Sunday, November 07, 2010

Notes on the history of the abortion controversy in Japan

Recently the issue of abortion in Japan has come up in the comments section. So I did a little reading on the subject:
Abortion was first legalized in Japan in 1948 in the wake of its defeat World War II. At the time, the economy was in a shambles, to the point where the government was forecasting a famine, which was staved off by American food aid. Nevertheless, the return of a large number of soldiers sparked a baby boom.
There was a great concern that Japan would collapse under the weight of its population, so abortion was legalized to lower the birth rate. The lobbying for abortion was not done by feminists. In fact, feminists had little to do with abortion in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Feminists in Japan were more like pre-war American feminists—very bourgeois and motherhood-oriented. The lobbying for abortion was actually initiated by OB\GYN’s and the socialists. According to one book I read, the OB\GYN’s were interested in legalizing abortion (and imposing a monopoly on who could perform it) in order to make profit.

Abortion doctors wanting to make profit? Shocking, I know.

Of course, they couched their push for abortion in terms of protecting women’s health because black market abortions were very common.

The socialists wanted to push for abortions because they wanted to push eugenics. This is why the bill was called the The Eugenic Protection Law. It allowed for abortions in a large number of cases, which amounted to abortion on demand, especially after certain revisions in 1949 and 1952 which allowed abortion for economic reasons and no longer required the Japanese equivalent of the therapeutic abortion committee).

It was not lost on the Americans that they had just defeated the Nazi regime, whose beliefs were eugenicist, and that this newly defeated enemy was passing a law to promote eugenics. Nevertheless, 30 US States had eugenic sterilization laws. So it wasn’t like they were lily white in this domain as well.

One notable aspect of this abortion debate is that, at that time, religious opposition to abortion was, for all intents and purposes, absent. I’m sure the Catholic Church must have spoken out, but the Church is not a major player in Japanese society. Shinto considers abortion a sin, but the idea of a “necessary sin” is widely accepted among the Japanese population.

After the passage of this law, abortion continued to be widespread. The abortion rate was astronomical. I remember reading that in 1955, there were more births than abortion in Japan.

A female Diet member by the name of Kato proposed a revision to the Eugenic Protection Law. She believed that a fetus was a human life and that the Japanese Constitution guarantees human rights for all. In 1962, she and pre-war feminist Hiratsuka Raicho and other founded The Committee to Protect Children’s Lives (The Kodomo). They compared the large number of abortions to mass murders. The Japanese Family Planning Association launched the Movement to Cherish Life in order to reduce the number of abortions (probably by promoting more condoms, no doubt) and Japan’s Health Ministry supported them.

During the 1960’s, organized opposition to abortion grew. The religious opposition was led by a “New Religion” called Seicho no Ie. It was founded in 1930 by a man named Masaharu Taniguchi. Its philosophy is called “Truth of Life”. Basically, it’s monotheistic, nature-loving and believes that all religions emanate from God. It’s also a highly nationalistic religion. Ithad 1.5 million members.

It led lobbying  campaigns to revise the abortion law beginning in 1960. Its last campaign was in 1983. With the death of its founder in 1985, the numbers declined and  political opposition to abortion dissipated.

In the early 1970s, the government put forward a proposal to remove the provision that allowed for abortion for “economic reasons” – thereby limiting abortion on demand. This signaled the coming out of the Japanese Women’s Liberation Movement. A plethora of new groups were founded, and radical feminists came out of the woodwork not just to call for “reform”, but to challenge social practices and widespread ideas about gender.

One very interesting character in the opposition to the law’s revision was Tanaka Mitsu.

Tanaka Mitsu’s main idea was that women had to change their every day lives in order to change society. She wasn’t one of these feminists who fit her thoughts into a preconceived ideology—everything she believed, she developed from “scratch” based on her personal experiences and reflections.

Her take on why abortion should be legal was very unique.

She says that abortion is murder and that women are murderers. It’s obvious to her that abortion takes a human life.
Nevertheless, in her mind, it would be wrong to condemn abortion.

Because social structures drive women to abortion. It’s therefore not a free choice on the part of the woman.

If abortion was criminalized, it would amount to criminalizing women for being subject to structures that compel them to abort, structures that they had no hand in creating and are powerless to change (as individuals).

She also says that a woman must come to grips with the fact that she killed her baby.

Tanaka Mitsu also wrote that abortion is an operation that causes pain for the woman.

I post all this in an effort to show that the efforts surrounding the legalization and criminalization of abortion in various countries did not necessarily mirror our struggles here in the West.

Although there was religious opposition to abortion in Japan’s experience, it was by a relatively marginal group. The discourse that abortion takes a human life was not seen to be religious in nature, but a matter of fact. Even obstetricians who DID abortions and the Family Planning Association admitted that.

Japan is one of the most secular societies in the world. Although some religious belief supports the notion that abortion takes a human life, Japan is a place where religion is like a cafeteria: you pick and choose what you like, and for most Japanese religiosity is not important in most people’s lives. Yet, that doesn’t prevent people from acknowledging the basic facts about abortion.

Here in the West, those who support abortion can’t even face the facts. Yes, it has something to do with our Christian roots. But it also has to do with the highly ideological nature of the abortion fight, as compared to what happened in Japan. In the West, the right to abortion is the product of a belief in an ideology of autonomy. So facts that contradict the "right to abortion" tend to be suppressed or dismissed. In Japan, the legalization of abortion was not ideological. It was considered a pragmatic means of population control.

These notes I have gathered through an internet search. I am certain that students of Japanese culture will come by and issue corrections in the comments.


Abortion before birth control: the politics of reproduction in postwar Japanby Tiana Norgren

Feminism in modern Japan: citizenship, embodiment, and sexuality by Vera C. Mackie

"The Birth of the Women's Liberation Movement in Japan" by Muto Ichiyo. The other Japan: conflict, compromise, and resistance since 1945, ed. Joe Moore.

What do We Learn from Japanese Feminist Bioethics? by Masahiro Morioka