What was once seen as affirmative action to include more girls in Japanese classrooms is now flunking hundreds of them every year.
Following a long history of gender segregation at schools and women learning far less academically than their male peers, many Tokyo public schools after WWII implemented a rule to make classrooms completely equal: 50 percent women, 50 percent men.
At first, it worked. Women studied alongside men, took more science and math classes instead of sewing lessons, and imagined a future for themselves beyond the kitchen—possibilities denied to girls under an imperial Japan that maintained strict gender roles.
Then girls started to score higher than boys on admissions tests. So much so, in fact, that schools have in recent years had to fail more girls to maintain the equal gender split.
“The Tokyo public school system doesn’t want too many female students, so they’re consciously making the passing score higher for girls than boys,” Yasuko Sasa, who is part of a group of lawyers calling for an end to this policy, told VICE World News.
“Gender should have nothing to do with high school entrance exams, but it’s now a significant factor in whether a student is admitted,” she said.
The gender quota policy in Tokyo public schools was first enforced in 1950, as a part of Japan’s education reform post-WWII aimed at providing more educational opportunities for women.
Before the war, education was largely gender-segregated. Girls had fewer school options and generally received lower quality education. Female students could seldom take foreign language classes, and their science and math lessons were significantly simpler compared to those of their male peers.
After the war, gender equality in education was written into the Japanese constitution drafted by Allied powers. The government then set about increasing the number of girls in schools. Education officials did that in part by placing girls in existing public schools, whose students were almost exclusively male at the time.
But the seats weren’t always split evenly between the genders. When the gender quota system was first passed, some schools allocated more spots in entrance exams to boys than girls, sometimes even at a 3-to-1 ratio.
Today, more than half of all public high schools in Tokyo maintain a 50-50 gender ratio, according to the Tokyo Board of Education. Some schools select 10 percent of their student body regardless of gender, and split the remaining 90 percent down the middle.
According to Misaki Onodera, an assistant professor at Chiba University studying what she called the “obscure” quota system, the policy was structured to favor men until the ‘80s because a high school’s prestige was determined by how many students went on to the University of Tokyo, Japan’s most elite university.
“At the time, women weren’t expected to advance their education; they became homemakers or went to junior colleges,” she told VICE World News.
The biases against girls were plain for everyone to see.
“Boys are held as the norm in education,” Yasuko Muramatsu, the president of the nonprofit Japan Association for Women’s Education, told VICE World News. “Students’ role models—the teachers and principals—are overwhelmingly men in Japan, unlike other countries where there are many female educators. Leadership positions are meant for men; that’s the kind of image they project at schools.”
The preference for male students could be seen in matters as mundane as taking attendance teachers would always call male pupils’ names before their female classmates’, Muramatsu said.
Education is seen as one of the key determinants of one’s social status in Japan. But attaining higher education is still disproportionately a masculine goal—at the University of Tokyo, only 20 percent of students were female in 2018. The gap is even greater in the science and math departments.
Now, a policy that was once effectively making classrooms equal is requiring that women score much higher than male applicants in a test considered the biggest factor in admissions. Girls who don’t meet this elevated bar must settle for lower-ranking public schools, or attend a private institution their families must pay for out of pocket. In some cases, an extra 243 points on an already perfect exam is needed—a literally impossible task. And the opacity of the admission system means parents wouldn’t know if their children failed to get into a school because of the gender quota—students just either pass or fail.
Muramatsu believes that the gender quota offered a good solution to the early educational discrepancies of post-war Japan, but the policy should have been abandoned once women had equal access to education.
Part of the hesitancy in immediately abolishing the gender quota came from some school administrators’ worry that female students would overwhelm schools, thereby jeopardizing boys’ education. In a survey taken by the Tokyo Board of Education last year, 61.6 percent of middle school principals thought there were no issues with the current quota system; about 82.7 percent of principals felt it necessary to keep the policy.
“We have to keep the quota to save space for male students,” one high school principal was quoted as saying in Asahi Shimbun.
Resistance to change has also come from private school educators, who worry that abolishing the quota system would decrease student enrollment at Tokyo’s numerous for-profit private schools, many of which are girls-only.
Only 40.1 percent of schools are public in Tokyo, the only prefecture in Japan to have more private institutions. The capital’s concentration of wealth meant there was greater demand for elite schools. Outside Tokyo, no other prefecture institutes a gender quota.
Onodera, of Chiba University, said the quota system was instituted to placate private school educators, but it is now failing to meet the needs of students.
“Some girls have to give up on their dream school because they weren’t allowed in, despite having passed the exams. That’s a problem,” Onodera said.
Calls to action from gender rights groups, such as the Japan Association for Women’s Education, have pushed the Tokyo Board of Education to implement changes.
The board estimated the admission of women would rise by 3 percent if the rule was eliminated. But instead of removing the quotas, starting next year public schools will select 10 percent of their students regardless of gender, while the rest will remain equally split between men and women, a model that some schools are already operating under.
But for critics like Muramatsu, change can’t come fast enough.
“The proposed solution, where schools slowly get rid of the gender quota, isn’t enough. I thought it’d change in three years, but now the Board of Education wants to see the results of gradual change. But what about the girls negatively affected now?” Muramatsu said.
Japan’s shrinking population, which is causing a drop in student enrollment overall, should push educators to reimagine the education system entirely, the assistant professor Onodera said.
“Schools are not for the past, not for one to wallow in nostalgia. It’s for the betterment of future generations. And policymakers are dragging their feet,” she said.
Instead, students should be able to independently choose a private or public school, Onodera said. She added that, above all, the freedom of choice for matters relating to their education is the truest sign of equality.