Japan has a complex relationship with the birds and the bees
Tokyo, November 5, 2016: Five 17-year-old students take turns to give a three-minute presentation at Koishikawa high school in Tokyo. The first speaks about government services for pregnant women; next come the risks of childbearing for women older than 35, then the history of contraception, the morning-after pill and infertility. The teacher gives a brief outline of abortion law in Japan before turning to sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), and the 45-minute sex-education lesson is over.
Japan has a complex relationship with the birds and the bees. Sex is everywhere, in gleefully commercialised form, from explicit manga comics to love hotels where rooms are rented by the hour. Some of these businesses involve young people: â€œJKâ€ services, for example, involve men paying schoolgirls to lie next to them or go for a walk. Yet in many respects Japan is very conservative: sex remains a subject that parents and teachers are embarrassed to discuss. When they do, it is usually in the context of having a family.
That makes good sex education all the more important, but critics say schools teach too little, too late. Government guidelines, almost unchanged since the 1990s, only outline a minimum content that schools must impart, during time set aside for health and sports. A survey conducted in 2008 found that on average students only received around three hours of sex education a year. This is â€œtotally inadequateâ€, says Mieko Tashiro of Saitama University. Teaching methods are old-fashioned, too. Koishikawa prides itself on interactive methods such as the presentations. But even these lessons are still mainly an outline of factsâ€”how many weeks abortion is available for, the cost of IVFâ€”rather than an open discussion.
Nanako Oba was so disillusioned with what her five children learned at school that she set up a company to teach sex education and train others to do so. She thinks schools should try not just to explain the mechanics of sex, but also to help young people cope with the emotional upheaval of puberty. She also advocates much more explicit and practical instruction, such as demonstrating how to use a condom and bringing babies into schools.
Such ideas are controversial. As recently as 2002 the government urged teachers of pupils below the age of 16 to explain contraception without mentioning sex. When in 2003 a teacher used dolls to explain reproduction to his students, who had mental disabilities, Tokyoâ€™s education board disciplined him for â€œextremeâ€ teaching. To this day many teachers avoid using words like â€œpenisâ€ or â€œvaginaâ€. New government guidance due to be issued next year is likely to make it compulsory for schools to talk to pupils about different sexual orientations, says Ryoichi Mori of the ministry of education. Perhaps aware of the inhibitions of their staff, 40 schools have already asked Ms Oba to teach the subject.
In fact, data from the Japanese Family Planning Association suggest that public attitudes are becoming less permissive, not more. In 2014 the proportion of people who thought that everyone 15 or older should know how to use a condom had dropped, to just over half. Meanwhile, over 90% thought children should learn about the ethics and morals of sex, up from three-quarters in previous years.
There is even controversy about the purpose of sex education. Mr Mori says that hitherto the main goal has been to prevent STDs, but that Japanâ€™s shrinking population has started a debate about whether the aim should be, in part, to encourage childbearing. A couple of years ago, when the government began handing out a leaflet about the optimal age for a woman to become pregnant, there was a huge backlash.
Japanâ€™s teenagers appear to be less promiscuous than their peers in the rich world. A study in 2013 by Sagami, a Japanese condom company, found that on average men and women in their 20s had lost their virginity at 19 (the age of consent is 13). STD rates are low. So is the teenage birth rate: just four teenage girls in every 1,000 give birth each year, according to the World Bank. That is higher than in South Korea (two), but far lower than in Britain (15) or America (24). However, abortionsâ€”which are relatively common in Japanâ€”may be masking the scale of the problem, says Ms Oba. Some 80% of teenage pregnancies end in abortion in Japan, compared with 46% in America.