Celebrating its 70th year, the College Women’s Association of Japan are a little-known powerhouse organization dedicated to helping women and the visually impaired reach their full potential.

With around 450 members and a whole host of events, CWAJ is an active and innovating organization with a strong reputation in the art world. Originally founded in 1949 to support Japanese women hoping to study in America, the group now offers a variety of scholarships, holds a highly respected print fair and organizes a range of volunteering groups, luncheons and events. With a focus on women and the visually impaired, the group has evolved and developed over the decades to provide changing support and adapt to new challenges.

A pioneer in its field, the organization has been at the forefront of English support for the visually impaired, from helping students read textbooks to creating raised art for the print fair. As well as offering the first true grant scholarship (many in Japan function more like loans) for the visually impaired, CWAJ has also created Japan’s first English song book in braille and has been adapting and developing its support to fit the needs of its users. Discussing why visual impairment was focused on specifically, Joanna Chinen—20-year member and current Chair of the Anniversary Committee—explained that although it started as somewhat of a coincidence, and was never a matter of choosing one disability over another, it has become a natural part of the organization’s development.

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Projects, scholarships and support

Using the money raised through membership, events and the print fair, CWAJ run educational groups, provide scholarships and support the relief efforts in Fukushima.

The first of its two educational focuses are the Foreign Student’s Circle, which joins students with members for cultural exchange and support. The second is the Volunteers for the Visually Impaired, who provide support through English conversation classes, mock interviews for students at Tsukuba University School for the Blind and editing an accessible newsletter as well as plenty more.

The scholarship program has been in place since 1949, with over 800 awarded so far; it aims to support women in leadership, as well as the visually impaired. Unlike many scholarships in Japan which have age limits of 30-35, the CWAJ scholarships are open to all ages. They have different scholarships to support Japanese women wishing to study abroad, international women wishing to study in Japan and visually impaired students (male and female) wishing to study abroad or in Japan, as well as nursing students in Fukushima. Past female students have included forestry researchers, humanitarian aid policy researchers and doctors, while the visually impaired scholarships have supported students using their experiences to improve social policy and care.

The CWAJ’s work in Fukushima has ranged from the immediate support of providing a new bus for a local mental health care center to running English and art events for children, as well as the longer-reaching scholarship programme. Set to end in 2021 after 10 years of support, the scholarships support local men and women studying to become nurses and with strong aims to stay in their community.

The print show

A great chance to enjoy contemporary Japanese art as well as supporting the cause, the annual CWAJ print fair has become a staple of Tokyo’s art scene. First held in 1956 at the suggestion of publisher Charles Tuttle and leading modern art dealer Yuji Abe, the show started with 40 Japanese artists and 91 of their prints. Today, it has expanded and branched out, with shows held in Kobe and Massachusetts as well as the Associate Show which was started in 1956.

The juried exhibition includes a range of print mediums, from woodcut to engraving, with pieces selected by an international and independent panel. Pieces are entered anonymously, allowing emerging artists to be considered alongside their established counterparts. With prices set by the artists, works range from ¥8,000¥400,000, so there’s an opportunity for everyone to get involved, with 50% of the price going to to artist and 50% going to the charity.

Upcoming events

The Associate Show 2018 | Oct 16th – Nov 5th

The accompanying Associate Show will be held in the Frederick Harris Gallery at the Tokyo American Club. Titled “Beyond the First Impression: Prints from Cover Artists”, it will explore the works of contributing artists throughout the print show’s history.

The Print Show 2018 | Oct 31st – Nov 4th

This year’s show will be held in Daikanyama over five days between 11am and 6pm. As well as the exhibition, there will be demonstrations from artists, guided tours and hands-on art for the visually impaired. Be sure to look out for the first-place winner of the Print Show Award Way Home II by Sohee Kim as well as the two second-place pieces Mirror X by Koji Ikuta and Crack in Forest by Kei Sakakibara.

Cultural Program Tour | Nov 21st

An opportunity to enjoy an organized tour of the Kao Home Products and Cosmetics Facility and Museum in Kameido. The museum offers an insight into Japan’s modern history, women’s needs and the “culture of cleanliness”, including a post-war danchi display apartment.

Following the tour (free), you can enjoy a traditional washoku lunch (around ¥2,000). Participants are to meet at Kameido Station (north exit) before sharing a short taxi journey to the museum. To reserve a space please contact: culturalprogram@cwaj.com.

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Luncheons | Monthly

Every month, the CWAJ holds a luncheon event which is open to both members and non-members. Each event welcomes a specialist speaker who introduces a topic aligned with the organization’s interests or aims, such as specific influential artists, social movements or literary topics.

There is also an opportunity to view print works and purchase selected items. For members, the ticket cost ¥4,000 and for non-members, it’s ¥4,500. Reservations are required in advance so be sure to check the upcoming schedule.


If you’re liking the sound of CWAJ, then you can become a member, although there are a few requirements for anyone looking to join.

Applicants must:

  • Live within commuting distance of Tokyo
  • Be fluent in English (written and spoken)
  • Have a minimum of two years at an academic institution of higher learning
  • Participate in volunteer activities

If you meet these criteria, then you can choose which level of membership you would like—with the most common being Regular (¥10,000). This allows you to join all events and activities (monthly luncheons reduced to ¥4,000, a variety of hobby groups), gives voting privileges and access to the directory, and expects a certain level of active participation. If you are unable to commit to being involved, an alternative would be the Supporter option (¥15,000) which offers the same privileges without the expectation of volunteering.

If you’re aged between 20 and 28 years old and have been recommended by another member, you are eligible for the Junior Membership (¥5,000) which lasts for two years and offers the same benefits as regular membership except for voting rights.

If you have been a member but are leaving Japan, you can switch to Overseas Membership (¥5,000) to maintain connections and continue support of the organization.

Special thanks to Joanna Chinen, Jane Grimes and Atsuko Yoshida of CWAJ for their help with the article.

Looking for other ways to volunteer? Check out Second Harvest Japan to get involved with the fight against hunger and food waste.

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