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Students between classes at the University of Tokyo.Credit...Andrea DiCenzo for The New York Times

TOKYO - From a young age, Satomi Hayashi studied hard and excelled academically. It seemed only natural that she would follow in her father’s footsteps and attend the University of Tokyo, Japan’s most prestigious institution.

As soon as she was admitted, her friends warned that she was spoiling her marriage prospects. Men, they said, would be intimidated by a diploma from Todai, as the university is known in Japan. Spooked, she searched Google for “Can Todai women get married?” and discovered that prediction was a well-trod stereotype.

The admonitions didn’t stop her. But Hayashi, 21, wondered if other women had been scared off.

When she arrived three years ago, fewer than one in five undergraduates at the university were women.

The dearth of women at Todai is a by-product of deep-seated gender inequality in Japan, where women are still not expected to achieve as much as men and sometimes hold themselves back from educational opportunities.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has promoted an agenda of female empowerment, boasting that Japan’s labour force participation rate among women outranks even that of the United States. Yet few women make it to the executive suite or the highest levels of government.

The disconnect starts at school

Although women make up nearly half the nation’s undergraduate population, the oldest and most elite universities reflect - and magnify - a lackluster record in elevating women to the most powerful reaches of society.

For nearly two decades, enrolment of women at the University of Tokyo has hovered around 20 per cent, a lack of parity that extends across many top schools. Among seven publicly funded national institutions, women make up just over one-quarter of undergraduates. At the exclusive private universities Keio and Waseda, a little over one-third of students are women.

Japan’s universities lag behind other selective institutions across Asia. Women make up close to half of the student body at Peking University in China, 40 per cent of Seoul National in South Korea and 51 per cent of the National University of Singapore.

At Todai, “you can see right away there is something completely out of balance,” said Hayashi, a literature major. “Because women are half of society, there is something strange about a university that is only 20 per cent women.”

In status-conscious Japan, a diploma from Todai is the ultimate pedigree - the equivalent in the United States of Harvard, Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology rolled into one. It opens doors in politics, business, law and science.

More prime ministers have graduated from Todai than any other school, and more than half of the country’s Supreme Court justices are alumni. The university has the highest number of graduates to go on to Parliament or to win Nobel Prizes.

“We have the most powerful education that we can dangle” in front of anyone, said Nobuko Kobayashi, a 1996 Todai graduate and a partner at EY Japan, where fewer than 10% of partners are women.

“We were branded with it,” she said. “We almost bask in its glory unconsciously.”

“A woman’s life is much more complicated”

Staunchly traditional, Todai draws from the same high schools year after year. More than one-quarter of students who enrolled in 2019 came from just 10 high schools, seven of which are all male.

Unconsciously or not, high school and college administrators say, parents are more likely to push sons to achieve.

“With sons, parents really expect a lot and want their boys to perform to the maximum level and aim as high as they can go,” said Hiroshi Ono, principal of Tokyo Gakugei University High School, which sent 45 students to Todai this year, 11 of them women.

Parents, Ono said, “feel bad about pushing girls to work that hard - they think it would be better for them to get married and be a housewife.”

Even at Oin Girls School, which sends more women to Todai than any other high school, administrators said girls may feel ambivalent about pursuing an elite education.

“A woman’s life is much more complicated,” said Yukiko Saito, Oin’s principal. “They have to decide who to marry, whether to marry, whether to have children or not.”

For a vast majority of students, admission to Todai rests solely on one exam for which students spend years studying. High school grades and extracurricular activities carry no weight.

Zkai, a cram school for university entrance exams, has a high acceptance rate to Todai. Wataru Miyahara, a director, said fewer girls study for the exam.

“It’s hard to tell which is the chicken and which is the egg,” he said. “But there are so few girls at Todai, so it’s hard for girls to look at Todai and say ‘I want to go there.’”

Whatever the reason, he said, “they are not as ambitious as boys.”

Too serious to be considered normal

Women at Todai often feel isolated. When a class gathered for a graduation photo, Kiri Sugimoto, 24, a law student, was the only woman.

“What irritated me was that the men made remarks like having me in the picture would look great because it wouldn’t look like a boys prep school photo,” she said. “I was treated as the decorative rose among stones. That irritated me to be treated like that.”

Some Todai men avoid socialising with female classmates, favouring activities in which most of the women come from other universities.

At a Todai ballroom-dancing club, Erica Nakayama, 23, a masters student, said she and her classmates were outnumbered by women from other universities.

Todai men, she said, frequently typecast female peers as too serious.

“A boy once said, ‘Todai girls are a little scary,’” Nakayama recalled. “I just kind of laughed and let it go. But in a way it did kind of hurt my feelings.”

Some clubs tacitly bar Todai women, although the university officially discourages outright exclusion. Of more than 30 social clubs focused on tennis, for example, only two actively recruit Todai women.

Men have little incentive to change. Campus advocacy is minimal. Women hesitate to speak out. Nakayama said she avoided activism that might be construed as feminist.

“It might have some repercussions for me,” she said. People “might think I’m acting too manly or too strong.”

The New York Times News Service