Anger — but not surprise — after Japanese university admits to changing test scores to keep women out

Last month, an investigation revealed that the prestigious Tokyo Medical University had been falsifying entrance exam scores for years to make sure more men got in than women, believing that women would give up their careers after having kids. The scandal has sparked a public reckoning in Japan.

Tokyo medical school could face legal action following exam-tampering scandal

The entrance to the Tokyo Medical University is shown in this Aug. 7 photo. The school wanted to keep women's participation low. (Akiko Matsushita/Kyodo News via Associated Press)

Something seemed off when Yuri (not her real name) sat down for her Tokyo Medical University entrance interview three years ago.

She says her assessors did not ask why she wanted to attend the prestigious school. They openly told her she would get in somewhere else — a discouraging approach for the young woman determined to study medicine.

When the rejection came, Yuri blamed herself. The chemistry and biology sections of the written exam had been difficult, she remembers thinking.

But then, last month, an investigation revealed that the school had been falsifying exam entrance scores for years to make sure more men got in than women. School authorities believed women would give up their careers after having kids.

This 22-year-old former applicant to Tokyo Medical University says she became angry after learning the school falsified entrance exam scores for years. (Angela Johnston/CBC)

"First, I'm a little angry," said the 22-year-old. "It's not a rare case in Japan."

Reflecting on her Tokyo Medical University experience, Yuri says she wants her $700 application fee reimbursed, and thinks candidates who would have been successful should be allowed to attend the school.

CBC News is protecting her identity because she fears retaliation in Japan for speaking out.

The Tokyo Medical University scandal has sparked a public reckoning in the country over systemic gender discrimination across wide swaths of society. 

The scandal comes at a time when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government has a so-called "womenomics" policy that states women's participation in the workforce is a central strategy for economic growth. The country has a rapidly aging population that is shrinking and is in the throes of a labour shortage. With the economy pretty much at full employment, it needs all the workers it can get or services will suffer.

But the work culture is notorious for its extremely long hours, frowns upon parental leave and what's more, women face obstacles when trying to work again if they quit their jobs for childbirth.

Over the weekend, Japan's Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper, citing unnamed officials, laid out the complex web of formulas that the school used to boost men's scores and make women's appear to be lower.

And the newspaper reported that officials from multiple medical schools often discussed ways to keep women's entrance rates artificially low. Japan ranks at the bottom of OECD countries in terms of number of women doctors with around 20 per cent. 

Tetsuo Yukioka, left, managing director of Tokyo Medical University, and Keisuke Miyazawa, vice-president of Tokyo Medical University, attend a news conference in Tokyo on Aug. 7. They denied knowing about manipulation of exam scores. (Toru Hanai/Reuters)

Last month, Tokyo Medical's top brass apologized, but also maintained they did not know the manipulation was happening. The education ministry is currently reviewing practices at 81 medical schools in the country.

Now, a lawyers' group in Tokyo is considering legal action against the school.

Legal hotline ringing off the hook

Late last month, it set up a phone hotline at a law office in the city's south, hoping to hear from people affected by the scandal. Dozens of calls poured in from the moment it opened.

"It's chaos," noted Yasuko Sasa, one of the attorneys involved.

She said the group wants to hear from as many people as possible, adding that some hotline callers want compensation, some want their hefty application fees reimbursed and some just want to know their true exam grade.

Attorney Yasuko Sasa says callers to a hotline about discrimination at Tokyo Medical University have demands ranging from compensation to transparency over the entrance-exam scandal. (Angela Johnston/CBC)

"They're upset," said Sasa. "What they want is to know the truth."

Yumi Itakura, another lawyer with the group, says she has consistently faced subtle gender discrimination in her 15 years as a lawyer.

"This is representative for the whole Japanese society, the gender discrimination tendency," she said from her north Tokyo office.

She points out that the ratio of women who make the bar in Japan is about 30 per cent and women lawyers tend to make less than their male counterparts.

Lawyer Yumi Itakura says it's difficult for Japanese women to speak out about discrimination. She hopes the Tokyo Medical University scandal helps trigger change. (Adam Walsh/CBC)

Itakura says girls are often raised to be submissive in the male-dominant culture.

"I want to change this trend," she said.

Some see institutionalized sexism as part of an even larger labour problem looming that is pushing Japan's economy toward crisis.

Lack of flexibility

Yumiko Murakami, head of the OECD Tokyo Centre, is calling for a dramatic overhaul of Japan's workforce practices, which she says are complicated by greying demographics and a notoriously inflexible work culture.

Murakami says HR companies openly tell her they prefer hiring men because they feel men are less likely to quit than women. She said a media executive told her in a recent lunch that the industry's night shifts and demanding hours made it necessary to skew recruitment.

"The fact that they would tell me without feeling … much hesitation is pretty surprising," she said.

In its 2017 gender gap index, the World Economic Forum ranked Japan at 114 out of 144 countries for the quality of its economic participation and opportunity. In the same section, Canada ranked 29th.

Yumiko Murakami, head of the OECD Tokyo Centre, worries the gender discrimination issue is part of a larger labour market problem that is pushing the economy toward crisis. She says she's worried Japanese businesses are dying slow deaths that only systemic, cultural change can stop. (Adam Walsh/CBC)

"We need to discuss how we can actually become a lot more flexible and a lot more, you know, innovative by making sure that the right people get the right opportunities whether they are men, women, they are Japanese, non-Japanese," she said.

But Murakami admits the outlook seems bleak.

"I don't get the sense that people feel that much of a pain yet and I think that's the scary part."

Yuri says her friends have also been asked about their marriage prospects in job interviews.

She was accepted into a number of other universities and is still studying to become a doctor. She's leaning toward cardiology.

She says it will take a lot of work to upend deep-rooted sexist attitudes in her country. But she's not giving up.

"I want to change it."