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Yayori Matsui, 68; Japanese Journalist Became Noted Women's Rights Activist

January 08, 2003|Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writer

Yayori Matsui, a pioneering Japanese journalist and women's rights advocate who fought for greater Japanese disclosure of its sexual enslavement of Asian women during World War II, has died of liver cancer. She was 68.

As Japan became more wealthy and enamored of consumerism after the 1960s, Matsui provided a rare counterpoint -- someone driven to speak out against injustice and exploitation of the underprivileged, especially women, in a society known for its willingness to hide embarrassing information and go with the flow. Her strong views sometimes earned her enemies in Japan's right wing.

"She never hesitated to fight against something she thought was wrong," said her sister, Yayuki Mukoyama, 66. "In a sense, her life was a battle."

Matsui worked tirelessly and was visiting feminists in Afghanistan in October when she was overcome by her illness. She was diagnosed as having terminal cancer upon returning to Tokyo but continued to work from her hospital bed until shortly before her death on Dec. 27.

Given all the unfinished work, "I wanted to live at least 10 more years," she told supporters in one of her final e-mails.

Matsui was born on April 12, 1934, in Kyoto, the eldest of six children. Her father, a Christian minister who had served in China during the war, adored her and would explain to her in great detail what he had witnessed, including many abuses committed by the Japanese. She went to college in Minnesota and Paris. On her way back to Japan, she stopped elsewhere in Asia, and was exposed to abject poverty for the first time.

"I believe this was the first real trigger that would drive her life's work," said longtime friend and fellow activist Rumiko Nishino.

Matsui started working in 1961 at the mainstream Asahi Shimbun newspaper, making her among the first career female reporters in Japan. She initially shunned women's issues, fearful that she would be typecast or exiled by male managers to the lifestyle section writing cooking articles, she said in an interview published a week before her death.

For the first decade, she concentrated on covering social issues on the main news pages and was among the first to aggressively pursue stories on Japan's use of thalidomide -- a sedative that caused birth defects -- and Minamata disease, a neurological disorder caused by mercury poisoning.

"She was among the best female reporters in postwar Japan and left a great legacy," said Tetsuji Shibata, a former Asahi editorial board member.

A trip to the United States opened her eyes to the 1970s women's liberation movement. She was also influenced by growing awareness of the rising number of Southeast Asian sex tours by Japanese men.

Fellow reporters say her uncompromising attitude often rubbed colleagues and editors the wrong way. "She was considered to be on the troublesome side," said Jun Kamei, a fellow journalist who knew Matsui, although she was also remembered for her keen sense of humor.

Another turning point came in 1981 when the newspaper posted her in Singapore. Her exposure to the sex trade and so-called comfort women -- those forced into prostitution by the Japanese military during WWII -- helped focus her energies increasingly on these issues.

She returned to Japan in 1985 and retired from Asahi in 1994 after a 30-year career, turning full time to social activism. She founded Tokyo's Asia-Japan Women's Resource Center the following year, wrote books, taught at several universities and worked on various projects, including efforts to identify Japanese fathers of half-Filipino children using DNA analysis.

She was sometimes referred to as a "muckraking feminist." Right-wingers stormed into a hall where she was speaking in 2002, resulting in the arrest of six, and last April she retreated to a hotel for a week under fear of attack.

But she persevered and was also known for her charm and interest in swimming, yoga, painting, music, clothes and her love of red roses, which she considered a symbol of the French Revolution.

In 2000, she helped organized perhaps her highest-profile event, a mock tribunal that drew former comfort women from all over Asia to testify. She was infuriated when the Japanese press refused to publicize it and filed a lawsuit charging falsified reports against national broadcaster NHK, which is pending.

"Perhaps it was from fear of the three taboos of the Emperor, comfort women and feminism," she told the Shukan Kinyobi magazine in an article published a week before her death.

"In an information society, no media coverage is the equivalent of nothing happening."

She spent her final days planning a Japanese museum, scheduled to open in 2006, on comfort women along with other war-related subjects.

She is survived by her father, age 96, and mother, 95.

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