Women in FRAME
There are many words to describe the enchanting character of philanthropist, entrepreneur and sometimes art curator Hikari Yokoyama — intelligent, creative and chic among them — but passionate ts the bill best. Whether she’s talking about art, participating in women’s rights initiatives or reading a good book, passion seems to follow her wherever she goes and in whatever she does. She passionately contributes to the greater good, namely through her philanthropic work with Women for Women International, an organization dedicated to offering moral and practical support to female survivors of war.
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How did you first get involved with Women for Women International?
I got involved when I moved to London after I co-founded a startup with two other people in New York called Paddle8. I had a few years of really intense startup culture: nonstop 18-hour days, working on weekends. You’re living it and breathing it and get really wrapped up in it in a wonderful way. Then we basically took on more investment and the direction of the company was changing quite dramatically. I decided to kind of step down. I was also seeing someone long-distance who lived in London and I decided to move. A friend of mine broke it down for me: She was like, You can always find a new job, but you can’t find a new true love of your life — you’ve got to go for it.
So I decided to go for it. I can always get a job if it doesn’t work out, so I moved to London with this amazing man who loved me so much. I was meeting amazing people, eating delicious food with a roof over my head. On paper everything was great, but inside I felt really empty and isolated. That was around the time someone started telling me about Women for Women. It made me realize that empowerment is not just about providing basic needs, like food and shelter, but actually giving women the tools to actively engage with the world around them. You can have a great standard of living and all the food you can eat, but empowerment comes from being the protagonist in your own story, through participating as an active citizen and knowing your rights and feeling the difficulty and the possibility of enacting change and building the world that you believe in. In many ways, my situation is very different from the women we work with, but it was this realization that made me jump in.
Tell us about the people Women for Women International help.
They have survived some of the worst traumas of war, many have lost their homes, family members, their bodies have been utilized as a war zone through tactics of systemic rape, many have lost everything, some are refugees, they have survived all kinds of terrible situations. But the idea is that after they’ve been through all that and stripped down to nothing, they are just people who want to rebuild their lives. But they are not waiting for someone to give them a handout but rather [are] saying, Okay, this is what I’ve got: I’ve got my brain, my health, my body, my hands, my fellow sisters and I can work to gradually shift things in our own lives for ourselves and our families, and also our communities.
I don’t know if there’s anything that fuels my fire other than just being a human being, but I’m sure it has a lot to do with how I was raised. My parents taught me to seek my own happiness, but also to contribute to humanity in a meaningful way.
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How would you describe the work itself?
Women for Women International, in essence, is a one-year training program that also functions as a support group for women who have often been totally isolated and living in fear. The educational program focuses on learning about their rights, their health and financial independence through learning a marketable job skill, learning basic accounting, saving and financial management. We also have a men’s program that works with male community leaders to teach that women working and contributing to the household is a positive thing. But at the core, it’s really about changing these women’s minds from thinking like a victim to realizing I am a force myself, I can contribute and I can get engaged and if I want to make a change in my family or my society I can do that, and this is how society works and these are the ways that I can.
Would you say this work has changed your outlook in any way?
I’ve always been interested in women’s rights, and have definitely been affected by sexism. That women are still not treated as fully realized citizens throughout documented history is very strange. I have various theories on why that is. Some say that the women’s rights movements have been divided by class, or by race or geography, so we make progress as women, two steps forward, one step back. I think the #MeToo movement is incredibly powerful in that it has transcended these boundaries. We now can all, both men and women, realize that sexual harassment and assault has a major effect on how women navigate their careers, but I also think you can’t disregard that the women we work with are on the fringes of our global society. They are the most marginalized, the most disenfranchised, a lot of them can’t even read or write. We can’t forget about these women.
In Japanese, your name means “light,” do you see yourself as a light?
My mom always says stuff like that! “You are a light, remember to shine,” you know? [Laughs] I think I get a lot of positivity from her. I think both my parents really tried to give me a name that would be something beautiful — something to try to live up to.
Speaking of your parents, what would you say are some of the core values that they instilled in you?
My dad grew up in postwar Japan when society was completely broken. Economically, all the infrastructure was bombed and ruined, and throughout the war, all the resources of the country went toward the war. I think because he grew up in a very broken and impoverished society, he made me remember to not take anything for granted. And my mom’s a sweet, lovely, nurturing woman. She, I would say, is a big reason I got involved in the arts. From a young age, it was always no television, no plastic toys; it was always art supplies and building blocks. You want to have fun? Make it. You want a dollhouse? Build it. I think she shaped me to go in that direc-tion, for sure.
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I think both my parents really tried to give me a name that would be something beautiful — something to try to live up to
Your expertise lies in art, is there a piece that’s ever made you get really emotional?
The last time I had a really visceral experience with a piece of art was when I went to the see the Picasso show at Tate Modern, which shows work from one year of his life, 1932. It was quite interesting. Before this show I saw Picasso in terms of stylistic periods, the period where he painted semi-photorealistically, his Blue Period, Cubism, and so on. But in this year, he experimented with all kinds of styles simultaneously.
He was insecure, people were saying that he’d peaked with Cubism and had nothing new to say. The year was also turbulent for him personally. His marriage ended to Olga and then his affair with Marie-Thérèse. In the show’s last room there’s a painting called The Rescue . It’s this crazy figure that’s completely limp, it’s been pulled out of the water by another figure who’s holding it. I almost wept, it was this feeling that despite your power, there is helplessness or desperation, maybe there’s been an accident or neglect and you let something die and you’ve swam out and got it back but you can’t resuscitate it, you try but you can’t.
You could read it in an optimistic way, like you’ve been a hero, pulled this thing out of the sea and it’s going to come back to life, as if it’s this amazing moment of overcoming the odds. It can be read either way. It was just really, really powerful. It’s funny because when I saw the show the first time, I didn’t really click with that one but the second time it just hit me like a ton of bricks.
Where would you like to see the world in 10 years?
That is a really tough question! Ideally it would still be here. [Laughs] I hope we can apply what we know to override the structures already in place that are not working. I hope we can evolve quickly enough because I think we have the tools and information we need, not just to make money, but also to pursue what is best for us collectively.