Land of the rising daughter

April 18, 1997

JAPAN has appointed its first female president of a national university. Masako Niwa becomes president of Nara Women's University at Nara in west Japan, after 35 years working as a researcher, lecturer and professor at the university.

The appointment is a landmark in a country where women traditionally have had substantially fewer opportunities in higher education than men.

"Men occupy the majority of student places and teaching posts at Japanese universities," said lecturer Yoshiko Takahashi. "This is particularly so at the country's highest ranked institutions, which provide the graduates for the country's top jobs." The majority of female students historically have opted for places at the lower-ranked junior colleges, which offer two or three-year courses for women preparing for lower-status employment or marriage, and possibly a life spent as a mother and homemaker.

"The junior college system is still luring women away from university degree courses and top jobs with leading employers," says Yoshiko Takahashi.

At Japan's highest-ranked universities women account for less than 20 per cent of the student places and lecturing posts. In research laboratories women play a largely supporting role as assistants to male research workers. Leading female re-searchers frequently complain about the difficulties they en-counter when they seek funding for their own projects.

The media publicity surrounding Professor Niwa's appointment has highlighted the sub-ordinate position of female academics in Japanese higher education. "The attention given to my appointment implies that the concept of equality between men and women has yet to be accepted in Japanese society," she said.

But some progress is being made. Female students now account for 33 per cent of the country's university undergraduates, compared with 23 per cent in 1985 and only 12 per cent in 1955. The passing of an equal opportunities law during the mid-1980s has encouraged more women to enter university and enabled them to gain better employment and access to some of the country's top jobs.

Professor Niwa said that she hoped her appointment would encourage more female high- school students to aim for places at top universities and for women to play a more active role in Japanese society. In the field of higher education, she said, she will aim to raise the number and status of female researchers.

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