Yoshiro Mori, president of the Tokyo Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, was recently forced to resign after his derogatory comments about women triggered a backlash of public criticism both at home and abroad. The Basic Act for Gender Equal Society came into effect on June 23, 1999, to promote the formation of “a society in which both men and women, as equal members of society, are given opportunities to freely participate in activities in any fields of society and thereby equally enjoy political, economic, social and cultural benefits as well as share responsibilities.”
In 2003, the Japanese government set out a target of “increasing the share of women in leadership positions to at least 30% by 2020 in all fields in society” (known as “the target of 30% by 2020”). The country missed this target and, according to one Japanese newspaper, Japan is “a lap behind the rest of the world on gender equality.” It is ranked 121st in the world out of 153 countries on gender equality according to the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index (GGI), released in December 2019 (Japan was ranked 110th out of 149 countries in the previous survey).
How difficult is it being a woman in Japan today? What steps does Japan need to take to address this? To gain further insight on these issues, I spoke with Professor Nobutaka Kurihara, president of Kobe Women’s University and Kobe Women’s Junior College. Kobe Women’s University and Kobe Women’s Junior College provides a comprehensive range of higher education opportunities for women (eight graduate programs in four graduate schools for post-graduates, 10 academic departments in four faculties for undergraduates, one specialized program and three junior college departments).
Editor's note: The interview was conducted in Japanese and Sugita is solely responsible for translation.
Yoneyuki Sugita: The New York Times suggested this episode (Mori's comments) was more than just a gaffe by Mr Mori and that it highlighted a fundamental issue in Japanese society, namely its entrenched male-dominated power structures. Where do you think Japanese society is now in terms of gender parity? Is Japan a difficult society for women to live in?
Nobutaka Kurihara: Unfortunately, there is still a perception in Japanese society that men and women are not equal. You could actually ask if there are any countries where men and women are truly equal. I suspect the answer is “Very few, if any.” However, Japan does seem to be a particular laggard in terms of its efforts to improve gender equality.
Physiologically, it is true that men and women have their own strengths and weaknesses. You could argue that it might be more beneficial for humankind if men and women utilize their respective strengths to a mutual advantage. However, from a gender perspective, this is just a blanket generalization. While there are large individual differences between men and women generally, in the case of men, some men are not good at the things men are supposed to be good at and some are good at the things women are supposed to be good at. Conversely, the same applies for women. Although this might not apply in a primitive society where food and resources are scarce, my feeling is that modern society is most efficient when, rather than dwelling on collective strengths and weaknesses, individuals focus on what they are good at and concentrate on making an active contribution in that. In today’s post-war society where the ideal is that “All of the people shall be respected as individuals,” this might be too obvious to mention.
On the other hand, as I said at the outset, it cannot be denied that there are aspects of Japanese society where the idea of male superiority still persists. Although I am no expert on this and could be wrong, my understanding is that, from a historical perspective, women in Japan enjoyed a more elevated social status from ancient times up until the Muromachi period [from around the 14th to 16th century], but that for the 300 to 400 years after that, during the Edo period for example, it was men who were perceived as having a higher status. On that basis, we should have reached gender parity about 75 years ago. However, it is still the case unfortunately that the notion of male superiority persists in Japan. Nevertheless, for my part, when I consider the last 30 years, I feel that there has been a definite change in people’s attitudes, especially young people.
In terms of male-dominated power structures, I believe that change will come as the younger generation starts to play more active and leading roles in different areas of society, even if this takes time. I used to think that these structures were originally established by men. However, from my dealings with students as a faculty member over 20 years ago, before I took up my position at this university, I soon realized that women themselves have actually helped to create and support these structures. For example, if a female student is planning on going to graduate school, people say “You’re a woman. You don’t need to study so hard.” If she gets a job and pursues a career, she is told “If you carry on like that, you won’t be able to get married. You won’t find true happiness as a woman.”
Actually, I remember being staggered by the fact that it was often students’ mothers who said this rather than their fathers. What parent would say to their son, “Boys don’t need to study too hard” or “Don’t spend too much time working, otherwise you’ll never get married”? I heard stories like this over and over again and that convinced me there was still a need for women’s universities and higher education facilities for women in modern Japan. At least until the time when there are as many women as men going on to graduate school. However, this is not something that students hear from their mothers so much anymore. Also, the students themselves are more dedicated about going on to higher education and getting a job. This does not just apply to our university. Japanese society has changed over the past 30 years, and you wonder how these male-dominated power structures can carry on for much longer.
Sugita: Acknowledging that Mr Mori’s remarks were inappropriate, some people actually came up with a different point of view, suggesting his political influence, personal connections and skills meant he was one of a kind and it would be next to impossible to replace him with anyone. Can’t we just pass over his comments as a bad joke? If we want a truly diverse society that recognizes freedom of speech, perhaps we need to accept that everyone has his or her own point of view, even one such as Mori’s. What is your view on this?
Kurihara: I do not know Mr Mori personally, but I imagine that he is a very skillful coordinator. So in that respect, it might be hard to find a replacement. Even Saburo Kawabuchi, with all his success in leadership of various sporting organizations, including the J.League, could not take on the role in the end.
Based on my understanding, I think that Mori’s comments were absurd, but more importantly I think they were totally misguided. In the first place, for example, saying “Men or women are such and such” or “XX always do such and such,” in other words crudely generalizing about race and gender, an attribution that such people can hardly change regardless of their efforts, and then, even worse, saying in a misleading manner contrary to the fact, that can only be described as discrimination. Couching remarks like this in terms of gender or nationality makes the intended meaning easier to understand.
Remarks like this are irritating enough even if someone says them in the bar after a few drinks. But for Mori to have made them in an official context, that is completely unacceptable. How would you have responded? You could have either stayed silent or you could have told Mori that his comments were out of order and nonsense. If you could have called him out on the spot, and he had apologized immediately and retracted what he had said, that might have been enough. On this occasion, however, that did not happen. The reason it has become such a big issue now is because this notion of male superiority is still entrenched in parts of Japanese society and remains prevalent among Mori’s contemporaries. I can only imagine how many women in his circle have had to put up with this kind of intolerable treatment in the past. So, if this unfortunate episode helps the next generation of women, including our own students here, avoid similar situations in the future, that is a positive development.
Sugita: Education is obviously extremely important in helping women to play a more active role in Japanese society. Japanese women were allowed to go to university after World War II. In 1948, prior to the creation of the national and public universities, approval was given for the establishment of five women’s universities, including Tsuda College. In 1966, the Faculty of Home Economics at Kobe Women’s University was established and this institution has made a major contribution to women’s education ever since. How do you see the role of women’s universities in light of the recent situation in Japan and around the world?
Kurihara: My specialty field is hygiene. In my international health classes, I teach students that the two essential requirements for demographic transition in developing countries are public health and women’s education. Reproductive health and rights are not just human rights issues – they are indispensable for the development of societies and countries, and women’s education is the basis for this. At the same time, when I am giving classes to my female students, I think about the children or grandchildren each of my students might have some day, and I wonder if they will pass on what they hear from me to the next generation of children. If so, the potential reach of my classes is enormous, it is a huge responsibility and it makes me feel nervous just thinking about it. For young children, the influence of parents, especially mothers, is huge and in this respect, women’s education is extremely important.
However, it is not the case that women’s education can only take place at women’s colleges. Obviously, it can happen in a coeducational setting as well. For a while after World War II, women’s colleges were essential because the university enrollment rate for women was so low. This university is also one of the universities and junior colleges founded in these circumstances. Currently, if we include women’s colleges, then the enrollment rate of women at university is close to that of men, including junior colleges, however, the rate is actually higher than it is for men. On this basis, it seems that women’s universities have largely fulfilled their original purpose.
However, as I mentioned earlier, the male to female ratio for graduate school enrollment is 2:1. So there still seems to be big differences in educational opportunities and approaches for males and females. Women’s universities have a significant role to play in terms of remedying this situation. In addition, it can be said that women’s universities provide female students with a wonderful environment as places of learning, allowing female students to devote themselves entirely to study with complete peace of mind. I would like to see women’s universities continue to grow so that they offer even more rewarding and advanced academic opportunities than coeducational universities – even to the extent that the best male students say they’d like to enroll. However, if that day comes, that really may be the time when there is no need for women’s universities anymore!
Sugita: As of 2018, there were 77 women’s universities in Japan, accounting for 9.8% of all universities (782 universities). In fact, Japan’s ratio is remarkably high compared with countries such as the U.S. with 1.3% (2016 data) or South Korea with 3.1% (2016 data). As the birthrate in Japan continues to decline, women’s universities and junior colleges are struggling to fill their admission quotas and are having to downsize or go coed or even close down. However, Kobe Women's University has increased its enrollment capacity from 860 to 880 in 2017. You have a 104% fill rate for undergraduates and currently have around 3,600 female students in total. In 2016, in terms of the number of students, Kobe Women’s University ranked 17th in the nationwide Women’s University Student ranking. In April 2022, you are planning to establish a Faculty of Psychology to offer psychology courses with a capacity of 320 students. When that is complete, you will have nearly 4,000 female undergraduate students here. Why did you decide to increase the number of admissions and create a new faculty against the backdrop of a declining birthrate? Do you think you can maintain a fill rate in excess of 100% in the future? How does this fit in with the role of women in Japanese society?
Kurihara: Unfortunately, many women in Japan were widowed around the time of World War II. The original aim of this institution was to educate these widows so that they could find work and provide for their children, as well as to train teachers who could return to their own home regions and educate the locals. Therefore, this institution started out as a clothes-making and apparel school, and later became a junior college, teaching nutrition as well as clothes-making. The scope of the education offered was then further expanded to train teachers because both men and women could play an active part on an equal basis.
In Japan at that time, it was still difficult for women to make their way in society. Our institution concentrated on those specific areas where women could demonstrate their skills and capabilities at that time. From the time the university was established, starting with the Faculty of Home Economics, moving onto the Faculty of Literature (including the Department of Education), Faculty of Health and Welfare and Faculty of Nursing, with the Faculty of Psychology due to be established in 2022, one of the principal aims of this institution has been to enable women to acquire the qualifications they need to make an active contribution to society, notwithstanding its male-oriented social structures. However, since its founding, our university has been more than just a stepping- stone to qualifications.
As well as helping them to acquire their qualifications, we are committed to giving students a thorough grounding in the underlying academic subjects and inculcating in them the joys of studying their specialty academic fields. A degree requires students to write a graduation thesis or equivalent whatever department they may be in. Most of our departments have graduate schools through to a doctoral program. In addition, we have established a number of departments purely for the purpose of academic study rather than for qualifications. The Research Center of Classic Performing Arts, one of Japan’s leading research institutes, is an affiliate institution.
By giving our students a solid academic grounding and enabling them to secure high pass rates in their qualification examinations, we aspire to be a university that nurtures students who can play an active and independent role in different areas of society, and to train researchers in different fields. We have a vision for how we would like this university to develop in the future, including our plans for new faculties, and we aim to continue contributing to society. By spreading the message about the education and the guidance we offer to students, I am confident that we can continue to be the university of choice against the backdrop of a declining birthrate.
In terms of the position of women in Japanese society, if I look at the progress we have made from where we were before to where we are now, I expect the differences in roles occupied by men and women to gradually diminish. For example, just as we are seeing an increasing number of male nurses these days, the traditional boundaries between “men’s jobs” and “women’s jobs” will fall away. As we move towards this future, while we must remain faithful to the university’s original traditions, we also need to expand the scope of our education and research, including occupations and academic fields which have traditionally been male domains as well as fields where women have excelled in in the past.
Sugita: In Japan, 149 junior colleges were originally established in 1950. One of these was Kobe Women’s Junior College. It’s no exaggeration to say that it has played a major role in the development of Japan’s junior colleges. However, even the Kobe Women’s Junior College had to cut the enrollment capacity of the Department of Comprehensive Life Studies from 150 to 120 in 2015, and the capacity of the Department of Food and Nutrition from 140 to 120 in 2017. In 2020, all of your departments are still below capacity. Do you need to take any drastic measures to improve the fill rate? Such as further reductions to the capacity, or closing down Kobe Women’s Junior College or integrating it into Kobe Women’s University? What are your thoughts on the role of junior colleges in light of the current situation in Japan and the rest of the world?
Kurihara: Well, it is certainly the case that the number of applicants for Kobe Women’s Junior College is declining. However, we have absolutely no intention of closing Kobe Women’s Junior College. The reason for this is because that the affection of the founder, Kaname Yukiyoshi, for her students and her passion for education are so deeply ingrained in the ethos of Kobe Women’s Junior College, much more so than in Kobe Women’s University. This is her legacy to this institution. Yukiyoshi lived an active life right up to the age of 99, and many faculty members here today were taught directly by her. They are the ones who carry on the tradition and spirit of this university for us, which they have inherited from her.
Even though the number of student enrollments has come down, we continue to have a large number of high quality students. While some students only want to study for two years right from the outset and then go out to find their way in the world, others might want to do a four-year course at university but then, for a variety of reasons, only end up staying there for two years. Many of these students actually end up switching to our university due to a change of heart or circumstances. We aim to be an educational institution that fulfills the various learning needs of all such students.
However, the free university tuition fee initiative which started last year in Japan may lead to a further reduction in the number of students choosing junior colleges. That initiative may suit some students, but it makes management of junior colleges even more difficult. It is difficult to come up with ways of dramatically increasing the number of applicants to improve the fill rate. Suffice to say we have a few things up our sleeve. I will not go into too much detail here, but we will start putting these into action from this coming spring.
Sugita: Here is the mission statement of your institution: “The purpose of our institution is to educate women who will help build a democratic and culture-oriented nation that will contribute to world peace and the welfare of humankind. To realize this goal, our institution aspires to educate women of character, who will strive to build a peaceful nation and society, respect truth and justice, appreciate the value of each individual, esteem work and responsibility, and develop an independent spirit in body and mind.” In a society “where women shine” and which promotes the “dynamic engagement of all citizens,” it is important that your students play their part as ambassadors of your university’s mission statement. What sort of contribution do you see them making to Japan and to the world generally over the next 100 years? What are your aspirations in this respect?
Kurihara: To reiterate, we want to nurture students who will act as leaders in their respective fields and who will play an active part in society, utilizing their qualifications effectively based on a comprehensive education with a solid academic grounding. We have turned out many researchers from this university. Even if they do not become researchers, all graduates from here have a researcher’s mind, able to effectively sift through the vast amount of information that flows through modern society. Based on this, we continue to nurture students who can assess this information logically and articulate their thoughts to others as appropriate, just as we have always done. In other words, our educational goals have been “Fostering self-reliance, communicative ability and creativity.” I have no doubt that our graduates will play a key role in Japan and the world at large, both today and 100 years from now, making an active contribution to society, their families and the people around them.
Yoneyuki Sugita is a faculty member of Osaka University, Graduate School of Language and Culture, currently working on AI and healthcare in Japan.© Japan Today