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Commentary: Are female scholars taken seriously in Japan?

  • January 7, 2017
  • , The Japan Times
  • English Press

By Philip Brasor, Special to the Japan Times


There is a small group of female TV personalities whose claim to fame is that they graduated from the University of Tokyo, the most prestigious institute of higher learning in Japan. Like most TV personalities, these women have no demonstrable talent, and in almost every case when they appear on variety and talk shows they never discuss what they studied. They often show up on quiz shows where they can either confirm expectations about their intelligence or delight viewers by revealing they don’t know as much as they should, but overall there really isn’t any discernible difference between them and other entertainers peddled by production companies.


What is it that makes these women interesting? The answer is that they represent a rare species. Not many women attend the University of Tokyo, colloquially known as Todai. Less than 20 percent of its undergraduates are female and now, it appears, the school itself is wondering if it shouldn’t do more to raise that rate.


Starting this spring, Todai will offer housing subsidies of ¥30,000 a month to selected female students who would normally have to commute more than 90 minutes one-way to the Komaba campus in Meguro Ward. The subsidy would be available to some 100 students per year for no more than two years and regardless of their parents’ income.


Todai thinks many qualified women are discouraged from applying to Todai because of the financial and safety concerns attendant with living away from home. The selected students will reside near the campus in an apartment building with strict security measures.


In an article about the subsidy that appeared in Asahi Shimbun on Dec. 26, an official of the school said, “We know parents of female students are worried about their daughters living on their own in a big city.” The Asahi reporter also talked to a number of young women who said that they were attending universities or colleges near their homes because their parents would not allow them to live anywhere else.


However, safety and cost aren’t the only reasons women don’t move away from their families in order to go to college. Many told the reporter that their parents didn’t see the point in women receiving four years of higher education. Such an opinion sounds trite and old-fashioned, but apparently it still holds sway. One woman currently enrolled at Todai said that before she graduated from a high school in the Tohoku region, she was encouraged by her adviser to apply to Todai, but her mother and grandmother disapproved.


“They thought it was a waste of time for me to work so hard, because I’m a girl,” she said. In her family, only boys went to university, but she applied anyway. The first time she took the entrance exam she failed, but the next year she took it again and passed. Interestingly enough, it was her father who encouraged her to keep trying.


The story is meant to illustrate that higher education in Japan is not considered a priority for women, and in order for female applicants to succeed in gaining access to university, an extra measure of resolve is just as important as scholastic ability.


Nevertheless, Todai has been criticized for the plan. Asahi reports that more than 80 people have accused the university of reverse discrimination. Advocates of the plan countered that there is nothing discriminatory about it, because women still have to meet the same rigorous entrance requirements as men. An expert on constitutional law sees the subsidy as a proactive attempt to promote gender parity, which would exist naturally if all other things in Japanese society were equal.


In that regard, media coverage of the plan has sparked debate about whether or not female scholars are taken seriously. The upshot of the 2014 scandal involving STAP cell researcher Haruko Obokata, who was hounded out of academia for allegedly fabricating data, is that she was, like the TV personalities mentioned earlier, adored as a curiosity. However, once she was suspected of having sinned against science, her punishment was harsher than it would have been for a man. The implication was that, as a woman, she didn’t belong in that world in the first place.


A feature about the subsidy that appeared in Tokyo Shimbun on Nov. 19 included interviews with female Todai students who said they still faced veiled opposition in society at large. One told the reporter that she believes people are somehow “scared” of female Todai students, as if being accepted at the university represented the death of a natural order. Another said she didn’t think the subsidy would make a difference until women gained respect as academics first. The situation is so twisted that some female applicants have been warned that they can’t hope to get married because potential husbands will be too intimidated by their elevated status as Todai graduates.


Statistics seem to validate these suppositions. In October 2015, after the governor of Kagoshima Prefecture was blasted for saying that girls didn’t really need to learn trigonometry, an article appeared in Newsweek Japan confirming that Kagoshima had one of the worst rates in the country for female advancement to university. Moreover, in a survey of 59 countries carried out by the World Values Survey Association and cited by the magazine, 22.5 percent of Japanese said that university education was more important for males than it was for females, the third highest national portion on the list.


The survey results and the Kagoshima governor’s remark reflect beliefs that permeate the conversation about education and thus influence a woman’s outlook while she is still young. There is, of course, no evidence that young women are less capable of excelling in certain scholastic fields than young men. Achievement depends at least partly on the message received. In Japan, males overwhelmingly dominate the fields of mathematics and hard science, while females overwhelmingly dominate music studies. It all has to do with what is expected of them.

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