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Why does Japan media call HK activist Agnes Chow 'goddess of democracy?'

Agnes Chow holds a press conference in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward, on June 10, 2019. (Mainichi/Kota Yoshida)

TOKYO -- People have expressed discomfort with the Japanese media's characterization of Agnes Chow, a Hong Kong democracy activist who was arrested and later released on bail over suspicions of violating a new security law in Hong Kong, as "the goddess of democracy." This reporter had been feeling uneasy about the characterization, too.

    While the 23-year-old Chow was in police custody, the hashtag FreeAgnes was trending on Japanese Twitter in a show of support for Chow.

    So what exactly is the problem here?

    In Japanese media coverage of Chow's arrest on Aug. 10, most newspaper and television broadcasts called Chow "the goddess of democracy."

    A headline for Asahi Shimbun Digital on Aug. 10 read, "'Goddess of Democracy' Agnes Chow may have been arrested," while the website for the public broadcaster NHK program "News 7" read, "The shock of Hong Kong's 'Goddess of Democracy's' arrest."

    So what about the Mainichi Shimbun? The term "goddess of democracy" did not show up in the first report of Chow's arrest or in any headlines, but it did appear in a column in the Aug. 11 evening edition of the paper: "'Goddess of Democracy and newspaper founder ... a series of arrests of pro-democracy figures in Hong Kong."

    In response to reports that characterized Chow as "the goddess of democracy," the following reactions were seen on Twitter:

    "Please stop calling Agnes Chow 'the goddess of democracy.' Even if she had not been a woman, it is possible that she would have been taking part in the same activities."

    "It makes me uncomfortable because it feels as if we are partaking in the consumption of Agnes Chow as a symbol of a 'beautiful girl.'"

    "Behavior that sanctifies a certain activist is the very action that promotes the targeting of said activist by states and law enforcement."

    So when did Chow start being called "the goddess of democracy?"

    A massive demonstration is seen in Hong Kong's Wan Chai district, on June 16, 2019, in which organizers say 2 million people participated. The waves of people did not stop coming until late into the night. (Mainichi/Shizuya Fukuoka)

    Let's take a quick look at her background. Chow participated in a 2012 movement protesting the implementation of patriotic education like the one instituted in mainland China. In 2014, when Chow was 17 years old, she became a central figure in the Umbrella Movement, whose aim was to win a democratic electoral system. And in 2016, Chow became one of the leaders of the political party Demosisto, which sought self-determination for Hong Kong. With the passage of the national security legislation enacted by the Chinese government for Hong Kong, Demosisto disbanded; Chow is now acting on her own.

    A fan of Japanese anime and pop stars, Chow self-taught the Japanese language. Over 510,000 people follow her on Twitter on which she tweets in Japanese, and she is known widely in Japan.

    Chow first appeared in the Mainichi database in March 2016, in an article reporting the disbandment of an organization of which Chow was a senior member.

    The first Mainichi article that called her "the goddess of democracy" was published in June 2019, when Chow visited Japan. In the Kyodo News Agency database, the characterization first appeared in October 2015. It was in an article that covered the state of Hong Kong and Chow's thoughts a year after the Umbrella Movement. It seems as though it was from the Umbrella Movement onward, when Chow came to have a high profile, that the characterization "the goddess of democracy" spread.

    When searching the databases with the keyword "goddess of democracy," what comes up first is an article from May 1989, during the Tiananmen Square protests. It reports that students participating in the movement had made a "Goddess of Democracy" statue in Tiananmen Square similar to the Statue of Liberty in New York as a symbol of the democracy movement.

    So why is "goddess" considered problematic? Soshi Matsuoka, a writer well-versed in gender and sexuality, said that the term "goddess" has undertones that suggest women are treated as sex objects and things.

    "When people talk about women who stand out or are in leadership positions, there is an overwhelming focus placed on their femininity. When it comes to men, though, people turn their attention more to the men's abilities and personalities, and likely use more gender-neutral words to describe them. No one would use expressions like 'the male god of democracy' or 'the god of democracy,' would they?" Furthermore, Matsuoka said that "goddess," which in Japanese is literally "female god," is similar to words like "female doctor" or "female news announcer," in that by attaching "female" to a role or figure, women are seen as a minority and unusual in those positions, and reveals the values of a male-dominated society.

    When Matsuoka pointed these things out on Twitter and added, "I feel uneasy. I wish the media would be more sensitive to things like this," he received some 15,000 likes.

    So why isn't the media more "sensitive" to things like this? Said Matsuoka, "Words that are used subconsciously can often be biased from a gender equality viewpoint. If the media repeatedly uses those expressions just because they attract attention, that biased image is reinforced in the minds of the people who see or hear those expressions. Discriminatory structures in which women are only valued for superficial characteristics are reproduced. This spiral needs to be eliminated. I'd like all media outlets to ask themselves whether it was necessary to go out of their way to use the word 'goddess' in the latest case."

    As a reason why such expressions continue to be used in the media, Matsuoka suggested the lack of diversity among people with the capacity to make decisions. "The number of women in management and other decision-making positions is still overwhelmingly small," Matsuoka said. "Organizations should reflect the uneasiness that staff on the ground feel."

    Kyoko Tominaga, an associate professor at Ritsumeikan University who is an expert on social movements said, "I'm under the impression that people are a bit weary because of the similar way in which media coverage is conducted. It's not just limited to Chow, but the symbolization and idolization of women and young people participating in movements is a phenomenon that we often see." For the past decade, Tominaga has studied movements, such as the anti-nuke movement and the anti-security-legislation movement led by the student group SEALDs (Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy).

    Agnes Chow who was released on bail is seen in front of Hong Kong's Tai Po Police Station on Aug. 11, 2020. (Mainichi/Shizuya Fukuoka)

    "What's common among the movements is the media's attitude of wanting to report on the movements as if young people and women, or otherwise 'unexpected people' are standing up for a cause. What lies underneath is the unspoken understanding that 'politics is a world for older men,'" she said. "Some good examples are coverage of the Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg, who was labeled 'environment girl' in a headline. Another one is when the Diet was deliberating the revision of the Public Prosecutor's Office Act, and while many celebrities expressed their opposition to it, singer Kyary Pamyu Pamyu's opposition was covered extensively."

    Tominaga explained that such symbolization and idolization, covered in a positive or negative light, are problematic. Why? "There are many people besides Chow who were arrested for suspicion of violating the new security law in Hong Kong, including young men, an older founder of a newspaper, and university instructors. It is not just teenagers like Thunberg who partake in global climate strikes demanding stronger climate crisis measures, but people of all ages and various ethnic backgrounds in industrialized and developing nations," Tominaga continued. "The goals and means of social movements are formulated by the involvement of diverse people, but if the media focuses on just a small portion of the people involved, the impression of a movement as a unitary movement -- such as 'a young people's movement' or 'an industrialized nation's movement' -- can become fixed."

    Furthermore, Tominaga pointed out that focusing coverage on young people and women who participate in movements likely stems from discriminatory stereotypes that "young people and women cannot be interested in politics."

    In a magazine interview in October 2019, Chow said that she was never truly a leader and that she didn't like being called a goddess. Tominaga emphasized, "'Goddess of democracy' may be an acceptable expression as an embodiment of a universal value that democracy movements have. But to give Chow that moniker when there are both men and women participating in the movement, and focusing on Chow's femininity, is absolutely unnecessary." She went on to say, "In taking part in a social movement, it is important that participants are able to put forth their individuality and make use of their skills. Ms. Chow is fluent in Japanese, and has been active as a spokesperson. But she appears to dislike being called a goddess. It isn't acceptable to focus on the characteristics of a person that the person doesn't mean to put on display."

    So why does the media want to make certain activists into symbols? Tominaga introduced the analysis of an American sociologist, which is that the media, in order to cut back on the work it has to do, selects a key person to approach and focus on. She then said, "To communicate the real picture of a movement with accuracy, it is important to listen to a diverse range of voices, like that of those who support the movement behind the scenes and are not seen as key persons, and let the public know what they have to say. It's painstaking work, and there's a limit to how much of this can be done, but I would like media coverage of movements to capture a movement's spread, richness, and multifaceted nature."

    Using the word "goddess" may be preventing us from seeing what is truly happening in Hong Kong right now.

    (Japanese original by Hiromi Makino, Integrated Digital News Center)

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