Among the 149 countries covered in the latest world gender gap index, Japan's position improved slightly from 114th a year ago to 110th. Still, Japan remains the lowest among the Group of Seven nations and 16th among the Group of 20 countries — ahead of only South Korea, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

According to Sophia University professor Mari Miura, Japan's poor standing in women's participation in politics and the economy — 125th and 117th, respectively — drags down the nation's overall showing. While Japan is not so bad in education (65th) and health (41st), it won't be able to climb the ladder unless the gender gap in politics and the economy is resolved. Despite its rich industrialized economy, Japan has yet to achieve much progress in equality between men and women. As a cosmetics firm's ad once said, Japan is an "underdeveloped" country in terms of gender equality.

A scandal that surfaced last year left even more women disappointed. Even in the field of education, it was found that women had been severely discriminated against — in entrance exams for medical schools. The issue that came to light at such schools uprooted the notion that education opportunities are equal for everyone. Tokyo Medical University was found to have given additional points to the test scores of male applicants to deliberately reduce the number of women entering its medical school. An education ministry survey prompted by the scandal showed that in nearly 80 percent of the 81 universities polled, the success rate of men was higher than that of women in entrance exams for their medical schools over the past six years.