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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

THE ZEIT GIST

Pioneering women's center in Osaka slated for closure


By AKEMI TERANO
Special to The Japan Times

Last month, the new governor of Osaka, Toru Hashimoto, announced his plan to shut down and sell or privatize 25 public facilities in a bid to tackle the prefecture's financial crisis. Except for two libraries, no prefectural facilities merit further public funding, argues Hashimoto. Included among the sites slated for closure is the Dawn Center, which for 14 years has been providing the citizens of Osaka and beyond with a diverse range of programs united behind a single aim: putting equality into practice.

Dawn Center
Demonstrators show their support for the Dawn Center in Osaka on Feb. 29. STEVE SILVER PHOTO

The Dawn Center is located near Osaka Castle in Chuo Ward. It cost over ¥9 billion to build the seven-story structure, equipped with meeting and conference rooms, a library, auditorium, recording/editing studio, a kitchen and child-care services. The diverse programs that the center offers — from lectures to screenings and workshops — are all carried out in this building.

Rooms are also available to the general public. People who need them for activities related to the cause of gender equality can rent them at half price. The well-equipped center, with its central location, wide variety of programs and reasonable prices, attracts almost 400,000 people annually.

So it came as a shock to many when Hashimoto made public his intentions for the site.

"The center's programs will still be needed," Hashimoto said when he visited the site for an inspection last month, "but I cannot see a reason to keep the building. Selling it would make a considerable amount of money."

How, one might ask, could the center continue its work without a headquarters? Will program teams be separated into offices in different buildings and be required to rent rooms every time they hold an event? Or will there be another building set aside for the center in a more remote area?

If the center were to be relocated, the consequences would rest heavily on its many visitors. For protesters who took part in a demonstration on Feb. 29 organized by "Sukiyanen Dawn Center no Kai," or the We Love the Dawn Center Association, this was a major concern.

One demonstrator said that because she works every day in Osaka, the women's center in her hometown is not an option.

"Chuo Ward is plenty far enough for me," said another. "If the center were moved to an inconvenient location, I would not be able to afford the time and cost."

Ayumi Nishina, assistant chief of the Planning and Promotion Division at Dawn, argues that the center will not function if it is partitioned up and dispersed.

"The three core programs — counseling, information (i.e. the library) and education — go together," says Nishina. "Each informs the other."

Dawn's pioneering work has been a model for women's centers across Japan. In fact, it conducts training workshops that bring together other women's centers. It also supports nonprofit organizations in the form of joint sponsorship, offering rooms, advertising and planning assistance.

The center also provides much-needed gender equality training to prefectural employees, many of whom are transferred every few years. Such training, says Nishina, "enhances their service to the public, and could even be a life-saving matter. In the case of domestic violence, for example, bad counsel from prefectural employees could put lives in danger."

Former Dawn Center Director Emiko Takenaka draws attention to the fact that the Dawn Center is highly recognized beyond Japan's shores. Its international stature is the result of its many symposiums and lectures held in collaboration with foreign agencies such as the Swedish Embassy, the Seoul Women's Plaza (with which Dawn has a sister-center agreement) and the Kansai American Center of the U.S. Consulate.

"Shutting down the center," warns Takenaka, "would amount to swimming against the global tide."

Osaka is the only prefecture among 47 that is running a deficit. Clearly, fiscal reform is needed. True, too, money could be made by selling the Dawn Center. However, considering the center's myriad roles and relationships, discussing its existence solely as a local or financial matter is dismissive and dangerous, supporters say.

Hashimoto emphasized in his general-policy speech that "the current generation should take responsibility for the financial crisis without delay." Indeed, doing our best for future generations is imperative. But the current condition of Osaka should not be undermined in the process. After all, the future generation is being raised by the current generation.

Figures seem to suggest that now is not an ideal time to be cutting back on efforts toward gender equality in Japan. In the latest report by the United Nations Development Programme, for example, Japan ranked 54th out of 93 nations on the Gender Empowerment Measure, which is calculated on the basis of economic and political participation/decision-making and estimated income of the sexes. Likewise, Japan came in 91st out of 128 on the Global Gender Gap Index in the World Economic Forum's latest report.

And while a major selloff is one way to deal with Osaka's financial crisis, making better use of existing resources is another, says Yuko Moriya, a member of the We Love the Dawn Center Association.

"The Dawn Center is Osaka's treasure," said Moriya. "We should make effective use of what we already have."

Dawn has been directly supporting women with children through free counseling and other support services, and indirectly via lectures to private businesses, counselors and child-care workers. The center has also been active in improving education and the workplace environment, exemplified by programs targeting teachers, private businesses and workers — female and male alike.

Childbirth and child-rearing support, educational reform and the revitalization of small- and medium-size businesses: these constitute the substance of Hashimoto's manifesto. It appears that much of what the Dawn Center has been doing is what Hashimoto regards as ideal prefectural work. So why can't the two parties work together to realize these shared goals?

In response to questions regarding how shutting down the center might contradict Hashimoto's policies, the Cultural Affairs Division and the General Affairs Division of Osaka only said that while they will "consider the need for gender equality policy," they are re-evaluating public facilities "no holds barred."

Nishina points out that "although the estimated annual figure of Dawn visitors is 400,000, there are more behind that number. When the center conducts a workshop for teachers, for example, there are hundreds of students and their parents who are impacted as well. So a lot of those who have not actually come to the center are also indirectly affected."

Hashimoto plans to make his final decision on the future of the Dawn Center by June. This "political decision," as he calls it, could have a profound and reverberating effect. In other words, it could result in yet another crisis, say supporters.

"Dismantling the center might be easy," Takenaka warns, "but reconstructing a place like it will be very difficult."

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