Photo/IllutrationThe Asahi Shimbun

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When a young woman from Ibaraki Prefecture decided to enroll in college, her grandfather tried to dissuade her, telling her, “women need not to go to universities.”

That’s a common story in Japan, where far fewer females than males go to college, due to the vicious circle of the male-dominated society and biased view that women need not study.

“There actually is gender discrimination,” said the 21-year-old woman, who is studying law at a private university in Tokyo.

The student joined a protest in August in front of Tokyo Medical University over the scandal in which its entrance exam scores were rigged to limit the number of female students.

“I felt then that the situation has improved but society is still dominated by men,” she said. “We cannot choose our gender by ourselves so one should not discriminate against women simply based on sex.”

The difference between the college enrollment ratios for male and female students has been shrinking every year. The percentage for females going to college stood at 50.1 percent in spring this year, exceeding 50 percent for the first time.

Still the rate for females is about 6 percentage points lower than the 56.3 percent for males. That means the gender disparity in Japan is significantly worse compared with other member states of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), where more female students than their male counterparts go to universities.

In addition, females attend universities more often than males only in Tokyo and Tokushima Prefectures across Japan and regional disparities are huge. The graduate school enrollment ratio for female students is one-third that for male students.

A factor behind the serious gender gap is said to be families’ deep-rooted thinking typical of the countryside that “daughters do not need to enroll in universities,” though colleges’ total admission slots are currently large enough to accommodate all applicants across Japan.

A 2015 survey by the Benesse Educational Research and Development Institute asked 3,200 mothers of children younger than elementary school age whether they expect their offspring to attend college.

The results showed that only 66.9 percent of respondents want their daughters to graduate from four-year colleges, while 79.7 percent said they anticipate their sons will finish that type of school in the future.

Momoe Waguri, an associate professor of education at Fukuoka Women's University, noted the Tokyo Medical University scandal and the college attendance rate difference between men and women having “the same root.”

“Both the rigging and enrollment gap close possibilities that women have,” Waguri said.

When Nishi-Nippon Railroad Co., based in Fukuoka, in June released an advertisement stating, “Please God, my daughter will go to a university within Fukuoka Prefecture,” Waguri called on the company to withdraw the ad.

“Why should only daughters study inside the prefecture?” she asked. “Such advertisements will promote a gender-related bias that women should stay near their parents so they can keep an eye on their daughters.”

Shinzo Araragi, a sociology professor at Sophia University who is well-versed in migration of people, who taught at a national university in the Kyushu region in southern Japan in the 1980s to 1990s, said families of female students actually hoped their daughters would continue living near them.

“My female students did very well,” Araragi said. “They did not try to go to more competitive universities in Tokyo and elsewhere because their conservative parents do not want them to leave their homes and believe that well-educated women will have difficulty finding partners to marry.”

Though Araragi noted “parents’ double standards in dealing with their daughters and sons differently have gradually been eliminated,” he also pointed out that parents still prefer to invest more in boys than girls.

“In the process of selecting for which children to spend a limited amount of money as economic disparities are widened, the college enrollment gap between men and women is reproduced,” he said.


The OECD estimates the private benefits from tertiary education by gender by country based on various elements, such as costs of tertiary education and the difference in lifetime earnings between individuals who go to universities and those who do not.

The data show the economic advantages of enrollment in universities and graduate schools.

According to the OECD’s “Education at a Glance 2018,” Japanese women receive less than one-ninth of the OECD's average of women's private benefits.

Japanese women’s benefits are also lower than one-13th of those for Japanese men. Japan's gender disparity is the worst among OECD members.

Even if highly educated, Japanese women are given fewer financial advantages than men as they often face difficulty continuing to work and finding jobs as permanent employees after having children.

Behind the deep-rooted view that “girls do not need to attend universities” is the difficult situation facing Japanese women.

Kazuo Yamaguchi, a social statistics professor at the University of Chicago, who is familiar with diversity, noted the Japan-style employment practice, which combines the permanent employment and age-based wage system to provide “security” with constant overtime work to “restrict” employees, has been, conversely, supported by stereotypes of gender roles that urge “women to stay at home,” helping create male-dominated workplaces.

“The current tendency to prefer males when selecting management personnel, doctors, college instructors and other advanced specialists has to be eliminated,” he said. “Women with the same education level and length of employment as men are given lower posts and wages.

“The trend weakens the motivation to invest in better education of women. It is economically irrational for society that it cannot take full advantage of various human resources.”

Data released by the OECD in 2014 showed that 65 percent of females and 52 percent of males attend universities on average.

While 33 countries, whose information is accessible, were covered, more males than females enroll in universities only in Japan and two other nations. The enrollment gap was the largest in Japan.

(This article was written by Azusa Mishima, Tomoko Yamashita and Mana Takahashi.)