Sexism in the Age of the “Shining Woman”

By EMI YASUDA, EXCHANGE STUDENT AT UTOKYO (2018-2019)


[Content warning: sexual harassment]

Image credit: Prot | Adobe Stock


In the sticky heat of early August, I sat in front of the TV, watching the flash of press conference lights. On the screen was a familiar image: corporate men bowing deeply, their faces parallel to the table in front of them. In Japan, this is the procedure of public disgrace. Last summer, an investigation uncovered sexist admissions processes at one of Japan’s most prestigious institutions, Tokyo Medical University (TMU). For over a decade, the school artificially lowered female applicants’ entrance exam scores to keep women’s enrollment below 30%. Amidst vocal condemnation, nine more Japanese medical schools confessed to their own unfair admissions processes¹. These revelations and their aftermath dominated headlines as I began my year as an exchange student at the University of Tokyo (UTokyo)². They foretold experiences that developed my understanding of how, in a country that claims to support women’s empowerment, sexism remains deeply rooted.


Last summer’s admissions scandal sparked widespread condemnation, but in a Komaba classroom less than thirty minutes from TMU itself, I could scarcely hear these cries of outrage. During a lecture on Japanese politics, my professor opened the floor to opinions on the scandal. Accustomed to the left-leaning attitudes of students at my Canadian home university, I expected little debate: Someone would condemn TMU, the rest of us would offer words of agreement, and the lecture would quickly move forward. 


Contrary to my expectations, the first student to speak argued in favor of the policy. He stated that medicine is an ill-suited profession for women, whose primary duty amid Japan’s demographic crisis, is motherhood. He argued that women inevitably leave medicine for child-rearing, exacerbating Japan’s labor shortage, and placing an unfair burden on male doctors. As he spoke, my hand shot up in disbelief at someone my own age expressing such antiquated ideas of a woman’s place in society. I disputed his thoughts on women’s maternal duties, stating that limiting women’s access to a medical career is a counterproductive solution to the labor shortage. At the root of the issue is not that women are unfit for medical careers, but rather that they are pushed out of the profession after becoming mothers and face barriers to resuming their career after maternity leave. I addressed the inflexibility of schedules for Japanese doctors in a culture of overwork and the severe shortage of childcare providers in Japan. 


After speaking, I felt shaken. Coming from a school where few people consider themselves conservative, I was unaccustomed to defending my opinions. But regardless, I was confident that I made the strongest points, though perhaps too passionately. This self-assurance quickly dissipated when the next students to speak, classmates from both Japan and abroad, agreed with the first student. While several disputed his ideas of women’s roles, they agreed with TMU’s policy, asserting that accepting more female doctors would be unfair to hardworking men. I felt alone in my outrage, and a growing understanding of why Japan ranks 110th of 147 countries for gender equality³.


At the root of the issue is not that women are unfit for medical careers, but rather that they are pushed out of the profession after becoming mothers and face barriers to resuming their career after maternity leave.

The TMU scandal underscores the hollowness of Shinzo Abe’s “womenomics” policy, which strives to make Japan a “society where women shine.” The sexist admissions standards that shocked the world did not shock Japanese women, who, for over a decade, suspected a double-standard in medical school admissions. However, the Japanese government investigation that finally uncovered this policy stemmed not from suspicions regarding the elite school’s disproportionately male enrollment, but instead, from an admissions bribery case involving a politician’s son. In spite of the Abe administration’s expressed goal of increasing women’s workforce participation, women’s voices evidently remain unheard. While action from the bottom-up is essential for social progress, the government also holds a responsibility to foster an environment in which change is possible. If the Abe administration’s “womenomics” policy moved beyond rhetoric, implementing affirmative action and accessible childcare, it could catalyze the equality it purportedly desires. 


For my classmates at UTokyo, perhaps the TMU scandal hit too close to home. In an era where women’s university enrollment is rising above men in many countries, 77% of UTokyo undergraduates are men. This skewed ratio is readily apparent when class lets out, and women are few and far between on the crowded campus walkways. Regardless of the cause of women’s lack of representation at Japan’s highest-ranking university, these statistics bode poorly for women’s careers in Japan, where the name of the university you attend is a major factor in aggressive corporate recruitment processes.


While action from the bottom-up is essential for social progress, the government also holds a responsibility to foster an environment in which change is possible.

Last fall at a networking event, I benefited first-hand from the UTokyo name. Pushing beyond my usual introversion, I tried to “work the room.” Exchanging meishi (business cards) with new contacts, I kept in mind the smattering of Japanese business etiquette I crammed before attending. Nervous but prepared, I found myself in conversation with an executive from one of Japan’s biggest companies, who told me about new internship opportunities. Impressed with the UTokyo logo on my business card, just one week later, I found myself in a state-of-the-art office building so towering that my ears popped as I approached its upper floors. The executive gave me brochures and pamphlets, explained his company’s mission, and took an interest in my resumé and portfolio. I walked away from the impromptu interview hopeful and eager for the internship opportunities we discussed. 


Just days later, my job hunt picked up speed when the executive extended me an invitation to a private business networking event. I couldn’t believe my luck as I spent the evening exchanging meishi and making several trips past a table of hors d'oeuvre. Once the venue closed down, the man suggested we head to a bar. While back in Canada, I’d consider this a red flag, I understood post-workday drinking to be a mainstay of Japanese business culture. I agreed in the hopes that this would be the moment he finally offered me the internship we discussed. But not long after sitting down, our conversation veered outside of business territory. After a few drinks, the man, older than my father, began making sexual advances. My stomach churned as his clammy hands moved from the glass to my body, and he suggested we head to a hotel. I rushed onto the subway home, feeling deeply betrayed and misled. This man gave me every reason to believe that his interests in me were business-related, but I left cursing my own naïveté. I felt foolish for daring to believe I had anything of value to offer to him or his company. He had my resumé, and we discussed internships, but that night at the bar told me everything I needed to know about where his interests truly lay.


Above all else, this experience left me with a profound sense of powerlessness. I knew that I was deliberately misled, and that there was little I could meaningfully do about it. I shouted into the Twitter void and gave my friends an earful, but at the end of the day, I had to pick myself up and continue on as though nothing happened. But that encounter ripped away my trusting naïveté. How could I trust opportunities, when elusive “internships” cloak malintent? How could I accept the mentorship of any man, knowing that for him, business may purely be a pretense? 


How could I accept the mentorship of any man, knowing that for him, business may purely be a pretense? 

While inappropriate and sexist treatment is far from an exclusively Japanese phenomenon, this experience personally reified Japan’s continued struggle to empower women. For Japan to truly become “a society in which all women shine,” it must listen to the voices of all Japanese women, from those with experiences like mine, to those who spent years suspicious of unfair admissions practices. Institutional gatekeepers and predatory businessmen are alive and well, but women know that the system is rigged against them. Now, it’s time for people to listen.




¹ A tenth school was accused of unfair admissions practices, but did not admit to wrongdoing. “Japan medical schools 'rigged women's results,' BBC News, 14 December 2018, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-46568975.

² The University of Tokyo is unaffiliated with Tokyo Medical University.

³ Aizawa, Yuko. “Gender equality in Japan remains bottom.” NHK World Japan. December 26, 2018. https://www3.nhk.or.jp/nhkworld/nhknewsline/backstories/gendergap/.

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