A conversation with Orika Komatsubara[i]

BP. Orika, I am so delighted to have finally met you and to have you visit us in our lovely Leuven. And I am -together with my readers- thankful to have this conversation with you. I would like to start our conversation by asking you to tell us something about your background, both cultural and professional, and especially to hear how did you end up engaging with the restorative justice movement.

OK. Thank you for inviting me to have a conversation, Bruna. I am thrilled to have the opportunity to talk about restorative justice through such a personal communication.

I did my PhD at Osaka Prefecture University in Japan, researching restorative justice in the case of sexual violence. My PhD thesis was published, and I won an academic award from the Japan Association of Gender and Law in 2018. Why did I start researching restorative justice? My ‘official’ answer is that at that time I was involved in supporting victims of sexual violence, and I noticed the victims’ needs for dialogue with the offender and started researching restorative justice.

The ‘official’ answer is not a lie, but it also doesn’t say anything meaningful. The ‘support’ actually meant ‘self-support’. In other words, I am also a survivor of sexual violence. I was raped when I was 19 years old. There is my long story, which spans 20 years until I became a researcher. Parts of my story were published in January 2022 (in Japanese).

Orika Komatsubara giving an interview about her book

While I am proud to be a survivor of sexual violence, I also wanted my research to be examined without bias. In addition, when I started my research, I was much more vulnerable than I am now. I was first introduced to the idea of restorative justice via a Japanese law magazine in 2006. I was ‘just’ a survivor at the time and happened to pick up a special issue of victim-offender mediation at the local public library. I devoured the magazine and learned the word restorative justice. I also read a negative comment about restorative justice in the case of sexual violence by a female psychiatrist who was active in victim support. I was upset then. And I was angry, thinking ‘why are you the one to decide what’s good for me instead of me?’ I wanted my voice to be heard. I then decided to become a researcher to refute her claims and to argue for the need for restorative justice in the case of sexual violence. But at the time I was just a young woman who had been traumatised. I don’t think anyone would have believed that I, shaking in the corner of a public library, would become a researcher in restorative justice. I was a Don Quixote-like girl, full of ambition. This is the real starting point of my relationship with restorative justice.

BP. Obviously I was not expecting such an ‘intimate’ relation to the restorative justice field Orika, and I am awfully sorry to hear about what has happened to you in your youth. It requires such great courage to share this, so I am very grateful that you shared this painful part of your life with me and with our readers.

Something recognisable in that story from other accounts of survivors of sexual violence, is the anger you had when feeling that you were also being robbed by overprotective and well-meaning experts -such as psychiatrists- of voice and decision-making agency. What is often not understood is that survivors of sexual violence can be as much harmed by people making decisions on their behalf, just as they can be harmed by people pushing them for decisions. If it’s not too much to ask you, I wonder if you did have any kind of direct or indirect dialogue with the person that caused so much harm and pain to you, or if this was not possible in Japan at the time?

OK. Yes, I had a phone conversation with the offender in 2005. This experience happened before I discovered the idea of restorative justice. It has taught me a lot. He accepted his responsibility and apologised to me. I declared my forgiveness to him, and for a moment, I felt a sense of release. However, shortly afterwards, he began a pleasant and daily conversation with me. It was as if nothing happened! He did not deny it, nor did he deceive me. But he did not really seem to understand what he had done. I understood that this was the limit of his ability and that it was impossible to expect that from him. I was satisfied with myself that I had worked through the dialogue and decided to give up on wanting him to understand my pain. For me, the dialogue created a significant opportunity to move forward in my life.

However, something unfortunate has happened. I was in therapy at the time. My therapist tried to find out more about what I had done. When he heard my story of sexual violence and the dialogue with the offender, he laughed and said, ‘It happens a lot, just forget about it.’ I didn’t understand why he started laughing, and why he tried to dismiss – or deny – my experience. This was one of the more painful experiences for me – perhaps even more acute than the sexual violence itself. I then felt like I was falling into an abyss, with death coming right at me. Fortunately, I had the friends of a self-help group. They encouraged me and assured me that I was not wrong. In talking to survivors, I have found that they also try, or want to try, to talk to their offenders by letter, telephone or face-to-face. This process overlaps with the traditional feminist method of Consciousness-Raising Groups. My personal issue of dialogue with the offender became a political issue in the communication within the survivor community. I insisted that ‘some of us need dialogue with the offender, and we want this need to be recognised and respected’.

I began to think about the reasons why victims want to talk to their offenders. Many victims of sexual violence fear meeting their offenders. I was one of them. On the other hand, they still want to ask them ‘why did you do that?’ I wanted to create a safer place for victims to talk to their offenders with supporters. Around this time, as I mentioned before, I discovered the special issue on restorative justice in a Japanese law magazine in 2006. I realised that other people in the world think the same way I do. It was a moment when my personal quest and my academic exploration matched up.

BP. So your academic awareness and interest on the topic of restorative justice started around 2006, but how did it get channeled more concretely, what did then you do to pursue this new interest?

OK. Good question. I began reading the restorative justice literature on my own but soon felt limited and wished to seek professional training. However, there are very few experts of restorative justice in Japan, and most of them are jurists. As an undergraduate, I studied aesthetics and art and researched Japanese drama. Through an analysis of a Japanese drama, I explored the responsibility of the Japanese military in World War II and the possibility of forgiveness for the victims. Although the subject matter of my interest has remained consistent, the research methods of art and law in academia have been quite different. I tried, unsuccessfully, to apply to graduate schools in the sociology and literature departments of several universities in the hope of finding a supervisor who would accept me. Unfortunately, few scholars were willing to take a humanities approach to restorative justice research, and my academic skills were immature. I couldn’t find a university to go to for about 5 years, so I took a course at a correspondence college and got a license to teach Japanese at a high school. I was almost going to be a high school teacher because I loved working with teenagers.

At this time, I had three informal channels of contact with academia. Firstly, I was a ‘tempura student’. A ‘tempura student’ is a person who pretends to be a student and takes university courses for free. I didn’t feel guilty about it because when I was young I thought that universities should be open public spaces. Nowadays, students are more aware of their entitlements in Japan, so ‘tempura students’ may not be tolerated. Anyway, as a matter of fact, I was studying secretly at university.

Secondly, I joined the ‘kenkyukai’. In Japan, there are many informal study groups called ‘kenkyukai’, where students, researchers, activists, and citizens meet once a month to discuss issues. I presented my research concept on restorative justice many times at the ‘kenkyukai’, organised by junior researchers and PhD students, and received feedback. I learnt basic academic skills in the ‘kenkyukai’ peer-learning environment and tried to fit my experiences into a research framework. Besides, after ‘kenkyukai’ meetings we had dinner and talked a lot about personal things. Of course, I came out as a survivor, and we discussed how we could live in an authoritative place like a university. ‘Kenkyukai’ was the space I needed to shift my identity from victim to researcher. (By the way, after I did my PhD, I launched some of my own ‘kenkyukai’ and published a booklet. I still love ‘kenkyukai’.)

Thirdly, I was a blogger. In Japan, in the late 2000s, a weblog by a company called Hatena became popular. At that time, academics, activists, professional writers, students, and citizens debated each other regardless of their status. I started blogging as a feminist, using my pen name around 2007 and discussing the issue online on a pretty much daily basis. I wrote book reviews about sexual violence and domestic violence, made my arguments about pornography regulation, and wrote essays about my experiences of sexism (except for sexual violence). I also engaged academics in debate, sometimes harshly criticising them.
Blogging was a common phenomenon for our generation. Those of us born between 1970 and 1982 are known in Japan as the ‘lost generation’. Due to the recession and the popularity of neoliberalism, we were subjected to fierce competition as youths and were forced to work hard for low pay. As a result, we were under-skilled in the workplace, and many of us are still in unstable employment. We were therefore blogging in the late 2000s as a tool to raise our voice. We argued that youth suffer not because of individual ability or responsibility but because of distortions in the social structure. Some of them published several experimental magazines and self-published newsletters, attempting to raise issues about the economic difficulties of young people and new forms of sexuality in the wider Japanese society. Unfortunately, the movement did not make it to the big waves and faded away. As one of those who was part of it, I believe that it did not succeed in changing society.

In the meantime, I had developed my academic skills and recovered my energy. In addition, Doshisha University Graduate School of Global Studies was established in 2010. The graduate school is one of the few institutions in Japan specialising in conflict resolution. I passed the entrance exam for the master’s programme of this graduate school and finally had a formal channel into academia in 2010. (Most Japanese graduate schools require students to complete a master’s degree before proceeding to a doctoral degree.) I then continued my research in restorative justice and conducted a PhD.

BP. What a fascinating and rich path Orika! The tempura student memories took me back to Venice 2007 where I was living with my husband. I was pregnant with my first son and I attended a course in Aesthetics by Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben in the Faculty of Art and Design of the IUAV University during the Spring semester and I missed only the last class because I gave birth. What I loved about that tradition was that these courses were freely open to the public. I obviously had to commit to go regularly, couldn’t take credits for it but also didn’t have to write papers like the rest of the students. I am not really sure whether that is common at all elsewhere, but I was so thankful at the time, as it gave me a sense of intellectual engagement at a time of great personal changes, even though I was not officially a student. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there actually existed many more tempura students than we think in the world.

The ‘kenkyukai’ tradition sounds like a great idea. There are many study groups or reading groups here too, but I have never heard of mixed study groups between activists, students, researchers and citizens. It sounds like such a simple democratic idea, and so incredibly valuable for academics too. There is nothing more depressive than this overwhelming hermetic closure among ourselves, it makes no sense at all. I will be happy to borrow this idea from you and propose to organize a sustained ‘kenkyukai’ within the Leuven Restorative City project in the near future.

I am happy to hear we share our passion for blogging, though I had never perceived it in such political terms as you describe it for your generation, but I totally understand and can relate to the power of blogging to create counter-discourse but also dialogue with others who think differently. I want to hear all about your PhD, but I don’t want to miss anything in between, so if I may just ask you to tell our readers how your experience with the official graduate school was, after all the informal studies and processes you had followed. Did this give you what you were looking for at the time (besides giving you the degree you needed to do a PhD)?

OK. The experience of the university system gave me ambivalent feelings. When I started graduate school, I attempted to stop blogging and devote my time to my academic training. However, it was not a smooth road, and there were many tripping stones. I hadn’t recovered from the trauma, and reading material about sexual violence caused me a lot of emotional pain. It was also hard and hurtful when my friends and survivors expressed doubts and criticism about restorative justice because I felt that they did not understand me. Also, writing articles in an academic style was difficult for me, and I always felt like I was killing myself. I was sandwiched between the emotions bubbling inside me and the researcher’s discipline of ‘objectivity’ and ‘neutrality’. Every day, I thought that I couldn’t be a researcher and wanted to quit graduate school. Instead, I was writing novels for young people on the internet. The themes were domestic violence, sexual violence, death, hope for life and religious experiences. I should quickly add that my novels are not poetic works of literature but amateurish, poorly written entertainment. I’m not being modest here. I love my unsophisticated fiction with all my heart. I guess I wanted to share my uncool writing with younger people because I didn’t fit in with the professionalism of the university and the pride of the researchers. My supervisor found out about my writing novels and told me to concentrate on my thesis. He was absolutely right! I was a ‘bad student’.

On the other hand, I still believe that the graduate school as a PhD student was the best. Osaka Prefecture University is a local public university, small, poorly funded and not at all glamorous. Valuable literature in the humanities was thrown away as rubbish to make room for material for natural sciences students. Access to online electronic journals was scarce, and we always had to ask someone to give us material. Moreover, the local government in Osaka at the time was in the process of abolishing the Humanities Department of Osaka Prefecture University. After hard negotiations with academics, the research institute for the humanities remained, but the name of Osaka Prefecture University disappeared and became Osaka Metropolitan University in 2022. Despite these difficulties, the academics were dedicated, making huge efforts to help and support students. Every week they prepared a seminar for us. They gave us feedback if we asked them to read our drafts, even if they were not our supervisors. Our university was not divided into labs or research lines, so all the academics worked for us. And they always encouraged us to write our doctoral theses. The university was under pressure from outside, a storm was brewing, but inside there was peace. At the time, I was always so full of myself, so rebellious and frustrated with academics, but now I look back and see that I was actually in a protected environment. In other words, even if I wasn’t aware of it at the time, experiencing the position of a student being kept safe by academics is one of the reasons why I am still inside the university system today. I consider it a very positive aspect of academia that senior researchers have a role to play, not only in pursuing their prestige but also in fighting for more vulnerable researchers.

Furthermore, most of the PhD students at Osaka Prefecture University were a bit eccentric. They had experienced severe setbacks in their activism or work experience and had decided to become researchers as a second career. Feminism, ethnic minority movements, disability movements, environmental movements, sexual minority movements, school educations, etc. For us, there was a direct link between studying and life. At the time, I felt that we were writing our doctoral theses, trying to give form to new findings that we could reveal beyond the traumatic experiences. I don’t know if it is academically ‘appropriate’ to overlap such a personal transformation with writing a doctoral thesis. However, I believe that the Osaka Prefecture University was the best place for me to work with such PhD students and be supported by academics.

BP. I can relate so much to that experience of being in an environment where studying was considered extremely important both politically and existentially. For example, doing my Master in Gender Studies at the Central European University, was not a choice of someone who’s looking for a diploma but a vital path of survival and transformation. While studying in Turkey as well I worked under the guidance of important Turkish scholars and public intellectuals, many of whom are under the threat from the current authoritarian regime and have appending criminal cases for having signed a statement for peace. Currently my old alma mater, Boğaziçi University, has been staging massively supported and sustained protests since January 2021 expressing their demands for a democratic and autonomous university in the face of authoritarian rector appointments. Overall, my universities have been bastions of critical thinking and have taught me that education is a fundamental tool for social change. I must say that the experience and attitude I had to studying and education clashed somewhat with the more non-political habitus in KU Leuven, but eventually that only became a reason for me to embrace it even more.

I would love to hear something more about your PhD research Orika, what did it exactly consist of, what were some of the main processes, findings, arguments?

OK. In my PhD thesis, I studied restorative justice in cases of sexual violence. I took a philosophical approach and examined three main points.

The first point is the analysis of the subject of sexual violence victims. Previous research has highlighted whether the recovery through therapy, an accusation of the offender in court, or restorative justice dialogue is most helpful for victims of sexual violence. In contrast, I proposed a model of the subject in which the needs of recovery, accusation and dialogue are internalised and divided within an individual victim of sexual violence. For one victim, at one point in their life, there is a strong desire to recover through therapy, at another point, the demand to accuse grows, and at the next point, the wish to dialogue through restorative justice. Victims’ feelings are constantly fluctuating and change from time to time. I argued that therapy, court and restorative justice are all important and need to be offered to meet victims’ needs. It is important to note that I have described the inner world of the victim as a free tamashii (soul) that swings freely in a curved line rather than a linear developmental stage of recovery followed by dialogue.

The second point is that the dialogue in restorative justice was classified into two categories. The first is ‘restorative dialogue’. As the victim and the offender talk about their experiences with each other, mutual understanding is developed. The relationship is transformed when the offender offers an apology and atonement, which the victim accepts. Also, through their dialogue, community members re-examine their previous internal norms and take steps to prevent a recurrence. In other words, restorative dialogue rebuilds the order that has been broken by a crime or violence in the community. That dialogue is shared conventional wisdom in restorative justice research. The second dialogue is ‘deconstructive dialogue’. In this dialogue, the victim and the offender are taken back to a past time and confronted with their ‘frozen memories’. By re-telling the event with both parties, the ‘frozen memory’ is transformed into a story of the past, again embedded in the present time. I described this process by referring to the story of Persephone in Greek mythology, referring to the narratives of victims who had participated in restorative justice practices. Persephone, daughter of the earth goddess Demeter, is taken away by Hades, god of the underworld. Demeter’s grief at the loss of her daughter causes the earth’s crops to wither. When Persephone escapes the underworld and is reunited with Demeter, the greenery returns to life again. This myth represents the change of seasons from winter to spring. It is a story of destruction and rebirth. Using the term’ deconstructive dialogue’, I have attempted to illustrate the transformation of the victim’s inner world in the dialogue as a process that restores the joy of life and celebrates spring. Whilst there is a need for ‘restorative dialogue’ in society, I suggested that there is an expectation and longing for ‘deconstructive dialogue’ amongst individual victims.

The third point is forgiveness. In studies of restorative justice, forgiveness has often been identified with Christian culture. However, although I was born and raised in Japan, where Christians are not the majority, and I did not read the Bible, I was interested in forgiveness. I have defined forgiveness as an essentially personal act, referring to the theories of the French philosopher Jacques Derrida. The path to forgiveness opens only when the victim confronts their past experiences and confronts the offender. In other words, forgiveness appears only in the bilateral relationship between the victim and the offender. However, when a victim speaks about forgiveness, even if it is an assertion that ‘I cannot forgive my offender’, the concept of ‘forgiveness’ is shared as a language with others. Then, not only the victim and offender but also the community members are given the opportunity to think about forgiveness. Therefore, when victims talk about forgiveness, whether positive or negative, they are spreading the idea of forgiveness in their communities. As a result, other victims of violence and crime may begin to think about forgiveness. I uncovered the potential for community change by opening a space to talk about forgiveness rather than judging whether victims should forgive their offenders. I argued that it is important to include narratives of forgiveness when hearing victims’ voices in the community as a practice of restorative justice.

BP. That sounds all so very original, rich, and interesting, like all your writings and your research. Has your thesis -as a whole, or some of its sections- been published in English?

OK. No, I did not publish in English at all. For me, it is very difficult to translate deeply philosophical texts into English, because I rely on Japanese language structures to write. The Japanese language often allows sentences without subjects. Nevertheless, I obviously operate in different languages – Japanese and English, but I am not yet outstanding in English to the extent that I can cross that gap.

BP. Thankfully, we have been able to read your current work in English. Can you tell me something about the recent research you are involved in? Why this shift in focus from sexual violence to environmental harm?

OK. My research on environmental harm began when I met the people in the Minamata region of Japan. Minamata is a small local city, but in 1956, Minamata disease patients were officially identified. Minamata disease is a large-scale food poisoning caused by chemical factories discharging effluent containing methylmercury into the sea, which contaminated seafood. Severe cases can lead to death, and if a pregnant mother eats contaminated seafood, her baby can suffer from Minamata disease. In 1969, some Minamata disease patients went to court and won their case, obtaining compensation from the perpetrating companies. Activists, lawyers, artists, students and others from all over Japan gathered in the Minamata region to support the patients, creating a major social movement. I first visited Minamata in 2015. For me, Minamata disease was a record I learned about in my school history textbooks.

Seascape of Minamata today

However, there is still a problem of fragmented communities in Minamata today. The offending company is a major industry in the Minamata area. Many Minamata citizens worked for that company, believing it would bring them a better life. The outbreak of Minamata disease divided the local community into ‘victims and supporters’ and ‘other citizens’. Nevertheless, victims and supporters took up the challenge of community regeneration, and in the 1990s, with the cooperation of the local government, community rebuilding policies were implemented. Although fragmentation has not disappeared, there are people in Minamata who continue to be active and persistent. I was fascinated by the history and the people of Minamata.

What I learned in Minamata is the importance of following social movements over time. Local challenges are different today than they were immediately after the pollution occurred. The ideas of the victims and the needs of the social movement have also changed. From the perspective of restorative justice, I began to re-examine the history of the social movement in Minamata: in the early Minamata disease movement of the 1960s, the focus of victims and supporters was on the demand for an apology and reparation to the offending company. In contrast, in the 1990s, the main objective was community renewal in the region. I set out to illustrate the process of people transforming and correcting the injustice of environmental destruction in post-disaster communities.

I also believe that my own ‘ageing’ has also had an impact. When I was younger, I could not move away from the issue of sexual violence because of my own traumatic experiences. One of the characteristics of sexual violence is that it often happens behind closed doors with no witnesses. In other words, my focus was on what happened in personal, enclosed spaces. After writing my PhD thesis and ‘settling’ my own issues, I wanted to go out into the wider world. It was then that I came across the environmental destruction in Minamata, which was already a long history of harm suffered by the entire community. I want to ‘inherit’ the legacy that is left by past victims and their supporters. Also, I am now 40 years old. I believe it is our responsibility to pass on to future generations the memory of past human wrongdoings and the importance of protecting the natural environment. I learned through my research in Minamata that I am both an individual and part of a community living in history.

Panel on environmental restorative justice at the Victimology Symposium in San Sebastian, 2022

BP. The focus on the temporality and dynamism of social movements is extremely important in your work, and a great contribution to restorative justice as the field itself also matures. The question of how victims’ and communities’ needs and demands for justice in the aftermath of harm change in time is extremely interesting from a restorative justice perspective, as is the fact that you have ‘read’ within your works some of the developments within this movement as restorative-oriented despite the lack of mandated restorative services or explicitly labelled restorative language. What is next for Orika?

OK. I am now conceptualising a restorative justice framework for the past, the present and future generations. This involves the issue of the inheritance of community histories. In memory research, the transmission of memory by groups is actively discussed. In order to take responsibility for war and crime, plus to rebuild communities, researchers are focusing on the narratives of victims, offenders and survivors. The issue of collective memory is sensitive, sometimes resulting in controversy over whose memory is prioritised and sometimes linked to nationalism or local patriotism. I challenge these studies of collective memory with a restorative justice approach and focus more on the inner world of the individual. Restorative justice practices have demonstrated that traumatised victims are transformed in dialogue with their offenders and change the way they tell the story of their past. I have a vision of people’s interactions in the community in which the various form of memories are shared, triggering a mutual emotional response. In particular, in cases of environmental harm, I hope to pass on victims’ memory to future generations, including the ‘silent’ memory of plants and animals, the sea, the sky and the whole of nature, in order to create a new future. The difficult question is how to hear the voice of nature as a victim of human destruction. To this end, I will continue to research the ‘dialogue’ made possible through restorative justice, which in the case of environmental harm is more sensitised through an artistic approach.

BP. And here we share another passion Orika: threading our research and activism with artistic approaches. It has been a pleasure having this conversation with you, as has been collaborating together for the Special Issue of the International Journal for Restorative Justice on Environmental Restorative Justice and on the Palgrave Handbook for Environmental Restorative Justice, a collaboration which I am sure will continue. Thank you Orika!

[i] Orika Komatsubara is a JSPS Research Fellow (Young Researcher). She is affiliated with Kansai University, and is a visiting research associate at the Leuven Institute of Criminology, KU Leuven. She holds a Ph.D. in Human Sciences from Osaka Prefecture University in Japan. Her research focuses largely on restorative justice. She is the author of 『性暴力と修復的司法』[Sexual Violence and Restorative Justice] (Seibundo, 2017). She received the award of Japan Association of Gender and Law in 2018. In 2022, she published her own experience as a victim of sexual violence and her life story of becoming a restorative justice scholar, 『当事者は嘘をつく』[Survivors Tell a Lie] (Chikuma shobo, 2022). Orika focuses currently on environmental harm and restorative justice and is member of European Forum for Restorative Justice’s working group on environmental restorative justice. In particular, she analyses the pollution case of Minamata, Japan, which has led to the Minamata Disease and follows community rebuilding activities from a restorative justice perspective. Orika publishes extensively on the topic and her latest publication is Exploring Environmental Restorative Philosophy for Victims: The Pollution and Life-World in Minamata, Japan.