My grandmother was the top of her class at school. She loved to learn. When she was fourteen her father insisted that there was no need for a woman to be educated any further and that it was time she “earned her keep”. Despite the fact that she had won a scholarship, he sent her out to work. She didn’t let that stop her though. She squirreled away a little money of her own, worked furiously hard and eventually graduated with a bachelor’s degree without having disobeyed her father. The sepia-tone graduation picture hung in her front room until her life ended, and her pride at her achievement and her resentment of her father’s behaviour did not fade as decades went by and the millennium ticked over. Such is the power parents have.
My father had a very different influence on my educational trajectory. While he was doing his PhD my little sister and I lived with him in an ex-ambulance parked on campus. We showered at the university swimming pool, ate at the refectory and built doll’s houses out of discarded volumes of Hansard.* We went for epic adventures roaming through the archives and reading random books on arcane topics. We celebrated blue stocking day** on campus, remembering the not-so-long-ago first admission of women to higher education. I decided then that I was going to do my own PhD, and Dad thought that seemed like an excellent idea.
According to a recent report Japanese girls face no discrimination in their education. In fact, slightly more women than men are graduating from university. In terms of employment, however, Japan is firmly segregated by gender and recently came in 101st in the World Economic Forum's 2012 global gender equality rankings. I have two bachelor degrees, both with majors in Japan studies. I studied gender relations in Japan quite thoroughly before moving here. Very few of the negative things I studied are apparent in my daily life. I’m not a Japanese woman, which obviously makes a big difference, and I am certainly not suggesting that Japan is a post-gender utopia. The reality is just not as obvious as my studies indicated. I was asked in my JET interview, for example, how I would respond if I were instructed to make tea for my male co-workers. Nothing even remotely resembling that situation has ever occurred. That might be because the levels at which I teach are actually dominated by female teachers (especially elementary), but anyway, the point of this is just to set the scene that I don’t observe or experience that much sexism in my daily life. It was quite a shock, therefore, to hear about what happened to one of my husband’s former pre-school students.
The little girl in question is extraordinarily bright, and picked English up very quickly. For over a year she was studying for the entrance examination to an exclusive and world-class private elementary school that teaches in English. Yes, there are entrance examinations for first graders. The little girl travelled to another prefecture to take the test, and she passed with flying colours. The usually strict and no-nonsense older lady who is the backbone of the school broke down in tears. Everyone was so proud of her, they even got in touch with my husband to let him know about it, despite the fact that he hadn’t been working there for almost a year. A big party was planned to celebrate, with a custom made banner and balloons and tons of food and general gaiety. And then… just before the party, her father decided that she would not be attending the exclusive private school. He decided that it was too expensive just for a girl. There was still a chance that they might have a son, after all, and they should save for his hypothetical education.
Of course I don’t know what actually happened behind closed doors in that family, but that is the reason the school was given. Maybe the little girl didn’t really want to go school away from her friends. Maybe the school was her mother’s dream, not hers. I think it is more likely that the reason was exactly as it was stated, however. Getting into that elementary would have guaranteed the girl entry into the junior high and high schools connected to it. Graduating from that kind of high school gives an immense advantage in university entrance. Passing that one exam could have set her up for life. Would have set her up for life. But why bother? She can just get married, right?
*Hansard is the transcript of the proceedings of Australia’s parliament.
**Blue stocking celebrations were one of the first causalities of the Howard government’s assault on campus culture in the late 1990s, but have recently made a comeback. You can read more about them here.