Taking aim at Japan’s gender problem

by Douglas Schules

Special To The Japan Times

Japan has a gender problem, and we’re told it starts in the workplace.

As of 2009, female manager accounted for a dismal 1 percent of managers, and according to data from 2010, women comprised 4 percent of Japanese CEOs. In 2010, 19 percent of students matriculated in doctoral programs in science were female, although the Cabinet Office’s Gender Equality Bureau reports that in 2012 only 13.8 percent of professionals in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) were female.

So why is this significant? Because of its focus on expanding women in the workforce, in management positions and in leadership roles, “Abenomics” has been sometimes dubbed “womanomics.” The success this portion of the “third arrow” of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s economic policies rests on the premise that the lack of women in the workforce is merely a structural problem, one readily solved by government initiatives aimed at, among others, cracking the country’s glass ceiling.

As someone who researches media representations and their impact, I find this appeal to structural solutions a bit too convenient. This is because it does nothing to address the complex social and ideological processes that form the foundation for the current situation to begin with. Merely offering incentives to change the status quo will not resolve the deeper issues that provoke gender inequality in the first place.

The coverage of Japanese scientists Haruko Obokata and Shinya Yamanaka in Japanese news and entertainment media serves as a case in point.

For those who missed the last few months’ news cycle, Obokata is the Japanese female researcher who led a team of researchers claiming to have developed a new process of generating stem cells through acid immersion. The processes for creating these new cells, called STAP cells, were published in two articles in the journal Nature back in January 2014.

Hailed as a major breakthrough, Obokata went from obscurity in Japan to the scientific equivalent of a rock star.

Almost immediately, however, questions over the validity of STAP cells emerged as researchers in other labs were unable to replicate the results detailed in the Nature articles; an investigation by her employer, the Riken institute, concluded that Obokata fabricated data for these papers, namely by altering images from her 2011 Waseda University dissertation.

This one event has had a profound impact on the reputation of the Japanese scientific community. Waseda has begun to re-examine roughly 280 dissertations in the fledgling School of Advanced Science and Engineering for academic dishonesty.

Bloggers intent on revealing data “irregularities” in previously published research have expanded the scope of the scandal as even established researchers are accused of doctoring data.

Most notable of these was the Nobel laureate Yamanaka, whose use of images in a decades-old paper suddenly faced scrutiny.

Naturally there are differences between them aside from gender — age and reputation being the most notable — but these do not adequately explain why coverage of Obokata’s rise and fall in the Japanese and scientific communities has tended to focus on her, first, as a woman and, second, a researcher.

When the STAP articles were initially published in January, for example, public broadcaster NHK felt it relevant to discuss the pink color scheme of Obokata’s laboratory, while other outlets paid special attention to her pearl earrings and makeup. The narrative changed as the scandal came to light in April, with her fashion sense becoming a liability through which her credibility was framed and judged.

Images of her in tears during a news conference responding to the allegations of professional misconduct were quickly circulated and re-circulated across all platforms of Japanese media, transforming her tearful face into a powerful visual trope demonstrating her femininity.

One midmorning news program, for example, seriously considered whether Obokata’s tears are a strategic exercise of “women’s power.”

Yamanaka, in contrast, held a news conference in which he apologized and that was the end of the story. No commentary on his power ties or his terse stoicism; such coverage would be “irregular” for male scientists.

Because of this, what could have become a watershed moment for starting a conversation about the politics of science in Japan — the peer review system, the corporatization of the field, the ownership of research or its place on the global stage, for example — has instead been regrettably eclipsed by weary cliches drawn from gender tropes.

And herein lays the problem with the third arrow of Abenomics and its otherwise laudable goals to expand the participation of women in the workforce and positions of power: It treats the symptoms of the disease rather than its cause. As long as women are represented in terms of gender first and profession second, their contributions will be discounted at best and suspect at worst.

More than a structural problem, Obokata’s treatment exposes it to be an ideological one as well.

As such, merely placing women in positions of power or expanding their role in the workforce will not change how they are viewed: the Gender Equality Bureau at the Cabinet Office notes that males in STEM fields consistently evaluate their female peers lower than their male counterparts. Increasing the number of women in these types of positions is certainly a step in the right direction, but can only go so far if representations of women — in news and in entertainment — continue to be uncritically evaluated or challenged.

The implementation of the third arrow, then, should be accompanied by a multimedia campaign challenging outdated gender representations. This is particularly important for Japan on the global stage, as the current representations of women in Japan may complicate the country’s ability to attract investors and draw international business and educational talent to its shores.

Since news and entertainment media serve as the vanguard of Japan’s soft political arsenal, using them to challenge these representations will impact not only perceptions within Japan but also shape international perceptions of the country as well.

Douglas Schules is an assistant professor in the Department of Global Business at Rikkyo University. His research focuses on the circulation of creative media in popular culture, media engagement in fan communities, and representations of Japan.

  • Shinsakan

    This article has an interesting premise. However, I would like to make a couple of points regarding the comparison between Yamanaka and Obokata because I don’t think that such a comparison can really be made. First, Yamanaka’s discovery was truly ground-breaking and changed the way that we think about pluripotency and cell fate. In contrast, Obokata and Vacanti’s discovery was interesting, but at least to those working in the field, not earth-shattering because (1) induced pluripotency was already established by iPS, (2) at least in its current form, STAP did not work in adult cells, which limits its potential applications (not to mention questions regarding safety/health of the cells), (3) the concept of stress facilitating or selecting for pluripotency had already been around for a few years, e.g., MUSE cells. Additionally, Yamanaka’s findings have been replicated worldwide and have become an established technology. In contrast, to date, no one has replicated the work of Obokata and Vacanti, even though most of the major groups have tried and even though the initial allure of the technique was that it was supposed to be easy and simple. Thus, it may be easier to forgive someone who has made a truly groundbreaking discovery that works than to forgive someone who has not yet actually produced something. Second, the “irregularities” described for Yamanaka’s work are nowhere near as severe as those that pervade Obokata’s work. If a woman commits murder and a man commits theft, and then society hands down a harsher sentence to the woman, it was likely because her transgression was more severe, not necessarily because she was a woman. Furthermore, as mentioned in this article, an irregularity was discovered in one decades-old paper of Yamanaka’s, even though he has published extensively. Thus, the “irregularities” constitute an extreme minority of his work. In contrast, severe “irregularities” have been found in at least 3 of Obokata’s papers, which represents nearly her entire body of work. The scale is totally different. Still another difference is that Obokata does not seem to be able to take accountability for her actions or accept that what she did was wrong; the papers are sufficiently flawed to warrant retraction, but she still refuses. This refusal and her use of an attorney makes her seem dishonest. In contrast, Yamanaka apologized for a minor (not retraction-worthy) issue in a decades-old paper and appeared sincere; this is backed by his well-earned reputation for doing solid, reproducible work where the findings are real. Therefore, I think that the difference in reactions to Yamanaka and Obokata may be based on what they have actually done, rather than on their gender per se.