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Opinion, Comment & Reviews
  The contraceptive pill is legalised in Japan
By Maxine Lattimer

The Japanese government, after deliberating for nine years over the oral contraceptive pill that has been available in the West for decades, has decided to allow its limited sale. The Central Pharmaceutical Affairs Council submitted its recommendation to the Health Ministry today and formal approval will take place by the end of the month. Toshiki Hirai, a ministry spokesman, said that the pill (which requires a doctor's prescription) is expected to become available in Japan by the autumn. Previously the pill had been banned for contraceptive purposes since the 1960s. Only high and medium dose pills could be legally prescribed for menstrual disorders, low dose pills were not available.

Claims that the pill would promote promiscuity, lead to a rise in the spread of AIDs and STIs, and would lead to oestrogen contaminated waste polluting the environment and cause low sperm counts among Japanese men, all helped delay the pill's legalisation. Initial demand is not expected to be very high as the pill has received a great deal of negative publicity and Japanese women wary of it. Kunio Kitamura, head of Japan's Family Planning Association said 'Now Japanese women will finally have the contraceptive choices that women in other countries have. I didn't think it would take this long', and added 'The pill has such a bad image that now I will have to educate women about its advantages'. The pill will still not be available on Japan's national health service.

As well as a legacy of myths and misinformation about the pill, cultural ideas about what is 'natural' will also have to be considered, and a historical reliance on abortion to regulate fertility. The following resources may be useful for understanding these issues.

In accordance with nature: The impossibility of family planning in Japan Abstract of a paper presented at Changing contraceptives: technologies, choices and constraints,

University of Durham,
Stockton College,
12-14 September 1996
Mariko Jitsukawa,
Department of Anthropology,
Stanford University,
CA 94305, USA

The prevalence of abortion among Japanese women combined with their lack of support for the legalisation of oral contraceptives has perplexed many observers. Do Japanese women believe abortion is safer than oral contraceptives? A survey showed that about 60% of women who were about to have abortions rejected the idea of taking the Pill for fear of 'negative side-effects'. Besides, almost 10% of the respondents said that the Pill should not be legalised. I explore what Japanese women mean by 'side-effects' through an analysis of the Japanese discourse on the Pill. Japanese feminists articulate women's fears of side-effects rather than supporting the legalisation of the Pill. In addition to reminding of the incidence of iatrogenesis that occurred in the sixties and seventies, they condemn the Pill saying that it represses women's sexuality by forcing them into a daily regimen; that regulating their bodies by chemically manufactured hormones is another defeat to male domination; that artificial regulation of the hormonal cycle is a violation of bodily ecology. In short the Pill is not natural.

For them, maintaining the female body's natural rhythm is essential to the control of one's personhood. By 'negative side-effects' Japanese women do not refer to the effects identified by the medical community; they refer to the perceived possibility that the Pill deprives the body of self-control. In contrast to the Occidental view, in which humans confront and conquer nature, in the Japanese view, nature is seen as something that is not subject to human control. The ideal status of a body is considered to be in accordance with nature. Nature is an inevitable constituent of the human body and the human body is a micro-cosmos of nature. The body should remain natural to be in the most empowered condition. By 'staying natural', Japanese feminists mean the will to keep anything from interfering with their relationship with nature. By making the fertile female body infertile, hormonal methods, the IUD, or surgical sterilisation violate women's relationship with nature. This is unacceptable to Japanese women. Family planning is a human effort to control fertility in order to gain mastery of the body. However, with the underlying assumption that the body is subject to women's control, such an artificial practice is inconceivable. The conspicuous absence of the practice of long term planning among Japanese women --be it family planning, career planning, or life planning - reveals not their lack of independence but women's conviction that they should stay natural.

Also, try reading anthropologist Susan Hardacre's Marketing the Menacing Foetus in Japan published in 1997 by University of California Press, Berkeley, for a fascinating and impressively well-researched exploration of the cultural and historical meanings of abortion in Japan.
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