Inspiration and Empowerment at WELL Japan’s Annual Retreat

By Harumi Gondo
January 26, 2016
Health & Beauty, Lifestyle

For over 20 years WELL (Women Educators and Language Learners) has been holding a women-only annual weekend retreat just outside of Tokyo. WELL is an informal group run by women on a voluntary basis and focusing on such topics and issues as women, gender and social justice. The different women that I contacted about WELL’s annual retreat all echoed the same feeling: that the retreat is a lot of fun and very supportive.

“It’s all women and it’s nice to be in an all-women environment. Women usually listen really well, and not for mistakes but for interesting nuggets of information,” Barb Summerhawk, a founding member of WELL, said in a phone interview.

Summerhawk, who was a tenured professor at Daito Bunka University before retiring four years ago, was one of around 30 women who attended the first WELL retreat 21 years ago, and she continues to attend when she is able (she plans to attend this year as well).

According to Summerhawk, the efforts to create WELL began during a discussion one night at a JALT (The Japan Association for Language Teaching) conference about the frustration over limited opportunities for women to meet just with women and talk about issues that are important to women.

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Mikiko Ishihara, the owner and facilitator of Terakoya, an English conversation school focused on social issues, has also been attending WELL retreats since the beginning. She was not alone in noting that because the retreat is only for women there are no power games that often occur when there are “loud males dominating the place.”

For Ishihara, the annual retreat is her opportunity to be in an English-speaking environment, to catch up with old friends and, in her words, “to meet other socially-minded women.” While there have been efforts to make the group completely bilingual, WELL organizers have admitted that in recent times the balance of presentations is heavier on the English side.

The group is open to all women; joining is as simple as joining the email list or Facebook group, and women can join and leave whenever they wish.

According to Victoria Muehleisen, one of the current organizers for WELL and an associate professor at Waseda University, the group currently has 171 women, both foreign and Japanese, across a range of ages, and although there are women from across the country, most are from the Kanto area.

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The main outlet for participation in the group is its annual retreat, which is usually held from a Friday night to a Sunday afternoon. The retreats are normally held at the National Women’s Education Center (NWEC), which is a large public facility in Saitama, about an hour by train from Ikebukuro station. The center was built to promote women’s education and contribute to realizing a gender-equal society. The low cost of the facility has allowed for the WELL retreats to be extremely reasonably priced for participants. Two nights accommodation and workshop fees, but not including food (which is also very reasonable), cost a total of just ¥10,000.

Based on Muehleisen’s rough estimate, 60 to 70 women stay for the whole weekend and another 30 to 40 women come for just one of the days. The retreat usually has an invited speaker and programs on a variety of topics, including shorter slots for student presentations, and often a physical or mental health session. In the past this has included workshops on belly dancing, the Heimlich maneuver and yoga.

This year Liane Wakabayashi is offering an introductory session on an approach to intuitive drawing called The Genesis Way with a set of 44 Genesis cards.

According to Marian Hara who teaches in international schools, there was a strong emphasis on social activism during WELL’s earlier years, but it then became less activist and more of a moderate mixture of activism and academic leanings. Recently, though, according to Hara, there has been a slight shift back to its activist roots. In 2015 WELL invited a speaker from Matahara Net to share about maternity harassment.

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This year the invited speaker is Usa Teruyo, who will speak on “Living as an Ainu Woman” today. (For more information, see the 2016 retreat program).

For Hara the annual retreat has been a supportive and nurturing environment where women can pilot their ideas and interests among a group of positive-minded women who are, in Hara’s words, “on your side.” The networking opportunity is also a huge part of the draw, in Hara’s opinion, and being together for a whole weekend creates bonds that are harder to weave during shorter events.

Stacy Kurokawa, a teacher in Saitama, who attended WELL twice, reflected, “Both times, I came home with ideas, books, contacts and handouts, feeling refreshed, more in touch with what’s going on, connected, aware of women’s issues in country, and personally encouraged to find my way and thrive.”

I, too, am excited to be partaking in my first WELL weekend this year. Perhaps I’ll see you there!

The Deets

When: Fri, Mar. 4–Sun, Mar. 6, 2016

Where: National Women’s Education Center of Japan (NWEC), 728 Sugaya, Ranzan-machi, Hiki-gun, Saitama

How much: ¥10,000 for the full conference. Student rates and one-night or workshop-only prices are also available. Click here for more details.

Tickets: To reserve your spot on this year’s retreat, please click here.


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