Photo/IllutrationWomen rush to the “dohyo” ring at a sumo tournament in Maizuru, Kyoto Prefecture, on April 4 to assist Mayor Ryozo Tatami after he collapsed. (From video taken by a reader)

The glass ceiling in Japan for women is thick, high and harder to crack than in many other countries.

This is the grim reality confronting Japanese women. This year has witnessed a furry of incidents pointing to the obstinate and invisible barrier.

Looking back on these distressing episodes, the most notable fact is that they all failed to ignite a widespread commitment in our society to tackle the root causes of gender discrimination.

Symptomatic of the problem is a string of scandals concerning discriminatory practices against female applicants in entrance examinations of nearly a dozen medical schools, including Tokyo Medical University and Juntendo University.

These universities gave lower scores to those applicants, among other things. Such acts obviously stacked the deck against female students and were clear violations of human rights.

A Tokyo Medical University official attempted to justify the practice of favoring male applicants in entrance exams by saying female doctors tend to leave the medical profession due to family circumstances, such as giving birth and rearing children. This comment underscored how deep-rooted this problem is.

A tendency to exclude women from workplaces instead of trying to improve the working environment for women is not limited to the medical community.

There have also been episodes indicating that women are not treated as equals in society in general. A sexual harassment scandal involving the top bureaucrat at the Finance Ministry revealed that many males view their female colleagues not from the viewpoint of their professional duties, but in terms of their sex.

But the political community has proved to be shockingly insensitive to what is a serious problem. Finance Minister Taro Aso even said the bureaucrat “may have been framed.”

A Lower House lawmaker described female Diet members who gathered to protest against the scandal as “far from” having to worry about being sexually harassed.

It seems sexist scandals barely last one or two news cycles. They make headlines but seldom, if ever, lead to an effective solution.

Consider, for instance, an incident in which women who were trying to save the life of the mayor, who suddenly collapsed during a sumo event in April, were urged to leave the dohyo because of a tradition that bars women from entering the sumo ring.

The Japan Sumo Association chairman apologized, saying the request was “inappropriate.”

Even though a group of female mayors demanded a change in the long-standing tradition, however, there has been no serious debate on the issue.

Japan was ranked 110th among 149 countries in global gender equality rankings for 2018, compiled by the Swiss nonprofit foundation World Economic Forum.

The principal factor behind Japan’s poor performance is the relatively low social status of women.

In particular, Japan was ranked 130th and 129th in terms of women’s shares in parliamentary seats and executive positions at government agencies and companies, respectively.

As a step to narrow the gender gap in politics, a law was enacted this spring to promote parity between male and female candidates for Diet and local assembly elections. Half a year after, however, political parties are showing few signs of making serious efforts to tackle this issue.

The wide gender gap in politics continues to overshadow various social systems. Separate family names for married couples have yet to be allowed, for instance. The tax system remains harsh for single mothers.

These problems, perpetuated by policies wedded to outdated notions about family, are narrowing women's options.

Next year, the first unified local elections and Upper House poll since the candidate parity law came into force will be held. Voters can express their will through their choices at the polls.

A society where women are denied equal opportunities must also be hard for underprivileged and minority members.

We wonder whether we will spot signs of real change next year.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Dec. 20