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Occasionally Japan’s glass ceiling is smashed

by Michael Hoffman

Someday people will look back in astonishment at the way society treated women.

Women haven’t always been regarded as an inferior species. In prehistoric, preagricultural Japan, archaeologists tell us, an instinctive reverence for procreation cast an aura of awe upon the bearers and nurturers of life — namely, mothers. Much later, the high culture of the Heian Period (794-1185) conferred upon well-born women property rights and general respect they subsequently lost and were not to regain until after World War II. Otherwise, the Buddhist view of Woman as a polluted being incapable of attaining salvation spread to secular society and carried the day. Warriors’ power was softened by no knightly chivalry, and the corporate warriors of our own day have largely closed ranks against the female workforce, admitting so few women to executive positions as to make Japan a conspicuous international example of gender backwardness.

The weekly Aera this month published the result of its own survey of 95 leading Japanese corporations. Fifty-five of them have no female executives at all. Only six have five or more.

Globally, the NPO Catalyst on its website ranks Japan 42nd among 44 countries in terms of percentage of female board members — 1.1 percent, versus 40.9 percent for Norway on top of the list, 17.3 percent for Britain, 16.6 percent for the United States. Slightly ahead of Japan is the United Arab Emirates (1.2 percent); slightly behind, cushioning it from last place, are Qatar (0.3 percent) and Saudi Arabia (0.1 percent).

Japan is the world’s third-largest economy. It has been democratic for 68 years. Why is it so laggard in one of the key criteria for full membership in the modern age — to wit, gender equality? The answer Aera hears most frequently from the companies it surveyed is, “Few women qualify for executive positions.” It could hardly be otherwise, given the widely embedded assumption, lately shaken but not dislodged, that working women will fill clerical posts until they quit to marry or give birth.

Among the several women Aera introduces who broke the mold is Yukari Tominaga, 55, of the IT firm Hitachi Solutions. Armed with a science degree and a recommendation from one of her professors, she was hired straight from college and put to work serving tea and answering phones. We are not told of any resistance, resentment or higher expectations on her part. She seems to have simply accepted it as a matter of course — so much so that when, after taking maternity leave at 29, she returned to work and found herself transferred to another department, she feared she was being eased out.

Not so, as it happens; she was being promoted. Now she supervises 1,700 subordinates developing business software used by 920 client companies. Aera doesn’t tell us much about how this happened, but the fact that it did, and does to others, suggests bedrock slowly shifting. There is this little detail, not emphasized but noteworthy: Tominaga was the third daughter of parents who wanted a son. She was raised like a boy, she says — whatever that means.

As to the astonishment in store for us once social changes now germinating reach fruition, it is measurable, perhaps, by the astonishment the following story is bound to arouse. It concerns a woman named Ginko Ogino, who deserves to be better known.

She was Japan’s first woman doctor, and what she went through to get there was the more agonizing in that she faced her trials utterly, utterly alone. Career women today, whatever their frustrations at the foot-dragging of a stubbornly conservative society, at least have the comfort of knowing they are not freaks. The future is theirs, if not the present. Ogino, born in 1851, had no such reassurance.

A woman with the toughness she acquired in the course of her struggles would have shattered the glass ceiling that holds women back today simply by glancing at it. Her life is dramatized in a 1993 novel titled “Hanauzumi” (“Beyond the Blossoming Fields”) by novelist and science writer Junichi Watanabe. Bookish by nature, Ogino as a child soon left her well-to-do farm family intellectually behind. That was bad enough — a learned daughter was an acute social embarrassment. But a woman bent on studying medicine?

“Listen,” her mother scolded her. “You don’t live alone. There is such a thing as public opinion. If you become a woman doctor you’ll make us the laughingstock of the village.”

No medical schools in the 1880s admitted women. It took Ogino years to find one that would even allow her to informally audit lectures. And so there she was, lone woman in lecture halls full of young men, budding healers, whose righteous outrage at the supposed insult being inflicted upon them knew no bounds.

One of them strode to the podium before the professor arrived and declared, to wild applause, “Gentlemen, here we are being forced to attend lectures and do experiments with a woman. This is to degrade us all to the level of women!”

The next day three classmates attacked her on her way home. One of them spat at her and screamed, “You’re no better than a whore!” Neither the police nor the school authorities would help her, she realized. A woman’s place was at home. A woman venturing outside it, in the eyes of her society, was, in effect, “no better than a whore.”

Ogino graduated in 1882 and opened the Ogino Hospital for obstetrics and gynecology in 1885. She practiced until her death in 1913. Today’s career women, and tomorrow’s, owe her a lot.