engineers and scientists who want to pursue academic careers in Japan
face almost insurmountable obstacles, but increasingly they're
By Lucille Craft
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 combustionwork that has been
widely published around the world and earned her official kudos along
with many invitations to speak overseas.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 samuraiand
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 yenwhich translates into about $46,000she
had sued for. Ogoshi has appealed to the Osaka High Court, which was
scheduled to render its verdict earlier this year.
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,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Craft is a freelance writer based in Tokyo.
She can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.
By the Numbers
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 biotechnology has drawn record numbers of women to study biologythe
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.
has been pushing, so far without success, to get more women hired as
secondary school science teachersa 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.