitter. You can also find more information about the Japanese Society for Artificial Intelligence at its English website.