Gender-related Professional Activity and Research in Japan
Jacqueline D. Beebe, Nihon University

Temple University Japan Working Papers in Applied Linguistics
Vol. 17: Gender Issues in Language Education, November 2000 (pp. 164-175)

Although gender influences most aspects of our lives, we may still feel that our gender-related interests, identities, beliefs and actions are frustratingly compartmentalized or even at odds. People who identify as female, feminist, or queer may feel particularly challenged in freely and safely expressing their values in their work and studies. Attempting this as a foreigner with a different linguistic, cultural, and perhaps racial background can add the additional challenge of a confusing mix of assumptions, privilege, and prejudice (see Harden, 1994, on race, class, and gender construction in Japan). Over the last six years a number of people teaching English as a foreign language in Japan have found support in living in accordance with their values and pursuing their interests by creating professional groups or initiating publishing projects for those who want to focus on gender or feminism in their teaching, research, and networking. This group activity has helped individuals to integrate and satisfy their social, intellectual, economic, emotional, and political needs and interests.

This article presents the history of several groups and publication projects. It explores both the concrete events, publications, and structures produced by these groups and also the more intangible effects these groups have had on members' lives. This paper draws upon the archives of these groups, a few questions I asked some key members, an article about one of the groups (McMahill, 1998), and my own years as a participant in the groups and projects I discuss.

The second half of the 1990s saw the creation of three groups in Japan for people who want to connect with and empower students and educators, especially those who are "like them" in being female, not heterosexual, or feminists. These groups are for people concerned with creating more diverse and just schools and societies. The core of EFL teachers who comprise these groups have been joined by some non-educators who share an interest in feminism and language learning, and as members make contacts at international conferences or leave Japan themselves, by members outside of Japan. These groups not only provide a safe, congenial space, but they have also noticeably increased the amount of feminist or gender-related content in English-language research forums in our field in Japan. One can see more of this content both in pre-existing mainstream conferences and publications and in new conferences and publications created by these groups. And based on the amount of teaching methods workshops and sharing of teaching materials that I have observed, I believe that these groups and publications are increasing the amount of gender-focused lessons conducted in language classrooms in Japan.

WELL is a group originally called Women in Education and Language Learning which on its brochures, at least, is now known as Women Educators and Language Learners. WELL was born at a dinner party organized by Cheiron McMahill attended by 14 women attending the November, 1995 annual conference of the Japan Association for Language Teaching (JALT). JALT is an English language-dominated group with about 2,800 members. WELL members wanted to also attract members unconnected with JALT and wanted to create a women-only group, so they decided that the new group would not seek any official affiliation with JALT.

The stories the women shared at that first dinner meeting were of feeling isolated and discriminated against in workplaces strongly dominated by men both in terms of numbers and power. One woman said that on her campus she was the only woman among about 80 men attending faculty meetings for associate and full professors. Another woman said that when she reported to her school that she had been raped by a student the school told her, "He raped a student before this. We are aware of his problem. You don't need to tell anyone. For the sake of the school, please don't tell the police." Nonetheless, the group energy at that first meeting was hopeful, united, and ready for action. A few months later the first annual weekend retreat was held in January, 1996, and was attended by 20 women. By then WELL had a mailing list of 19 women residing in Japan; 5 Japanese women and 14 non-Japanese women, mostly from the US. Those approximate ratios hold true today, too, and both then and now, most members work at colleges and universities. Some Japanese members, however, joined just because they are feminist activists with an interest in English or foreigners, not because they are professionally involved in language learning. Foreign members, too, especially those living outside of metropolitan areas, value meeting compatible foreign women, regardless of how much their own teaching may be influenced by feminism.

WELL adopted the goals put forth by the now defunct UK group, Women in TEFL:

(adapted from Du Vivier, Freebairn, & Garton-Sprenger, 1994, p. 204).

WELL members were soon in contact on-line, mailing out newsletters and passing on leads on jobs. Two years after it formed, WELL had 132 members. Members presented on gender issues and publicized WELL at JALT subgroup meetings. They shared lesson plans and materials and established a homepage. They got together face-to-face each year at JALT and at their own retreat. Plans to publish a collection of teaching materials with a feminist or women's studies slant have not yet come to fruition. However many women began publishing and presenting for the first time, or for the first time addressed gender issues in their writing and presenting, often mentored or joined by more experienced members. Many women held workshops at WELL retreats who would have hesitated to present at a more formal conference or who had in fact had proposals rejected, presumably because topics such as "Introducing Gay and Lesbian Themes Into the Classroom" had been deemed too controversial by a JALT conference proposal vettor.

Since 1997 all workshops at WELL retreats have been bilingual (Japanese college students majoring in English help interpret) and brochures are produced in both languages. Since 1998, at least sometimes, the newsletter has been bilingual and the group has always encouraged Japanese members to take on leadership roles. This opposition to English imperialism and effort to include people distinguishes WELL from other academic associations in Japan that usually are even more strongly dominated by either English-language or Japanese-language discourse and leadership. The woman who attends her first retreat may be organizing the next year's retreat. Women presenting for the first time ever at a conference may later that day be telling someone else at the retreat how she can do the same and offering advice.

WELL consciously reflects a feminist attitude in the way in which it runs itself. There is no formal election of officers and no hierarchy amongst volunteer positions. Anyone who volunteers for anything is immediately accepted, and projects and new positions are created simply because someone says they would like to do something or just starts doing it. At the business meeting held at each annual retreat decisions are rarely made by even a show of hands. Usually a consensus arises out of discussions in which the agenda can change at any moment and people speak out without being called on.

Members can choose among membership fees themselves depending upon their financial situation and in fact, members have not usually been taken off the lists for failure to renew their dues (foreign teachers come and go, and the group is currently trying to figure out how many members it really has). One drawback of WELL's relaxed approach is that projects and responsibilities have not always been followed through on, and this might have happened less often if decisions and leadership positions were formally approved with a vote, which might have encouraged members to take their duties more seriously. Furthermore, the group remains confused about what the letters W-E-L-L stand for because it never formally or officially changed the name of the group. Lately WELL is grappling with how to make financial decisions between annual meetings, especially since an informal consensus arrived at through an e-mail discussion in English excludes members lacking e-mail or struggling with English.

The WELL retreats also reflect a feminist approach, in having sessions that range beyond intellectual discussions of language learning to activities to integrate body, mind, emotions, spirit, and the larger social systems we live in. There may be sessions of meditation, hatha yoga, aikido, stand-up comedy, or dance, and workshops with spiritual topics or political content such as a report on a Japanese court case charging racial discrimination. Child care is provided. As one member of WELL wrote in a membership survey, anonymously quoted in McMahill (1998, p. 43), "I need WELL because it allows me to live out my personal, feminist, and educational life holistically instead of compartmentalizing myself and the world." (This integration can sometimes be disconcerting, as when lesbians who have been closeted at work or in other social or professional organizations run into their acquaintances at WELL activities, where they have always felt safe to be out.)

WELL serves essential functions as both a professional organization and a support group. An e-mail list digest may contain both a job or conference announcement and a member's venting of fear and anger over an incident of sexual harassment at their school or blatant discrimination against women at a faculty meeting, and both messages of sympathy and practical information such as where to find published guidelines will probably soon follow from other members. Or a member responding to reports of unfair treatment of foreigner teachers in Japan may feel free to point out that white and/or native speakers of English also often benefit from a privileged status at their schools.

Electronic or face-to-face discussions of topics such as sexual harassment probably flow more freely in a woman-only group, but many WELL members have also chosen to create or join a newer, mixed-gender group called Gender Awareness in Language Education (GALE). GALE serves some purposes better than WELL. Male colleagues have added their volunteer energies and collaborated with women on publishing, presenting, and conference organizing. Furthermore, after several years of having proposals turned down for JALT conferences, WELL members decided to secure the guaranteed presentation slots allotted to officially recognized Special Interest Groups within JALT. Such groups also receive funding from JALT and have more legitimacy in the eyes of universities that can provide teachers with conference travel funds or recognize presentations on resumes. GALE was approved as a forming Special Interest Group in November of 1998 and given Affiliate approval in 1999 as it had managed to meet requirements such as maintaining at least 50 members, recruiting a roster of officers, and publishing three newsletters a year.

GALE recently had 78 members, of which, judging by names, 14 are Japanese, and 23 are male, and a few members reside outside of Japan. GALE is less bilingual than WELL is, and like JALT, its umbrella group, publications, meetings, and e-mail list postings are usually in English only.

One of the first contributions of GALE was to jointly sponsor with WELL a one-day mini-conference in Tokyo in 1999. Forty-two people attended workshops held in English, Japanese, or bilingually. Topics included lesbian representations in modern Japanese literature (Watanabe, 1999), female genitals in Japanese mythology (Yamagata, 1999), and assertiveness training held in Japanese for non-native speakers of Japanese (Kawamura, 1999)--not topics one would expect to see at a JALT annual conference.

However, since around 1996, WELL and GALE members have been visible presenting at JALT conferences on gender issues previously unaddressed there. Three members presented a Colloquium at JALT 1996 on "Gender Issues In Language Education" (Hardy, Yamashiro & McMahill, published in 1997). JALT 1998 saw the breakthrough of two presentations with the words "gay" and "lesbian" in their abstract or title. A Forum called "Silent Voices in the Classroom: Unraised, Unheard" (Mateer, Lubetsky, Sakano, & Kim, 1998) looked at sexual orientation (Lubetsky), gender roles (Sakano), and ethnic background (Kim). It was sponsored by the Junior/Senior High School Special Interest Group and so avoided the general proposal vetting process. The other presentation, Summerhawk's "From Closet to Classroom: Gay Issues in ESL/EFL" was part of another Gender Issues in Language Education Colloquium (Smith, Yamashiro, McMahill, & Summerhawk, 1998). Gay and lesbian issues perhaps gained perceived legitimacy because from that year, the category "Gender Issues in Language Education" was on the list of content area categories for presentations on the conference application form. Another accomplishment of GALE and WELL members at JALT 1998 was to facilitate the selection of Kei Imai, a female Japanese professor of economics, who gave a Parallel Plenary Address on "Women Graduates in Employment." JALT plenary speakers have typically been non-Japanese males, although this trend is dramatically reversing at JALT 2000, with all four plenary speakers being female.

At the 1999 JALT conference GALE had its own designated room where presentations were held on topics such as sexual harassment (Hoffman-Aoki, 1999), publishing; collaborative writing; and teachers effecting change in schools (Yamashiro, Culligan, Casanave, & Beebe, 1999), and linguistic challenges to minorities and women; teaching the topic of gender, sex, and sexuality; and translating feminist theory (Summerhawk, Park, McDonald, & Hotta, 1999).

GALE also had its own room at a one-day conference of College and University Educators within JALT in May, 2000. GALE had its first two-day Symposium and Retreat in Hiroshima in June, 2000. GALE's positive evolution was seen in the much-increased participation of men as conference organizers, presenters and even as the topic of presentations, as in the paper on masculinities by Cole & Cross (2000). GALE also appeared to be an increasingly international group, with presentations in Hiroshima by scholars visiting from Canada. The conference now being planned for June, 2001 will feature well-known scholars on East Asian Studies who are based outside of Japan, with a probable theme of Gender and Minorities in Japan.

At the JALT 2000 conference, in large part through the organizing efforts and fund-raising of GALE and WELL, Jane Sunderland, of Lancaster University, will be a special Plenary Guest Speaker, talking on "Critical Pedagogy in Language Classrooms," and will also give a 3 hour Featured-Speaker Workshop on "Researching Gender in Language Education."

The international conferences of the American Association for Applied Linguistics (AAAL), and Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) in Vancouver, Canada in March, 2000 both had colloquia on gender issues organized by GALE and WELL member Amy Yamashiro. Several other members of GALE and WELL based in Japan or North America participated in these colloquia (Yamashiro, et al., 2000; Yamashiro, Pavlenko, Vandrick, & McMahill, 2000).

Another group, the Rainbow Educators' Network (REN) also started at a dinner party at the JALT conference, this time in 1997. REN's website "offers information to educators who are concerned about gay, lesbian and bisexual issues in the English as a Foreign Language classroom, teaching ideas, reference materials and links to other gay, lesbian and bisexual educational websites."

The first REN gathering at JALT helped queer language educators from all over Japan to meet. However, since then, WELL, GALE, and REN hold a joint party each year at the JALT conference which serves the same networking purpose. About 60% of REN members are female and about 20 % are Japanese. Being a REN member basically means being on the REN e-mail list started in 1997, but interest in this list waned after GALE started an e-mail list in 1998, because most REN e-mail list members are also GALE e-mail list members. Only 19 members remain on the REN e-mail list and messages are rarely posted. REN's only real leaders are the e-mail list manager and the website manager, but just forming the group was an important and exhilarating step. The networking and information-sharing accomplished then and also at WELL and GALE events have probably inspired straight, gay, and bisexual members of all three groups to be a little bolder in how they present themselves to the world, and in introducing usually taboo topics into their own classrooms or research forums.

The existence of all three groups, WELL, GALE, and REN, may have helped avoid arguments or misunderstandings over who can join the groups. For example, people who wonder if GALE is only for women or for those particularly interested in queer issues can be told that while members tend to overlap, WELL and REN are distinct groups that serve those needs. The groups have naturally given birth to and supported each other, and WELL, the first group to form, was also supported at key times by other progressive groups. For a time WELL sent articles and announcements to the newsletter of JALT's Global Issues in Language Education Special Interest Group in lieu of producing its own newsletter. A JALT-affiliated Peace Education mini-conference gave WELL members a chance to connect again and publicize their group. WELL sometimes shared the table space at the JALT conference obtained by a Japan-based AIDS education group. Members' contacts within the feminist and queer communities have also lead to many interesting conference workshops lead by people outside of academia.

Gender and language education-related publications which were largely the creations of WELL, GALE, and REN members have provided the reading community of teachers and researchers in Japan with valuable resources and have also advanced the careers of those whose work has been published. I also believe the publications played a role in convincing some members in mainstream institutions such as JALT that indeed gender might be a relevant and legitimate topic for language teaching and research.

One such publication is a thematic monograph published at Keio University Shonan Fujisawa Campus called Gender Issues in Language Education (Casanave & Yamashiro, 1996). It shows the mark of feminism not only in the content of its 11 articles, but in one major purpose of the project, which was "bringing together people (many of whom have not written for publication before) in a collegial writing group" (Casanave & Yamashiro, 1996, p. 1). Authors worked out the ideas of their papers through peer-discussion and then read and critiqued each others' work during several group meetings.

The May, 1998 volume of JALT's monthly magazine, The Language Teacher, was a Special Issue entitled, "Gender Issues in Language Teaching" (Smith & Yamashiro, 1998). It includes an introduction , nine main research articles, two of which are written in Japanese, an opinion and perspective piece, three teaching materials articles, and a list of gender resources on the internet. So many submissions were collected that three articles spilled over into the June issue of The Language Teacher (MacGregor, 1998).

These publications seem to be both a cause and effect of the success of groups like WELL and GALE. These groups, and the publishing and presenting they support, have helped raise the visibility and stature of gender issues in language education in Japan, including lessons exploring feminism and sexual identity and orientation. They give teachers and scholars the background information and inspiration to explore gender in their own teaching and research. As members of WELL, GALE, and REN have served in JALT in areas such as publications and programming this has also helped to make JALT more open to issues of relevance to the members of these groups.

The momentum from all the professional activity and personal support of these on-going groups and temporary publishing groups has lead to the current volume, and plans are underway for the launching of a new international bilingual journal based in Japan called the Journal of Engaged Pedagogy. Members of WELL and GALE are moving on two fronts. They are sharing their wealth of how-the-system-works know-how and contacts to find sources of funding and people to write for and edit the journal. And they are talking on-line and meeting every few months to discuss their own vision of what engaged pedagogy means, both as a way to clarify the focus of the new journal and as a way to enrich their own teaching. It appears that these more recent publication projects and presentations at conferences outside of Japan are going to make these groups more international in their outlook and membership while the groups maintain their core purpose of helping like-minded language teachers in Japan connect with each other.

At the colloquium (Yamashiro, et al., 2000) where this paper was first presented, Norton pointed out the relevance of Wenger's (1998) ideas on imagined communities to the groups that I discussed. Wenger maintains that communities of practice develop when individuals are mutually engaged in a joint enterprise and develop a shared repertoire for that community. The joint enterprise of WELL, GALE, and REN members is both the idealistic creation of a more empowering, safe, and just world for students and teachers and the more prosaic creation of chances to share ideas, advice, job leads, and laughs. Different members of the groups are more or less involved in creating or participating in the events, newsletters and e-mail lists of these groups, but this participation has shaped the identities of and brought new professional success and satisfaction to the lives of many members. Even members who seldom interact face-to-face or through their own writing can be members of an imagined community which can "nurture their collective imagination" (Wenger, 1998, p. 178). Wenger (1998, p. 176) refers to imagination as "a process of expanding our self by transcending our time and space and creating new images of the world and ourselves." A WELL member (quoted anonymously in McMahill, 1998, p. 41) speaks to the value of collective imagining, saying "�we need a group like WELL to raise the consciousness of women, to be more aware of gender discrimination, to share experiences, to learn from each other, and to help each other�to have a new vision of [sic] future for women, to see other possible choices." Many language educators in Japan have used gender-focused professional activities to help them do what the WELL member quoted earlier (McMahill, 1998, p. 41) has done: to live one's "personal, feminist, and educational life holistically".

I offer my heartfelt thanks to members of WELL, GALE, and REN for contributing information, ideas, and editorial advice for this article and also for enriching my life. A version of this paper was presented at the American Association for Applied Linguistics Annual Conference, Vancouver, Canada, March, 2000.


CONTACT INFORMATION (As of September 2000)
Women Educators and Language Learners (WELL):
Coordinator: Jackie Beebe,
Membership: Renate Tamamushi,
4-16-21-604 Taka-ishi, Asao-ku, Kawasaki-shi, 215-0003, Japan
Newsletter editor: Jane Joritz-Nakagawa,

Gender Awareness in Language Education (GALE):
Coordinators: Cheiron McMahill,, ph. 0274-74-9488
5494 Akihata, Kanra-machi, Kanra-gun, Gunma-ken, 370-2204, Japan Thomas Hardy,
Newsletter editor: Kathy Riley,
June, 2001 Conference: Sean Curtin,

Rainbow Educators' Network (REN):
E-mail list coordinator:

Japan Association for Language Teaching (JALT):
Urban Edge Bldg. 5F, 1-37-9 Taito, Taito-ku, Tokyo 110-0016, Japan
Homepage: (Publications available on-line)

Journal for Engaged Pedagogy
Managing Editor:
Barbara Summerhawk, ph. 0424-67-3809
Fujicho 6-5-20, Hoya-shi, Tokyo 202-0014, Japan
Cheiron McMahill,
5494 Akihata, Kanra-machi, Kanra-gun, Gunma-ken, 370-2204 Japan


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