Tokyo Medical University scandal is a throwback to when discrimination against women was the norm

Tokyo Medical University scandal is a throwback to when discrimination against women was the norm

Flabbergasted. That was my feeling last week reading the news of an example of brazen institutional sexism and fraud 33 years after the enactment of the Equal Employment Opportunity Law.

Each year since 2010, Tokyo Medical University fraudulently lowered the scores of female applicants who took the annual entrance exam, keeping the percentage of young women admitted at about 30 percent.

Only those who pass the school’s written multiple-choice exam can move on to the final short-essay-and-interview phase. The cap on number of admissions is set without reference to gender. This year 2,614 took the entrance exam, of which 61 percent were male and 39 female. The university took the women’s test scores and multiplied them by a coefficient less than 1 in order to reduce their scores across the board. This resulted in men comprising 67 percent of those passing phase one and 82 percent (141) of those passing both phases. Only 30 women (18 percent) managed to make it through to admission.

By 2010, the percentage of women gaining admission had skyrocketed to nearly 40 percent of the total. Many new female physicians leave the workplace for childbirth or child care, so some in the university apparently feared that too many women entering the ranks might lead to a dearth of qualified professionals. So some genius — a man, no doubt — had the bright idea of solving this problem by holding back women at the entrance exam stage. That is how the university has justified what it did.

The education ministry has stated: “A university can take responsibility for adjusting gender proportions if they make it explicit when they are recruiting for the entrance exams. If Tokyo Medical University made such an adjustment without explanation, then it is problematic.”

The media naturally have latched onto this issue since it came to light. Many people were angry and shocked. Women who failed this year’s entrance exam at the university wondered if they too had suffered from this unfair downgrade. They had spent so many sleepless nights, just like their male counterparts, studying to pass the test. Their efforts were betrayed.

Some spoke in anger, voices quivering. Even some male students who passed expressed frustration that they can’t have real confidence in themselves as students of this prestigious university since they may have squeaked in by taking the place of a more deserving female. The university has betrayed students of both genders.

Tired arguments resurrected

Part of what makes this a huge story is the financial, physical and mental cost involved in getting to the entrance exam in the first place.

Getting into medical school in Japan is tough in two ways. First, the level is simply very high, requiring one, two, three or even four years of devotion to study. Second, it is expensive. Private med school can cost you ¥20 million to 30 million ($180,000 to $270,000). A regular family of ordinary means cannot hope to pay for it.

Students going into private med school often are the children of doctors. Or at least they have the means. If they don’t, then public med school is the only choice. Even that can set your parents back a good ¥10 million.

And high school graduation cannot possibly prepare you in terms of the necessary knowledge for the entry test, so you’ll have to go to after-school prep school and study basically day and night. Of course, your family will have to cough up that tuition too. And that isn’t cheap either.

Some in the medical education world have known about and turned a blind eye to these universities who cheat women out of admission. Some say it has been an open secret.

“This is normal. All the schools are doing it,” said Dr. Ayako Nishikawa on the Aug. 5 edition of “Sunday Japon” on TBS. “If they just admit the best, the freshman class would be all female. Because girls are better. But then everybody will be ophthalmologists and dermatologists. Women can’t handle heavy people with hip dislocations.

“Few (women) become surgeons. After all, we need boys who will become surgeons. You can’t operate with a big belly. So at the end of the day, you’ve got to do something about gender ratios.”

Admittedly, she did at least recognize the need for such a gender adjustment to be announced.

While some criticized Nishikawa for promoting sexism, others echoed her and said she is simply relating the reality she sees as a physician. She is a plastic surgeon who has appeared numerous times on TV as a “celebrity doctor beauty.” Although her perspective might be different from ordinary physicians, there is no denying she is certified.

Or should that be certifiable?

Think of what she is saying. She looks at the world of medical study and says that affirmative action for men is fine and dandy. Then she justifies this position by enumerating women’s supposed physiological characteristics: They are weaker and have less stamina than men, will leave the profession once pregnant and so on. She related the lack of doctors in emergency rooms, surgery and other fields and claims that equal treatment will damage Japan’s medical system.

But do data from other countries back up Dr. Nishikawa’s assertions? Japan had the lowest proportion of female doctors of any Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development country (see graph), below the U.S. and South Korea. At the other end of the rankings, Latvia and Estonia lead the pack with more than 70 percent of doctors being women.

So her claims don’t hold up under universal scrutiny. Other countries seem to be doing fine with very high percentages of women physicians.

To the extent that she is right about Japan, it reflects more the miserable working conditions Japanese doctors are subject to. Men who have stamina and care nothing about work-life balance are the only ones perhaps that can manage the job.

Instead of trying to remedy that problem, Tokyo Medical University manipulated test scores to rob spots from women who had burned with passion to become doctors, studied their cardiopulmonary systems out and passed some of the most challenging tests in Japan. Imagine going through all that only to be cheated at the end of it.

A legal battle already won

It’s difficult to look at this from a labor law point of view. I first must remind myself what century we are living in.

Once upon a time, statistics were used to justify unequal treatment. This was called statistical discrimination. What it meant was that since women were more likely, from a statistical point of view, to work fewer years, get pregnant/give birth (much more likely), raise children and quit their jobs, therefore corporations were justified in 1) not spending the nonrecoupable resources on training them, 2) in not hiring so many women and 3) in treating men and women differently.

Before 1985, many corporations used this statistical discrimination to justify introducing internal systems that forced women to resign upon marriage and systems of retirement that differed according to gender.

In one case ruled on in 1969, Tokyu Kikan Industry defended its system of retirement that pushed men out at 55 and women out at 30 thusly: “Continuing each year to raise, across the board, the wages of female employees hired to do auxiliary work that doesn’t require special skills or experience just like the wages of (male) workers who do the main work and work that requires skill and experience makes no sense. It would not only lower employee motivation; it would interfere with efforts to streamline management. So, setting the female employee retirement age at 30 makes sense.”

But 1985 saw the enactment of the Equal Employment Opportunity Law (Kinto Ho), which prohibited discrimination from the recruiting stage, through hiring and to retirement. A gender-based retirement system was clearly outlawed by the Supreme Court in 1981 after a plaintiff sued Nissan Motor. Even today, however, employers find loopholes to treat female workers unfairly. But at least there is a clear legal framework that makes justifying gender discrimination impossible.

Tokyo Medical University discriminated against students who will be future workers. Many people, I think, have the impression that the highly specialized, “certificate-only” world of doctors and lawyers is more naturally gender-equal than the domain where ordinary private corporations dwell. My friend even became a lawyer because she thought she’d be shielded from the harsh sexist corporate world. I was shocked by this test score scandal and even more by the ho-hum reaction to it from many commentators.

We should really take a long, hard look at how unfair this score fraud is to female students, just as the corporate quit-upon-marriage and gender-based retirement age systems of yore were. Most importantly of all, the women who were bumped to make way for the boys need to be given immediate and proper redress.

Japan’s courts don’t share Mio Sugita’s views on supporting LGBT people, precedents show

Lawmaker Mio Sugita of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party found herself embroiled in controversy when the August edition of Shincho 45 was released on July 18. “Support for LGBTs has gone too far” screamed the headline of her article in the magazine.

This hard-right politician is already infamous online for her claim that the wartime network of sexual slavery serving the Imperial Japanese Army, euphemistically known as the “comfort women” system, is a fabrication of the Japanese left, and for attacking Koreans with such gems as “They spread their lies throughout the world.”

To mothers who lament the dearth of preschools available in Japan and demand that the central government take quick action to rectify the situation, she says: “That is your problem. You do something about it.”

She recognizes herself as conservative, right-wing and a patriot, and expresses animosity — even hatred — for the left, even penning a book titled “Why I Fight the Left.” The book heaps abuse on labor unions and praises nuclear power, casinos and the high-level professional overtime pay exemptions that will go into effect next April. Yet she loves Japan’s “beautiful culture and history.”

In her recent essay, she wrote: “Will people agree to have their taxes used on LGBT couples? They cannot have children, so they are unproductive.”

Japan does not recognize same-sex marriage. Local governments, on the other hand, have spearheaded efforts to use local ordinances to recognize same-sex partnerships. These include Shibuya and Setagaya wards in Tokyo and the cities of Iga in Mie Prefecture and Takarazuka in Hyogo.

Tolerance within society for the LGBT community is growing rapidly. IBM Japan, Kirin, Rakuten, Japan Tobacco and other corporations are moving ahead in instituting policies to provide the same level of special paid leave for marriage, childbirth, home care and other life events to same-sex couples as to those between a woman and man.

Unwelcome on golf course

Let me introduce to you a recent verdict to give an idea of what Japan’s courts are saying about LGBT people.

A golf course in the Shizuoka city of Kosai (whose name has not been released by the courts) refused membership to a corporate executive who had changed her registered gender from male to female. In Japan, this requires you to assert that you suffer from gender dysphoria. She sued the golf course for damages due to wrongful conduct, a violation of Japan’s Civil Code.

Shizuoka District Court ruled on Sept. 8, 2014, and the Tokyo High Court handed down a verdict on July 1, 2015. Both agreed with a portion of the claims and ordered the defendant to pay the hefty sum (by Japanese jurisprudent standards) of ¥1 million.

In its verdict, the appellate court clearly condemns discrimination against LGBT, although in a way that is likely jarring (or even maddening) to some: “Society understands quite well that being LGBT is not a matter simply of a hobby or predilection, but rather an illness that they suffer regardless of their will. The intolerability of irrational treatment based on the reason of gender dysphoria or on its treatment is the same as the intolerability of irrational treatment for the reason of other illnesses.”

One thing to consider is that the golf course has a bathing area, changing rooms and other “sensitive” facilities. The high court noted that the plaintiff is physically and in terms of appearance a woman, and that when she visited three times and used the bathing area and the changing room, there were no problems. Whatever damage the golf course operator envisioned it might suffer, the court said, was “nothing more than abstract fear.”

The opinion of other members of the golf course had no effect on the verdicts. The operator surveyed its members about the issue, and some 60 percent agreed with refusing her membership. The courts investigated the survey, however, and noted that it was conducted after the suit had begun and that questioners pushed respondents to answer in a way that was advantageous to them. “The results of the survey should not be given much weight,” read the verdict.

Even if the survey had accurately reflected the opinion of the members, the courts ruled that customers’ opinions could not justify discrimination.

Transgender woman wins

OK, let’s turn now to a proper labor law verdict. But to do that, we’ll have to go back a way, to 2002.

The plaintiff, a transgender woman, was working at Company S. She had yet to undergo reassignment surgery, but she had been diagnosed with gender dysphoria and had begun treatment. Although she hadn’t yet changed her registered gender, she had changed her name to a more stereotypically female one and wore women’s clothes to work.

Company S dismissed her for violating their dress code. She sued for reinstatement, back wages and bonus. Tokyo District Court ruled in her favor and overturned the dismissal.

The court ruled that the employer could not prohibit an employee from dressing as a woman at work, or transfer her for doing so, if she would suffer great emotional stress by not dressing as such due to gender dysphoria. The employer also could not do so just because clients and customers object or feel uncomfortable, provided those feelings do not rise to the level that threaten to seriously hinder the fulfillment of tasks at work.

Case law remains sparse, but it seems that if LGBT people really want to take their grievances to court, the courts believe that employers must take the proper treatment of the LGBT community seriously.

The Sagamihara parallel

LGBT people account for 7.6 percent of the Japanese population, according to a 2015 survey by Dentsu Diversity Lab. This estimate means that 1 in 13 Japanese are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. That means that any reasonably sized workplace is likely to have at least one LGBT member.

Sugita ‘s comment really irritates me. I cannot understand how a politician, or even a member of our society, can stand there and deny the existence of someone because they cannot procreate.

The defendant in the appalling massacre on July 26, 2016, of 19 severely disabled people in Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture, said: “Those who can do nothing for themselves are a bane to society. On behalf of society, I did only what everyone else is thinking anyway.” He was confident in his pure fight in the name of justice.

His rationalization has something in common with Sugita’s comment. She might plausibly object that she has not called for the murder of LGBT people, so she shouldn’t be lumped together with a self-confessed mass killer. But at root, Sugita, like the Sagamihara suspect, denigrates and negates the existence of the “useless” human beings of the world.

Sugita has a daughter. What if she someday comes out to her mother? “I didn’t raise my daughter to be unproductive,” we can imagine her huffing.

Must our society be so rigid and conformist? Sugita claims she loves Japan’s history and culture more than any other politician, so she should know and be proud of the fact that ancient Japan was a hotbed of all manner of hugger-mugger and promiscuity — much of which was not at all “productive” in Sugita’s bizarre sense of the word.

Hifumi Okunuki teaches at Sagami Women’s University and serves as executive president of Tozen Union. She can be reached at Labor Pains appears in print on the last Monday of the month. Your comments and Community story ideas:

Devilish Japanese TV drama makes a mockery of workplace rights

Devilish Japanese TV drama makes a mockery of workplace rights

“You have the right to quit this company.”

The heroine utters this line at the climax of every episode of a TV drama series currently airing on Saturday nights, “Miss Devil” (“Devil of Human Resources”).

The setting is Kyoa Fire Insurance. Out of nowhere, a leggy beauty with sharp eyes and even sharper eyeliner arrives on the scene. The firm’s president reportedly headhunted her to overhaul corporate culture at Kyoa. Rumor has it that Mako Tsubaki made her name in the U.S. as a “termination consultant,” moving from place to place and firing people with outrageous abandon, cruelty and callousness (not unlike the character played by George Clooney in the 2009 film “Up in the Air”).

Miss Devil has a past shrouded in mystery, and employees are terrified of her — particularly one new hire, Hiroshi Saito. He is moved to a department whose sole mission is to find employees to downsize.

Each episode drops another crumb on a trail that seems to lead to some dark secret lurking in Tsubaki and the firm’s past, a secret that the final episode will surely reveal.

Famed actress Nanao (who prefers to go by one name) plays the main role. A former “race queen” (a Japanese term for grid girl, brolly dolly, or pit babe, i.e. a promotional model that hangs around at motor racing events), Nanao, at 172 cm, is quite tall for a Japanese woman — taller than many men. People say she is “nine heads tall,” and that is no exaggeration. What a stunning figure she has! And how intimidating it would be to stand next to her (I’m only 152 cm). We can understand why she was cast to play this cold-blooded ice queen.

The devil enlists the young Hiroshi to decide who should be fired next. In real life it makes no sense to target new hires for dismissal, but this is TV drama world, so they do. Incidentally, some fans have gleefully detected an S&M theme with the young, cute and shy Hiroshi juxtaposed against the tall, super-mini-skirted older woman/dominatrix.

OK, OK, you’re right: A TV drama is, at the end of the day, nothing more than mind-candy entertainment. Maybe it doesn’t even deserve to be contemplated or analyzed. Perhaps it’s my occupational hazard, but whenever I see a drama about labor issues, I cannot help but think about these things.

Blaming the victim

Although each standalone episode tackles tough issues facing workers today, the last scene of each episode destroys any semblance of authenticity as Miss Devil struts in her high heels onto the scene to thwart the villain and save the day.

The seven episodes broadcast thus far have included the following storylines:

A woman whose husband has terminal cancer is being sexually harassed by her boss. She needs the job to pay her husband’s medical bills, so she endures it.

A middle manager in his 40s must clean up the mess left by a young man in his 20s who spends all his time enjoying himself (heaven forbid) due to the company’s new no-overtime policy. His unfinished work ends up on others’ desks. The middle-aged man’s frustration eventually explodes.

A pregnant worker is exploited by her male boss to showcase the company’s woke attitude when it comes to women. She begs her boss to “let” her quit, but he refuses, so as to protect the firm’s we-don’t-commit-maternity-harassment reputation.

So who in the above episodes got the ax? (Warning! Spoilers begin here:) The woman whose husband has terminal cancer; the man in his 40s who cleans up his irresponsible junior’s mess; and — you guessed it — the pregnant woman.

So why do these workers who did nothing wrong — who were, in fact, being victimized — get fired? Young Hiroshi wonders the same thing and asks her directly.

Fortunately, Tsubaki clears up any confusion. The employee whose husband has cancer, for example, had fraudulently misrepresented her performance and even forged contracts in order to increase her wages. Tsubaki knew it (somehow) from the very beginning. The woman, now exposed, turns away and sobs quietly. Tsubaki faces her and says, “You have the right to quit this company,” then lays a pen and paper on the desk. The weeping woman writes “Resignation notice.”

The woman’s sexual harasser boss doesn’t get away scot-free, though. He tries to hug Tsubaki. She says deadpan: “You do this (sexual harassment) again, and you’ll get even worse that what you’re about to get.” And with that, in her high heels, she delivers a perfect roundhouse kick to the boss.

Young Hiroshi goes and meets the woman some time after her resignation, expecting her to be depressed. But in fact, she’s quite relieved. She had shocked herself by going as far as to commit fraud to pay her husband’s medical bills, but now she was free of that and free of the sexual harassment she had endured — and free to spend what little remaining time she had with her ill husband. (No mention is made of how the bills are now getting paid despite no wage income.) Hiroshi sees the joy in the woman’s face and realizes that Miss Devil is in fact a heroine.

The other stories are similar: Each firing has some deeper purpose that in the end benefits the hapless victim. This authoritarian lesson boils down to “It’s for your own good” and “I know what’s good for you more than you do yourself.” In each case, Miss Devil delivers the liberating line deadpan: “You have the right to resign from this company.”

Firing is your friend

What the heck? She roundhouses the bad guy but drives his victim out of the company? Yet each time she fires an employee or pressures an employee to resign, the ordeal is portrayed as a good deed and even a kindness to the victim.

She’s unreal — a cardboard cutout superhero, a female Ultraman or Power Ranger. The show’s writers insinuate that this “ax woman” is the only one who can expose the injustices and bullying happening at the company, and that her cruel persona is necessary to give her the opening to fight the good fight.

I cannot accept this whole premise. Of course, workers have the right to resign. But that choice is up to the individual’s free will, rather than something they should be pressured into. Another right is the right to continue to work at a workplace. Leaving is not the only solution to every job-related problem.

Each problem must be solved at the workplace, among workers. Tsubaki lacks that imagination. She sees — and we are asked to see — separation as the cure-all for workplace blues. Many viewers might wish a Miss Devil worked at their company to deal justice to a hated boss, but one person alone cannot create a good workplace environment.

Another premise of this drama that I find unnatural is that the fired (or forced-to-resign) employees all come to feel thankful for Tsubaki’s tough love. Few firings result in such happy endings in real life, in my experience. It is difficult even to fight against unfair dismissals. The show’s creators are perhaps trying to brainwash management and workers alike into thinking that dismissals make people happy.

There’s also the gender issue. Tsubaki does a great job in smashing the fixed role assigned to women in Japanese companies: smiling, polite, thoughtful. She shuns all politesse and tatemae (pretense) and represents the polar opposite of the blushing coquette image that many women in Japan cultivate so well. Some viewers may want to emulate her calculated cool. I can understand this, too.

But she is the enemy of her co-workers at Kyoa Fire. Recall that she was headhunted precisely to help heads roll. She is an outsider coming in to rip apart the workforce at the behest of management.

Another assumption is that the women who were already in the company (and not exposed to transmogrifying foreign/U.S. influence) are helpless without the aid of this outside heroine. The drama’s loud, obnoxious message flies in the face of the reality that women can and do band together in solidarity to improve conditions at workplaces every day. Together, these women hold the real power, not one tough cookie of a superheroine.

Abe walks a tightrope on Japan’s foreign worker policy

The number of foreign nationals working in Japan reached its highest-ever level in October 2017 at 1,278,670, according to a study by the labor ministry ( The foreign proportion of the population remains tiny compared to that in European countries or North America, yet the impact of the growing ranks of foreign workers is considerable in Japan, where the myth of ethnic homogeneity stubbornly persists (despite the existence of minorities, such as the Ainu and Okinawan people). What is this impact?

Well, that depends on the type of citizen being impacted upon. Let’s divide the citizenry into three broad categories based on their basic attitude toward foreign residents in general.

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National Labor Board Upholds Ruling Against JCFL


The Central Labor Relations Commission ruled on Thursday March 29th that Japan College of Foreign Languages (JCFL, a division of Bunsai Gakuen) had illegally interfered with Tozen Union’s leafleting actions in front of the school.

Tozen Union and its JCFL Local argued that management interfered with legitimate union activity by sending employees out to block the union from passing out leaflets at two separate leafletings in 2013.

In January of 2016, Tokyo Labor Relations commission ruled in favor of the union’s petition, ordering management to cease all such interference and to post a large sign apologizing to the union at the workplace for ten days.  Management immediately appealed.  That appeal was formally rejected on Thursday.

The victory was thanks to the relentless struggle of the local.

Lessons on life, love and compassionate leave from a silly old bunny

This month I will explore compassionate leave — called kibiki kyūka in Japanese — the days you take off after losing a close family member. I chose this topic because I recently suffered a string of painful losses. Please bear with me as I relate to you what has happened to my loved ones over the past couple months.

Do you remember my granny bunny? I told you about her and the need for pet loss leave exactly a year ago in my February 2017 column, “Japanese need to take more leave, starting with when beloved pets pass.” Readers from around the world wrote to me in response to that article, empathizing, expressing warm wishes, like “I wish I could have taken off work after I lost my hamster” and “I feel such sadness when I remember my cat’s death.”

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Court cases shine a light on Japan’s problem with paternity leave



The Japanese government wants to raise the number of fathers taking paternity leave from 2016’s 3 percent to 13 percent by 2020, but two recent court cases show how hard it can be for some fathers to take their legally mandated paternity leave — especially if difficult pregnancies complicate the situation before the child is born.

On paper, mothers and fathers are entitled to take child care leave (ikuji kyūka) at the same time for up to a year and receive two-thirds salary for the first six months and half salary for the second six months. However, eligibility depends on having worked for your current employer at least a year and expecting to be employed a year later.

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外国人にも無期転換逃れ? 仏政府公式「日仏学院」やベネッセ子会社で労使紛争














Why Japanese people keep working themselves to death

TOKYO — Years after losing his son, Itsuo Sekigawa is still in shock, grief-stricken and angry.

Straight out of college in 2009, his son Satoshi proudly joined a prestigious manufacturer, but within a year he was dead. Investigators said working extreme hours drove him to take his own life.

The young engineer fell victim to the Japanese phenomenon of “karoshi,” or death from overwork.

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