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By RongXuan Tan

Fly with beautiful girls from Todai! This promotional campaign by travel agency H.I.S in which rich travellers are offered a chance to be accompanied by a beautiful Todai girl on the plane came under fire recently. Such blatant objectification of women gratifyingly received widespread criticism from the public, but looking deeper, we realise that the girls participating in this campaign also appear in pictorial books of beautiful Todai girls released and sold by a Todai circle known as Todai Bijo Zukan, not only for internal consumption but for the public as well. It is said that they do so to show that Todai female students are not simply bookworms, but the question then is what is wrong with just being scholars and why is there a need to show that female Todai students can be beautiful as well?

This is just one manifestation of a larger problem in Japanese society: restrictive social norms regarding women and femininity which have been impressed upon girls since their youths and how most of the public ascribe to them, giving rise to a patriarchal and chauvinistic society, and choices made by Japanese women may just be a reflection of social norms.

It will come as no surprise for many to know that the University of Tokyo’s ratio of male to female students is heavily skewed, with the female population comprising less than 20% of the entire student population. In contrast, the PEAK program has an almost 50-50 ratio of male and female students. Most prestigious universities worldwide have roughly the same number of students of each gender. Why then, is the gender ratio so imbalanced in Todai? Are Japanese women just not as intelligent as Japanese men and are thus unable to gain admission into Japan’s most prestigious university? Or is it simply the female high school students’ choice not to come to Todai? And if so, how much of that choice is really a choice and free from social construct?

A second year Todai female student explains that even she herself debated whether to come to Todai or attend a local women’s  university. Female Todai students are said to have poorer dating and marriage prospects as many Japanese men do not like women who are as or  more accomplished than they are, and the alternative option of becoming a housewife – the “ideal job” for women propagated by Japanese society – and not working makes coming to a top university unnecessary. These reasons turn Japanese girls away from applying to Todai in the first place.

Looking at the wider Japanese society as a whole, restrictions on women’s civil liberties have been eliminated since the end of World War II. In this society, women are theoretically free to pursue their dreams. However, gender equality in Japan still lags far behind. According to the 2015 study by the World Economic Forum, Japan remains near the bottom of the gender gap ranking with one of the worst gender equality in the developed world, coming in 101 out of 142 countries, even below less developed countries like Kenya and Bangladesh. Female participation in the labour force in Japan is 63%, far lower than in other affluent  countries. When women have their first child, 70% of them stop working for a decade or more, compared with just 30% in America; most of them do not return to the workforce. Instead, they become housewives, looking after the house, taking on child-care duties and attending to elderly parents. One might argue that women have the freedom to choose for themselves whether or not to become career women or housewives or anything else, but similarly, how much does societal pressure influence these decisions or even restrict them?

Why then, do Japanese women not rise against such societal norms and pressures and overcome their subordination to men? One of the answers put forth by french philosopher Simone De Beauvoir is that women are unwilling to give up all the advantages this subordination brings. In exchange for their subordination, men provide women with protection, allowing them to avoid the risks of having to achieve things on their own. In other words, women are not simply oppressed by a patriarchal society but have an agency in their role as the submissive gender.

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Figure 1: Female Todai students surveyed on career choice

It seems that this applies to Japanese women as well. When the choice is between sanshoku hirune tsuki (“three meals and a nap”) and the difficult life of an employee, it seems that it is no choice at all. A fourth year female Todai student who was interviewed said that she hopes to become a professional high flyer and indeed have already secured a job in a multinational Corporation, but she is the minority. The majority of female Todai students I surveyed would rather become a full-time housewife or a housewife with a part-time job.(Figure 1) In Japan, it is not simply a case of chauvinistic men forcing women into a life of marriage and child-rearing; instead, women are choosing that lifestyle. 
Shifting the focus back to Todai, it is an open secret that several circles restrict Todai female students from joining. What is more shocking is that some of these circles allow girls from other universities to join, just not those from Todai itself. While this kind of conduct is discouraged and has prompted the Executive Vice President of Todai to issue a circular commenting on it, it is still largely accepted without question. The problem with the circles reflect a society that is still deeply patriarchal and chauvinistic, and what seems to be self-determination on the part of women may be nothing but an expression of societal standards that have been ingrained.

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