In Japan, there are no longer expectations for Japanese women to produce a son. Daughters are cherished as much as their brothers, and girls don’t have to sit back and watch as boys are served the best food or take a bath first.

Despite this, treating children differently based on their gender is still widely accepted at various levels of Japanese society, starting in early childhood. But how does this systemic bias play out in the lives of children and shape their expectations as they grow? As adults setting a precedent for children, perhaps we should take a moment to rethink where we stand on this.

Boys first, girls next

Foreign mother Ingrid Morita has a son attending a Japanese kindergarten. Following several months of shutdown due to Covid-19, the kindergarten was splitting classes for two weeks during the recent soft re-opening. Ingrid was stunned to learn that classes would be divided by gender.

“Boys would come three mornings and two afternoons a week, and girls would come three afternoons and two mornings. When I called to ask why, I was told that the reason for the split is that ‘boys can’t concentrate as well as girls after lunch, so they would come more often in the morning,’” she says.

Perhaps the kindergarten’s decision should not have come as a surprise. A discussion on a social media group for foreign mothers, many of whom have children in the Japanese education system, revealed that there are still schools and kindergartens up and down the country clinging to the traditional way of making attendance — boys called first, followed by girls. There seems to be no reason beyond “this is the way it has always been done.”

The practice also permeates into school entrance and graduation ceremonies, as the boys march in before the girls. When one foreign mother asked why the boys went first at her son’s kindergarten, the principal quipped, “Well, you have a boy, so why does it bother you?”

“Treating children differently based on their gender is still accepted at various levels of Japanese society.”

How does this make the girls feel? “I noticed the ‘boys first then girls’ order when my daughter started elementary (school). I brought it up as a problem and they gave the odd excuse that it was because boys are taller than girls and it makes for better pictures!” says Laura Ashley, a mother-of-two. “My daughter is a stickler for rules, so any messages she gets about gender roles in school are taken to heart, and I worry it will cause her to set limits on her own potential.”

Sometimes a fresh perspective can bring change, as experienced by another mother called Debbra. Shocked to see all the boys entering first at her son’s elementary school entrance ceremony, she requested a meeting with the school principal. “I was met with nervous laughter and generic responses, but at least I spoke up. Two years later when my daughter entered the same school, I nearly cried to see her walk in fifth in line — in other words, alphabetically. Change was happening,” she reports.

Flawed gender education

However, given Japan’s long history as a patriarchal society, widespread systemic change is not merely a matter of applying Western values to Japanese education, cautions Aki Sakuma, a professor at Keio University. Sakuma, who researches teacher education programs both in Japan and the U.S., says, “We really need to be looking at education for teachers about gender issues, from the preschool level and up. However, we don’t yet have such programs or enough people qualified to teach them in Japan.”

Gender education is still generally only available in specialized programs at the tertiary level, and thus beyond the reach of early childhood and elementary school educators. Sakuma also points out that it is usually men who occupy positions of power and make decisions about education.

This is very apparent in the course of my own work. I write and edit educational materials for Japan’s English-teaching market at various levels. For texts and materials aimed at children up to junior high school age, care is usually taken to balance male and female characters. There seems to be a marked shift at the high school level. With all-important university entrance exams on the horizon, many of the materials for this level are written by university professors and then passed to native English speakers for editing. Judging by the overwhelming propensity to have male subjects in these materials, the writers are most probably men. Sometimes addressing this imbalance in the text is a matter of changing “he” to “she,” or sending “Anne” on the business trip instead of “John.” 

At other times, however, more than cosmetic changes are required. A recent example was from a high school textbook: In a section about famous people, such as athletes, politicians, inventors and business leaders, every example sentence was about a man. I wrote several alternative suggestions with female protagonists, and the publishers eventually added two of them to the final version. A minor change, but as a woman and mother, it felt like a big victory to me.

“Sometimes addressing this imbalance in the text is a matter of changing ‘he’ to ‘she,’ or sending ‘Anne’ on the business trip instead of ‘John.'”

If the people controlling the education system in this country are mostly men, what are the ramifications at the tertiary level? In 2018, a scandal erupted among some of the major medical universities. It was revealed that faculties had manipulated entrance exam results to ensure that the majority of successful applicants were male. Once the scandal broke, an education ministry survey showed there had been more successful men than women at almost 80% of the medical schools over the previous six years.

Some of the universities initially defended the practice of rigged entrance exams, arguing that medicine is a punishing discipline and that women doctors tend to quit when they have families. However, isn’t this blaming the effect rather than the cause? We should address the shortage of women in positions of authority and create policies to better support young female doctors.

Against this background, it is probably not surprising that young women in Japan tend to choose social sciences and education — two fields with 66% female representation — over engineers and natural sciences, for example.

Flawed gender representation, too

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe showed he was aware of the intrinsic value of promoting female economic power with his “Womenomics” campaign seven years ago. However, while female participation in the workforce has risen under Abe to more than 70%, more than half of women are employed in a part-time, contract or temporary capacity. This can have a serious impact on women’s economic well-being, as we are beginning to witness now amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Lacking the relative security that comes with a full-time position, more women than men have been laid off and left vulnerable amid the current coronavirus-affected economic downturn.

Amid this, the ironic news about Abe’s recent decision to delay his Womenomics goals by up to a decade doesn’t inspire confidence that there will be improvements anytime soon.

Different expectations or treatment for children and students based on gender also impacts on Japan’s small but growing number of trans or gender fluid youngsters. Rachel Teramoto believes it has caused her kindergarten-aged daughter to feel othered. 

“The most harmful outcome of gender-based segregation in education is the eventual suppression of children’s free self-expression and self-realization.”

“At home, she was a girl and dressed how she wanted and was accepted for the things she liked, but at school, she would then have these things that forced her to be a boy or be with the boys,” says Rachel. “For young kids like my daughter, I feel that gendering of nonessential things can be really detrimental.

A mother of three school-age children also weighs in. “I’ve often wondered how much the stark gender divide my (now older, gender-fluid) child encountered in kindergarten affected her decision to identify as a boy at that time. She had not expressed anything like before but seemed to conclude she must be a boy after being constantly told that the things she liked were “boy” things. For trans/non-binary/fluid kids, the division of seemingly everything, every toy, color, job, etc. into ‘boy’ or ‘girl’ is especially hard.”

Yuki Nakao is the co-founder of WomEmpowered International (WE Int.), a Japan-based organization for young women who are dedicated to promoting gender equality. “The most harmful outcome of gender-based segregation in education — whether systemic or cultural — is the eventual suppression of children’s free self-expression and self-realization,” Nakao points out. “Unless educators are careful in what they say, what they teach and what they provide to their students, they are reproducing and widening the political, economic and social gender gap.”

Despite being a major economic power, Japan ranks at a lowly 121st out of 153 nations in the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index as of December 2019. It is undoubtedly vital that we continue to improve the position of women in the workforce, but isn’t it equally important to help all children in Japan get off on an equal footing by addressing the entrenched gender bias in various aspects of the education system?