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Japan medical school's 'malignant' refusal to admit sexist admissions drives women to sue

St. Marianna University School of Medicine's response to charges of sexist entrance evaluation practices, posted to the university website on Sept. 28, 2020. The highlighted portion states, "We have judged that there is no truth to the allegation that there was uniform discriminatory treatment (of female applicants)." (Mainichi/Hiromi Makino)

TOKYO -- In late 2018, the education ministry concluded that 10 medical schools across Japan had discriminated against female and repeat applicants. Since then, only one of them, St. Marianna University School of Medicine in Kawasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture, south of Tokyo, has refused to admit it. Even after a third-party investigative committee confirmed the discriminatory entrance practices based on objective evidence, St. Marianna has not offered places to any of the victims or taken other remedial steps.

    This led to four women filing suit at the Tokyo District Court on Oct. 14 seeking reparations for psychological distress from the school where they had once sought to study.

    Similar suits have been filed against some of the other offending institutions, including Tokyo Medical University and Juntendo University. However, the plaintiffs' legal team in the St. Marianna's case plans to up its damages demands due to what it calls the school's malignant attitude.

    One of the four plaintiffs, a woman in her 20s from western Japan, told the Mainichi Shimbun of the suit, "I want them (the school) to admit there was discrimination."

    "When I learned about the wrongdoing, the only thing I could think was that I'd never forgive the school," said the woman, who has now been seeking a spot in medical school for six years. Both her parents are doctors, and watching them give so much to help people in a part of Japan with few physicians, she decided that she, too, "wanted to do things for others."

    She began applying to private medical schools in 2015, but never got past the first-stage entrance exam. In 2018, she applied to St. Marianna. She had been told by a cram school teacher that "private schools tend to be hard on women and repeat exam takers, but St. Marianna openly lists your scores for both the first- and second-stage exams including the interview and such, so they're fair."

    And indeed, at first it seemed like a good tip. She passed the first-stage exam, and then, after some intense preparation including interview practice, she met the challenge of the second stage as well. She thought that, this time, she might finally get a place and start her journey to becoming an MD. However, she had a shock in store. The school told her she had been rejected. It was a terrible blow.

    Her father told her then that, "considering your age, maybe it's time to give up on this," and the following year she applied to a pharmaceutical program at another university and was accepted. But she could not let go of her dream to become a doctor, and dropped out of the program in her first year. She moved into a preparatory school dorm, and continues her studies to get into medical school to this day.

    She found out about the application malfeasance at St. Marianna's in autumn 2019, when she was talking with her mother on the phone.

    "The entire time I was growing up, I had never felt like I'd ever been discriminated against because I was a woman. I never thought I'd become a victim of that. I kept thinking about how I had studied so hard, irrespective of whether I was a man or a woman, and I was so angry." She added that she was shocked when she learned of the sly way the school had failed her using the setup after the second-stage exam, which she had worked so hard to pass.

    The woman became even angrier when St. Marianna refused to acknowledge any wrongdoing. "I can't just give up and accept it," she said she told herself. "The university should clearly admit there was discrimination and do the right thing, such as revealing our real exam scores and whether we really passed or failed," she thought, and decided to sue.

    She will not make a position statement or otherwise join the court proceedings, as she is concentrating on her exam preparation. However, she does want people to focus on the core problems the case is about. "I want people to understand that sexism against women still exists, and there are people suffering through pain and sadness because of it."

    The plaintiffs' legal team revealed that all four women in the suit are in their 20s, and all took the St. Marianna medical school entrance exam between academic 2015 and 2018. According to the complaint, applicants who pass the school's first-stage exam (worth 400 points and covering English, mathematics, and sciences) go on to the second-stage exam, consisting of an essay plus an interview each worth 100 points. The results of these tests are then combined with a check of a person's application documents, including the application forms and academic transcript. Admissions decisions are based on the sum of these evaluations.

    However, the third-party investigative committee looking into the school's admissions practices found that as late as the 2015 to 2018 academic years, St. Marianna almost uniformly manipulated applicants' final scores in favor of men. The school did this by using points allotted to the document screening phase, which unlike the exam scores were never revealed. When the investigators compared the document scores for female and male applicants in the same years, with the same number of years out of school, they found that the men were given a lead in points. The largest gap was in academic 2018, when there was an 80-point chasm between men and women.

    Furthermore, materials for academic 2016 left on a computer at the school included a reference to "adjustment points for men." The number listed was "19.0," the exact number of points male applicants that year were scored ahead of the women.

    Former members of St. Marianna's admissions committee have denied there was any score manipulation. However, when the investigative committee had them go through a simulated document screening with the applicants' ages, sexes and other information blacked out, the ex-admissions committee members gave much higher scores to women and repeat exam-takers than they had received when they had applied for real. In fact, they tended to score higher than the people who were actually admitted.

    In response to this finding, St. Marianna stated that "in the end, the point difference was produced by particular applicant attributes," but added that it "does not recognize that any uniform and mechanical evaluation process was undertaken," denying any systematic discrimination.

    Regarding applicants who were rejected after the second-stage exam, the school has been returning funds equivalent to their exam fees, but has not revealed who would have been admitted had their scores not been manipulated and other related information.

    The plaintiffs in the recently filed suit against St. Marianna claim that "discriminating uniformly against applicants based on sex is an extremely grave violation of the principles of impartiality and fairness that underpin entrance exams, and is an illegal act. Furthermore, we strongly condemn the school's repeated illogical excuses for its actions even after the release of the third-party commission's investigative report and its continued dodging of penalties imposed by society in the form of reduced subsidies for private universities."

    The plaintiffs' team furthermore claim that the four women "still cannot obtain the true exam results due to the procrastination and dishonesty of the university, causing them further psychological suffering," and plan to boost their compensation demand from 2 million yen per plaintiff to 3 million yen.

    (Japanese original by Hiromi Makino, Integrated Digital News Center)

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