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Japan survey for scholarship students with questions on marriage halted after criticism

This screenshot from the Japan Student Services Organization website introduces the scholarships.

TOKYO -- A Japanese organization that provides scholarships to students has discontinued a questionnaire asking the recipients about their future plans for marriage and the number of children they wish to have after some students expressed concerns that the survey could be considered harassment.

    The questionnaire was conducted in a way that respondents could be identified. The Japan Student Services Organization (JASSO) explained that the purpose of the survey was "to confirm the effectiveness of the scholarship program as a countermeasure against the declining birthrate. It is not compulsory." However, after being interviewed by the Mainichi Shimbun on Oct. 6, the questionnaire was canceled.

    The target of the survey was university seniors, vocational school students, and others who will graduate this academic year after receiving the benefit-type scholarships, which don't have to be repaid. They were partially launched in academic 2017 as part of the free higher education program, and fully launched in 2020.

    The free higher education program is designed to "address the declining birthrate by reducing the economic burden so that people from low-income households can study at universities that nurture human resources who will play an active role in society." It is positioned as a "countermeasure against the declining birthrate" with the consumption tax serving as the source of the funds.

    The survey consists of about 10 questions on two main topics: job hunting and marriage. Before the question on marriage, there is an explanation that "Since the benefit-type scholarship is implemented as a countermeasure against the falling birthrate, we would like to ask for your cooperation in the following questionnaire regarding your awareness of marriage and childbirth."

    It then asks questions such as: "Do you intend to get married someday? (choose yes, no, or already married)"; "At what age do you want to get married? (enter a number)"; and "How many children do you want to have? (choose from zero to five or more)."

    According to the JASSO, the answers are voluntary, but the organization will be able to confirm who gave what answers. An official in charge told the Mainichi Shimbun that the purpose of the questionnaire was "to measure the effect of the scholarships on students' future prospects, and to use this information to review the system in four years."

    In response, some students expressed confusion, with one male student, who describes himself as gay, tweeted the following comment on Oct. 4.

    "If they are offering benefit-type scholarships to counter the declining birthrate, does that mean they want people to get married and have children for the sake of the country .... Does that mean those who are not willing to get married, LGBTQ or infertile are not suitable for the scholarships?"

    The student told the Mainichi Shimbun, "I feel uncomfortable because it seems to be putting pressure on us to contribute to the fight against the declining birthrate.

    "There are people who don't get married, people who can't get married under the current legal system, people who don't have children, and people who can't have children, but the questions pay too little consideration to those people," he added.

    Hirokazu Ouchi, a professor of sociology of education at Chukyo University and co-chair of the national conference on scholarship issues, which has been calling for the introduction and expansion of benefit-type scholarships, said, "This is a discriminatory question that lacks consideration for LGBT and other sexual minorities and people with infertility."

    "It is inappropriate from the standpoint of privacy protection to ask the questions in a way that the respondent can be identified, and the intent of the questions is not clear. Depending on the answers, the benefit program may even be considered unnecessary, on the grounds that it will not increase the desire to marry among students who benefit from it," Ouchi pointed out.

    He added, "Scholarships are essentially a guarantee for learning, not a measure for the government. As a result, it may help counter the declining birthrate, but that is not the original purpose of the benefit-type scholarships."

    After the Mainichi Shimbun's interview, a JASSO representative revealed that they were canceling the questionnaire because they had received inquiries about it through several schools, such as "Do we have to answer them without exception?" and "Doesn't it constitute harassment?"

    The organization then commented, "We have judged that there were people who were mentally uncomfortable or shocked due to the lack of consideration, and have deleted (the questionnaire). In the future, we will take such things into consideration and be careful about the content of the questionnaire."

    (Japanese original by Chie Yamashita, Digital News Center)

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