"We enjoy your classes," my seminar students said to me, "because you're not a real teacher." When I asked what they meant, they told me about the "real" classes of certain, named male teachers. "They are here forever," they said, "but we are happy we had the chance to be your students because soon you will marry and have children and then you won't be here any more."
It is not easy being a female educator in Japan. I often come up against the notion that as a foreigner and a woman, I am a temporary presence, an amusing diversion removed from the serious, masculine business of study. It doesn't help that I am heavily outnumbered by men, both foreign and Japanese, particularly at senior levels. One of my male students even went so far as to suggest that I could actually be impeding students' learning. In his graduation thesis, he wrote: "It is a problem because students' motivation is decided by the teacher's sex. If the teacher is female, students' motivation will go down. And a male teacher makes a good atmosphere in class."
Although the "promotion of gender equality in the field of education and research" is one of the core goals of Japan's Gender Equality Bureau, little progress has been made in addressing traditional customs and attitudes, in particular the belief that men and women are biologically determined to carry out different roles in society.
For men, that means work. For women, that means marrying and having children.
Former prime minister Yoshiro Mori stated that women who do not give birth but rather "grow old living their lives selfishly" should not receive state pensions. "The pension is supposed to take care of and reward those women who have lots of children. It is truly strange to say that we have to use tax money to take care of women who don't even give birth once." And he laid the blame for Japan's falling birth rate on the "over-education of women".
Academia remains a male-dominated profession. Women account for 49.4 per cent of full-time faculty members in two-year junior colleges but only 19.5 per cent in universities, where women comprise 13 per cent of research staff and 11.6 per cent of professors. A survey on gender disparity at Osaka University identifies a phenomenon called "early female brain drain". It found that unbalanced staffing in gender terms perpetuated the gender imbalance, since many female students could not find role models among teaching staff and chose to find jobs rather than continue with their studies.
In 2008, Japan's top-ranking university, the University of Tokyo, hoping to attract more female staff (9 per cent) and students (19.4 per cent), started a nursery for the children of teachers and postgraduates, which stays open until 9pm. Is this in order to right the wrongs of gender inequality in Japan? Actually, no. "The purpose of opening the nursery was not welfare but was linked to the strategy of...Tokyo [winning] in international competition," said one of its female professors, Akiko Tsugawa.
In fact, the greatest steps towards gender equality have been forced on Japan by gaiatsu, "outside pressure" from such bodies as the United Nations and Japan's poor showing in global academic rankings. When my latest batch of seminar students graduated recently, one woman posted a photograph of us on Facebook with the words: "I thank God I met her." I suspect I have the greatest impact on my students not by my teaching but by the fact that I am here at all.