March Prism - 2002
Down The Road
A Criminal Act?
Unequal Opportunity
Teaching Toolbox
ASEE Today
Last Word
Back Issues

Unequal Opportunity


Women engineers and scientists who want to pursue academic careers in Japan face almost insurmountable obstacles, but increasingly they're fighting back.

- By Lucille Craft

TOKYO—In another country, 59-year-old Nobuko Wakayama might be resting on her laurels. Over a career spanning three decades, the chemist has explored everything from the field of electroluminescence to magnetoaerodynamics, the magnetic control of air flow and combustion—work that has been widely published around the world and earned her official kudos along with many invitations to speak overseas.

But instead of satisfaction, Wakayama looks back with anger and regret. Her career was all but derailed, she says, by humiliations large and small inflicted by her employer, the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology in Tsukuba, and male colleagues at other universities. She contemplates her mandatory retirement next year with sorrow at opportunities squandered and talent wasted.

While Japanese women have made strides in the workplace since the early 1980s with the passage of a new equal opportunity law, gender discrimination persists in the ivory tower, especially in the male-dominated world of science and engineering. Blatant sexism has faded in the West, allowing female scientists and engineers to concentrate on issues such as childcare and returning to the lab after maternity, but their Japanese counterparts are still struggling merely to be recognized as equals.

From research institutes and college campuses, women are starting to fight back against a peculiar brand of repression known as “akahara,” short for “academic harassment.” Akahara typically involves verbal abuse and backstage badmouthing, or other varieties of fraternity-style hazing designed to intimidate a junior researcher or student. Or, since Japanese society still frowns on outright dismissal, akahara also is a time-tested way for a professor to make room on the staff for a new hire by making life so miserable for an existing employee that she leaves on her own.

There are no comprehensive statistics, but the first akahara survey, published two years ago by Hiroshima University, found almost a third of female respondents claiming to have been a target. Interviews with female scholars and a number of books, such as “Stop Akahara” by University of Tokyo sociologist Chizuko Ueno, indicate that the problem is widespread.


Tradition Bound

“The gender ideology of the 1960s still rules,” noted physicist Motoko Kuwahara, in a monograph published in 2001, “Japanese Women in Science and Technology.” That women exist primarily to serve as wives and mothers is widely assumed by many Japanese men and even women to be a strong cultural tradition. But Kuwahara, who teaches contemporary science and technology at Momoyama Gakuin University, points out that a majority of Japanese women worked until just after World War II. It was in the 1960s, when Japan's leaders were piloting the country's rapid reconstruction and industrial growth, that public policy sought to create a loyal workforce of “corporate samurai”—and an equally devoted corps of women who stayed home to support them. If dedicated housewives were essential to the country's economy, well-educated women, to paraphrase one professor, would court national decline. Hence, boys were shepherded into tech courses and girls into home economics; and incentives for working women, such as joint tax returns for married working couples, were scrupulously avoided.

Under pressure from the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, Japan finally ended gender-based curricula in 1989. But the notion that women belong at home, or at least in undemanding jobs that don't get in the way of housekeeping, has proved harder to erase. Wakayama compares female scientists and engineers to “the lowest Indian caste,” considered fair game for bullying by their male colleagues. “If a woman is cute, she's OK,” says Wakayama. “But if she tries to think for herself, she runs right into a wall.”

Wakayama was asked to resign right after her first child was born in 1971. She held her ground, but the heat was turned up in 1996, when Wakayama's male boss took to berating and threatening her: “If you don't do as you're told, something awful will happen to you.” True to his word, while Wakayama was in the midst of preparing documents for a government achievement award, her lab equipment and computer were vandalized. Winning the commendation only incited him further: “Your work is worthless,” he declared repeatedly, cutting off funds for her research. She eventually got her grant, but only by asking a male colleague at another lab to apply in his own name.

Wakayama's travails multiplied when she dared to question the validity of a paper by a male professor at the prestigious University of Tokyo; he promptly retaliated by making sure her work was rejected for publication. Though Wakayama prevailed, her co-workers were less than supportive, warning in scary terms to “stay away from the edges of train platforms” and “avoid walking alone at night.”

“In other walks of life, you get punished for breaking the rules,” says Wakayama. “But in science, by gentlemen's agreement, everyone's supposed to look the other way.”

One person who refused to look the other way was Kumiko Ogoshi, who won Japan's first akahara suit in October 2000. The following year she set up a support group for akahara victims. Ogoshi's situation was typical of women in science and engineering in Japan: Permanently relegated to the entry-level rank of research associate and banished to the tiniest office in Nara Medical University, she had worked since 1976 on the health effects of cadmium, tin, and aluminum.

The soft-spoken researcher might have endured her second-class status in silence, but in 1993 a new department head arrived, and, apparently in an effort to dislodge her, instituted his own brand of academic martial law. He demanded that her office and cabinet be left unlocked, and Ogoshi soon discovered herself the target of high school-type pranks, her belongings regularly scattered and even liquid waste dumped on her floor.

Refused funds to buy lab animals, she abandoned experiments and now contents herself with doing literature reviews on environmental ethics. Still, her superior pressed on in an effort to get rid of her. In response, in a country where lawsuits are still rare, she took him to court. The Osaka District Court found in her favor, sort of: It ordered the locality, not her boss, to pay compensation and reduced damages to just a tenth of the 5.5 million yen—which translates into about $46,000—she had sued for. Ogoshi has appealed to the Osaka High Court, which was scheduled to render its verdict earlier this year.

“I want to be properly recognized for my achievements,” says Ogoshi. “Nothing has improved.” Many co-workers have been reluctant to take her side. “Perhaps it's a Japanese trait, but when problems occur, the victim tends to be branded the troublemaker,” she says.

The anti-female bias is more than an injustice, says Ogoshi. It goes to the bottom line. “To put a student through a doctorate entails enormous taxpayer-funded expense to make up the difference between tuition and what it actually costs to educate that individual. But simply on the pretext of gender, (men) force women to quit. The country is throwing away talent they've spent so much money educating. It's a real waste.”

At the urging of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology, nearly all public universities now have in-house anti-harassment programs intended to redress sexual harassment as well as akahara. “It's still a work in progress,” says Shigemasu Hara, a spokesman for the ministry's personnel department. “But I think it's been effective. We've created an environment where it's easier to file complaints.” He offered no specifics as to the number of cases filed or penalties involved.


Slow to Change

If a recent survey by Hiroshima University is any clue, akahara remains endemic, and government measures to date haven't been that effective. The university in southern Japan, which published the country's first survey of sexual and academic harassment in March 2001, received responses from just under half of 541 male and female graduate students surveyed from across all disciplines. Among the findings: 29 percent of the women and 20 percent of the men had experienced some form of akahara, usually in the form of verbal abuse or inappropriate comments on the student's personal life. Women complained of being unfairly downgraded in their research or reports. Although most students were aware of the university anti-harassment counseling service, only about 10 percent said they would consider seeking help, fearing retribution from their tormentors.

Men are also targets, Ogoshi concedes, noting that anyone who openly criticizes his superiors, department research, or educational policies is putting his career on the line. “But with women it's different,” she says. “As far as professors, universities, and society is concerned, it's a given that women are not of the same caliber as men.”

Physicist Mitsuko Kazuno, former president of the Society of Japanese Women Scientists, scoffs at claims that the government is serious about combating akahara. “If such discrimination happened, the government or ministry would never take action. I ask often, if there is discrimination, they should publicize it or (enact) some penalty. But they never do.”

In Japan, instead of applying for faculty positions, many women opt for corporate research labs, which tend to be more gender-blind. Japanese universities are organized around the “koza” system, which delegates near-absolute authority to a professor over the assistant professors, lecturers, and assistants under (usually) his control. Still, women say the root of their plight is not the koza system itself but archaic male attitudes, as well as the absence of performance-based promotion systems and a no-tolerance policy for offenders.

Kazuno has proposed that the government set up affirmative action or other programs in secondary schools to steer more girls toward science and engineering. There have been some improvement for women in academia in the last 10 years, and as the old guard retires— or dies off —there will likely be more. With Japan stuck in its worst postwar recession and an impending labor shortage threatening to worsen Japan's already severe shortage of high-tech labor, the time seems ripe for policy makers to leave the 1960s behind and mobilize Japan's long-neglected pool of female brainpower.


Lucille Craft is a freelance writer based in Tokyo.
She can be reached by e-mail at

By the Numbers

At national universities in Japan, women comprise a higher proportion of science and engineering faculties than ever before but are concentrated at the lower rungs, making up 15.9 percent of all assistants and 11.2 percent of lecturers, but only 5.8 percent of associate professors and 2.4 percent of professors.

The allure of biotechnology has drawn record numbers of women to study biology—the freshman class of 2000 (national and private universities combined) in biology was 45.6 percent female. The biology boom drove the overall ratio of females studying science last year to a record 30 percent, up from 13.4 percent in 1970. Other disciplines have been less successful at attracting women. Females comprised only 32.4 percent of the freshman chemistry class, 13.2 percent of entering physics students, and 10.4 percent of engineering, according to the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology. By contrast, humanities and home arts remain overwhelmingly female.

Kazuno has been pushing, so far without success, to get more women hired as secondary school science teachers—a move that would both expand the pool of jobs for female scientists and engineers and provide valuable role models and mentors for girls. In 1999, in the city of Tokyo, for instance, women accounted for 40 percent or more of junior high and high school teachers in language arts, foreign languages, music, art, and home economics. But in math and science, women made up only about a quarter of the teachers at city junior highs and about 10 percent in high schools.