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Can female surgeons dismantle stereotypes in Japan?

by Philip Brasor

Contributing Writer

The long-running American TV series “Grey’s Anatomy” is popular because of the way it mixes standard medical drama with mushy romantic intrigue, but another part of its appeal is the makeup of its characters. The drama takes place in the surgical department of a Seattle hospital, and half the doctors are women. About half are also African-Americans, with other minorities thrown in, as well as some LGBT characters.

As with the romantic elements’ relation to real life, the cast is not representative of the American medical world as a whole. Only 19 percent of practicing U.S. surgeons are female. As a field, surgery has always been something of a boys club.

In Japan, the ratio of surgeons who are female is even smaller — 5.2 percent — and one of the excuses given by people who defend Tokyo Medical University’s habit of reducing entrance test scores for female applicants is that the school doesn’t want to go to the trouble and expense of training surgeons who will quit after they have children. In a recent series, the weekly magazine Gendai quoted one doctor as saying “surgery requires physical power” that women don’t possess. This is, of course, nonsense. “Grey’s Anatomy” is fluff and not above assigning characters traditional gender roles, but the female surgeons are just as physically resilient as the male surgeons. It’s never an issue on the show, and common sense says it isn’t one in real life.

In this regard, it’s almost a shame that TV Asahi decided to discontinue its medical drama series “Doctor X” after five seasons by killing off its protagonist with a tumor, since it might have addressed something along the lines of the Tokyo Medical University scandal. On Sept. 30, they rebroadcast a special two-hour episode from 2016, and though it’s tempting to think TV Asahi was making a comment on the scandal, it apparently had more to do with promoting a new fall drama series starring the same actress who played Doctor X, Ryoko Yonekura, except this time she’s a lawyer. The name of the new series? “Legal V.”

The “real” name of Doctor X is Michiko Daimon, and she’s a surgeon — and not just any surgeon: She’s a lone-wolf super-surgeon, a freelance cutter who can treat any organ or condition with equal facility. Her modus operandi is swooping into a university hospital, shaking up the staid and invariably all-male surgical staff and successfully performing operations that are usually deemed too risky or downright impossible.

She’s also incredibly feminine, with makeup and hairstyling that remain impeccable even when she’s operating, stiletto heels and short tight skirts. Her demeanor is haughty and aggressive, almost arrogant, as if she were compensating for the almost complete dearth of women surgeons in Japan. It’s a little over-the-top.

“Doctor X” is even more of a fantasy than “Grey’s Anatomy,” owing mainly to the prerogatives of Japanese TV drama, but if it inspires girls to want to become surgeons, then it has more purpose than its silly premise lets on. All circumstances and situations in the stories are exaggerations, but they do show how the medical profession in Japan is a monument to convention that, in the end, benefits doctors more than patients.

Dr. Daimon may be full of herself — “I never fail” is her mantra — but the welfare of her patients is the paramount consideration in any case she accepts, and the series was careful to contrast this attitude with that of her male colleagues, who are more interested in preserving their positions. Making Doctor X a woman is not just a stab at topicality. By being a woman, the character is as far removed from the medical establishment as she can be. Only she can change things.

The two-hour special was about a hospital in Kanazawa whose mission is to do away with surgery. All ailments will someday be treated with drugs, thus obviating the need for invasive techniques, and while this is a desirable goal, the main impetus in the hospital’s case is money. It pursues its mission in concert with a local pharmaceutical company that needs the good publicity to sell more of its drugs nationwide.

Daimon is hired by the hospital’s crafty chief, Dr. Kurosu, played by comedian/filmmaker Takeshi Kitano. Later, through a convoluted series of events, she injures her hand and is let go just before she is to operate on a world-famous figure skater. With the media in full thrall, the hospital then treats the skater’s condition with new, experimental drugs.

The doctor eventually comes roaring back, putting the male staff in their places, though the show’s overblown hero posturing undermines whatever message it could deliver in favor of female empowerment. In the Gendai article, cartoonist Yoshinori Kobayashi, in making the case that people prefer male to female surgeons, commented: “Of course, if you get Doctor Michiko Daimon, you might feel reassured, but that’s just fiction. No such person exists. What if your surgeon is menstruating or pregnant? What will happen then?”

Despite falling in love and occasionally manifesting what some would call “a maternal instinct,” Daimon didn’t seem interested in getting married or having children. She was too dedicated to her work, which implies that a female surgeon needs to abandon any notion of becoming a wife and mother. “Grey’s Anatomy” tries to show on a continuing basis how dated this idea is. Female surgeons on the show regularly get married and have children, all the while performing miracle procedures and conducting vanguard research.

Maybe it’s beyond the pale, but one of the better attributes of popular culture is how it can depict the ideal, no matter how outlandish the presentation. “Doctor X” gets halfway there by showing how female doctors can help unblock a sclerotic medical culture. The fact that it’s the culture itself that prevents women from making a difference is enough of a reason to tear it all down.