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Home > Special Topics > Social Trends Last Updated: 15:18 03/09/2007
Social Trends #42: June 17, 2003

Gender Equality in Japanese Education: Part One -
Male and Female Participation Rates in Higher Education

J. Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM)

A full list of articles in this series can be found here.


By international standards, Japan enjoys excellent rates of participation in higher education. Since 1998, nearly half of all young people have advanced on to either a two-year college or four-year university. Furthermore, participation rates for both males and females are extremely good. In fact, in 1989 women overtook men in overall numbers at higher educational institutes. In that year, it was estimated that 36.8% of women and 35.8% of men advanced on to college or university. Since then, participation rates have been roughly balanced between the sexes with women slightly ahead of men during the nineties. By 2002, there was very little between the two groups with the rate for women at 48.5% and 48.8% for men. A superficial glance at the figures in the table below would seem to indicate that educational equality has been attained in Japanese colleges and universities. However, this is a rather deceptive impression and a more in-depth analysis reveals a complex and far less egalitarian picture.


Male and Female Rates of Advance to Universities and Colleges
Academic Year
(April to March)
Male (%)Female (%)Total (%)
198438.332.835.6
198540.634.537.6
198635.933.534.7
198737.135.136.1
198837.236.236.7
198935.836.836.3
199035.237.436.3
199136.339.237.7
199237.040.838.9
199338.543.440.9
199440.945.943.3
199542.947.645.2
199644.248.346.2
199745.848.947.3
199847.149.448.2
199948.649.649.1
200049.448.749.1
200148.748.548.6
200248.848.548.6
Source: Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports and Technology, 2003

Despite the seemingly impressive statistics, for most of the postwar period higher education was overwhelmingly gender-segregated. One of the major causes of this inequality was the two-tiered system of higher education consisting of two-year junior colleges and four-year universities. These distinctive educational institutions segregated largely along gender lines; women going to the former and men to the latter. Many junior colleges were only for women and considered inferior to four-year universities. Even in the nineties, females still made up the bulk of the students at two-year junior colleges, while males remained in the ascendancy at four-year universities (see table below). This meant that in the employment market men were still on average academically better qualified than women as more men had graduated from a four-year course. Women on the other hand presented a mixed picture, with some having gone to junior colleges and other having attended universities. Thus, even though men and women had almost equal rates of participation in higher education, gender inequality remained a distinctive feature of the system.


Number of Male and Female Students at Junior Colleges
Academic Year
(April to March)
Male StudentsFemale StudentsTotal Student Number
198537,920333,175371,095
198638,554357,901396,455
198740,367397,274437,641
198841,340409,096450,436
198940,985420,864461,849
199040,946438,443479,389
199142,275461,812504,087
199243,494481,044524,538
199343,484486,810530,294
199442,829477,809520,638
199543,077455,439498,516
199643,989429,290473,279
199743,821402,929446,750
199841,453375,372416,825
199938,111339,741377,852
200033,990293,690327,680
200131,091258,107289,198
200230,071237,043267,114
Source: Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports and Technology, 2003

In the nineties, the gender imbalance in higher education finally began to recede. From the mid-nineties onwards, record numbers of women started to enter four-year universities, while the numbers going to two-year junior colleges began to drop drastically. By 2002, there were only 237,043 women at junior colleges which was less than half the 486,810 figure recorded in 1993. This compares to 1,059,931 women at four-year universities in 2002, which is nearly 50% higher than the 1993 level (724,524) and more than double the 1985 mark (434,401). These figures clearly illustrate that the two-year junior college system is in a state of serious decline and may be extinct within a few decades. These developments have meant that the divide between male and female education has narrowed significantly in the last decade.


Number of Male and Female Students at Four-Universities
Academic Year
(April to March)
Male StudentsFemale StudentsTotal Student Number
19851,414,297434,4011,848,698
19861,426,851452,6811,879,532
19871,457,091477,3921,934,483
19881,486,559508,0571,994,616
19891,521,721545,2412,066,962
19901,549,207584,1552,133,362
19911,580,325625,1912,205,516
19921,620,932672,3372,293,269
19931,665,124724,5242,389,648
19941,706,156775,6492,481,805
19951,724,756821,8932,546,649
19961,732,520864,1472,596,667
19971,734,356899,4342,633,790
19981,737,215930,8712,668,086
19991,741,614959,4902,701,104
20001,747,711992,3122,740,023
20011,739,3071,026,3982,765,705
20021,726,1471,059,9312,786,078
Source: Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports and Technology, 2003

The current ongoing switch from two-year to four-year higher education for women is revolutionary and has a much greater significance than simply the demise of the two-tier education system created in the 1950s (see Part Two). The majority of women in higher education now go to four-year universities, which means that more of them than ever before are on an equal educational level with their male counterparts. Research indicates that extended years in education for women leads to later marriage and childbirth, both of which have a huge impact on society as a whole. It is no understatement to say that the gradual eradication of gender inequality in the Japanese education system is fundamentally reshaping society.


Other Articles in the Gender Equality in Japanese Education Series

Gender Equality in Japanese Education: Part Two - The Development of the Two-year Women's Junior College System
Social Trends: Series #43, GLOCOM Platform, 17 June 2003


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