“I beat my wife again, because she gave birth to a girl.” These are the words my grandfather wrote in his diary on the day my mother was born in 1958. He was angry because he now had two daughters but still no son to continue the bloodline. This attitude was not unusual among Japanese men of his generation.
While he regularly beat my grandmother, my aunt and my mother, my grandfather never raised his hand to my uncle, born four years after my mother. He was cherished as the family heir.
It’s been 60 years since my mother was born. Though Japan has made enormous economic progress during that time, there’s been little progress in attitudes toward women.
I was born and raised in the Tokyo area. The recent revelations that a leading medical school in Japan had manipulated entrance exam scores to exclude women for more than a decade generated global headlines—but it hardly shocked me. While it is rare for such clear evidence of institutional discrimination against women to emerge in Japan, I am still constantly reminded of a woman’s traditional role in Japanese society, whether it’s coming from lawmakers or ordinar acquaintances.
The same discrimination based on gender in academic institutions can be found in Japanese high school entrance exams. Schools often offer equal numbers of places to boys and girls through examinations. However, because girls tend to score higher in those examinations, schools require them to have higher scores than boys for enrolment.
What was shocking to me is that more than 65% of Japanese medical doctors who responded to a survey said reducing the entrance exam scores for women is unavoidable, since the extreme working hours make it impossible for female doctors to work full time while taking care of their children. Japanese society still sees household chores and childcare as the main responsibility of women, whether or not they are in paid employment.
The same survey revealed that many female doctors were told by colleagues not to get pregnant because it would increase the burden for others in the workplace. This pattern can also be seen in other sectors with labor shortages, such as childcare.
For too long, many women internalized such discrimination and took it as a given. I was no exception. When I was job-hunting with Japanese corporations during university, the recruiters often asked: “Do you have a boyfriend?” and “Will you give up your job when you get married or get pregnant?”
Rather than recognizing these questions as a clear example of gender-based discrimination, I took them as a routine set of questions all female students are asked by recruiters. In Japan, having both a successful career and a family is rarely seen as feasible.
When I sought career advice from alumnae at my university, the women told me that they had little option but to stop working after giving birth. This is because it is still far too common for women to have to take care of the household chores and child-raising on top of working full time. With limited support from their spouses, a shortage of publicly funded day-care and few policies or practices to enable flexible ways of working, many consider it impossible to continue their career.
Once children are old enough to stay home on their own after school, women re-enter the job market as part-time workers with low earning potential and limited prospects for career advancement despite their education and capability.
Increasing numbers of young women are no longer willing to give up their own career aspirations to raise a family, one reason behind the sharp drop in the number of marriages in Japan and the lowest birth rate for decades.
Under existing gender norms, in other words, giving birth and raising children is still considered a woman’s main contribution to Japanese society. This view is deeply ingrained. In 2007, the Minister of Health, Labor and Welfare, Hakuo Yanagisawa, said publicly that “women are child-bearing machines.”
Just last month, Mio Sugita, a parliamentarian from the ruling party, used gender stereotypes around child-bearing to attack same-sex marriage. Sugita sparked widespread criticism after a magazine article in which she challenged the use of taxpayers’ money to support same-sex marriages, writing that, because same-sex couples “don’t produce children … they lack productivity and, therefore, do not contribute to the prosperity of the nation.”
These are just two examples of stereotypes that are commonly shared throughout Japan.
Things are starting to change. In August, 57 lawyers across Japan formed a coalition to support redress for students who applied for the medical school. Yet the movement to challenge gender discrimination in Japan is not yet broad enough to bring about significant reforms. There was only tepid support in Japan for the #MeToo campaign against sexual harassment, compared to the impact it had elsewhere in world.
In 2017, journalist Shiori Ito became the first Japanese woman to speak publicly about the sexual violence she had experienced, after prosecutors decided to drop the case. Ito alleges that in 2015 she was raped by prominent Japanese TV journalist Noriyuki Yamaguchi. (He denies the allegations.)
Instead of being praised for her courage in speaking out, she faced a public backlash including death threats. Women and men branded her an embarrassment and she was mocked on television by Japanese officials for immoral behavior and accused of sleeping around to advance her career. Anonymous threats made her feel so unsafe that she eventually moved to the U.K.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made “creating a society where all women shine” a key message in his growth policy for Japan, but the country will need a much stronger foundation if it hopes to achieve this. Women in Japan manage to shine in spite of the system—not because of it.
The government of Japan has legal obligations under international human rights standards to eliminate discrimination against women and girls and guarantee equality, including in the fields of education and employment. It is also obliged to take all appropriate measures to modify social and cultural beliefs and patterns to eliminate practices that are based either on ideas of the inferiority or the superiority of either sex, or on gender stereotypes.
Even more important is for all women—myself included—who have internalized everyday gender discrimination to consider what steps we can take to bring about the changes needed in society. Rather than silently enduring discrimination, Japanese women must hold the government to account and demand respect for our rights.
Correction: The original version of this story misstated the year that the Minister of Health, Labor and Welfare made a statement saying “women are child-bearing machines.” It was in 2007, not 2009.