Demographic statistics released by the health and welfare ministry continue to paint a bleak future for Japan, whose population is forecast to decline steadily in coming decades unless measures are taken to reverse the birthrate decline. The number of babies born in 2011 was the lowest on record since 1947.
Cold data, though, could overshadow the human suffering that often goes unheeded as attention focuses on the nation’s broader demographic trend. These are the issues that Cynthia Ruble, an American resident of Nagoya, is addressing through her volunteer activities.
Ruble confesses that she was not born a good Samaritan. “Before coming to Japan, I worked in advertising in Atlanta for 10 years. I was a manic career woman, went to graduate business school at night and worked my way up to vice president at the second-largest advertising agency in Atlanta in five years.”
Ruble partly credits her family background for her drive. “From my parents I inherited a strong work ethic and honesty, but I was also naturally competitive,” she says. “My job became the total definition of who I was and what gave my life meaning. You could say I was a typical product of the American yuppie culture of the 1980s.”
Ruble’s professional success, though, came at a cost. “My personal life was always in shambles,” she admits. “My intense focus on my job hurt my marriage. Our low point was when I got pregnant (for the only time in my life) and my husband tried to force me to get an abortion. I wouldn’t do it but ended up losing the baby by miscarriage. We filed for divorce, and I suddenly lost interest in everything — my sports car, my big job, money.”
After hitting bottom, Ruble started searching for meaning. This led her, at 35, to become a Christian. “I guess I was a post-Christian secularist. I was brought up in a Christian culture and didn’t reject it outright. I just thought there were many more interesting things to think about. But since I didn’t have any other moral foundation to fall back on, I was rootless and lacked common sense about some basic things in life.
“Through my conversion I experienced the freedom of being able to forget myself and really see and hear the people around me. I eventually went to seminary and then immediately on to Japan as a short-term missionary teaching English in 2000. Eventually I left the mission agency to do something a little different.”
Thanks to her newfound attitude toward people, Ruble was able to make many friends in Japan. “I like to get to know my Japanese neighbors and have people over. My Japanese friends are my closest friends in the world, and I consider Japan my home,” she says.
This also led to starting Life Hope Network (LHN), a volunteer group that Ruble founded in 2005 with a group of Japanese Christians. “Initially, I only wanted to let pregnant women who needed a place to stay to come live with me. I saw this as just a part of my personal life. I knew what it was like to be pressured to have an abortion and that abortion was rampant in Japan.”
Though Ruble did not expect to start a new organization, she soon realized that she needed one if she wanted to reach out to women who needed help. So she contacted a nonprofit organization in the U.S. that helped start crisis pregnancy centers throughout the world.
“I started gathering Japanese women together and talking to them about the need for this kind of center in Japan,” she says. “I was blessed to find a group of women who were willing to give it a try. One could speak perfect English, which was good since I couldn’t speak Japanese at that time.
“At the beginning, we had a pretty large group that was involved. We went around to clinics, colleges, churches and town halls to introduce ourselves, and actually passed out fliers at nearby subway stations every Friday night for a long time. Somehow, the phone almost immediately started ringing. It helped a lot that a few clinics referred a good many women to us. Also, we had a midwife on our staff, which gave us some credibility.”
Ruble’s group got some training from the American NPO, then set up an office, phone and home page, and were soon off and running. “From the beginning, I took in pregnant women to live with me, and I am very thankful for the opportunity to be a part of these women’s lives and to get to hold their children in my arms. One woman lived with me for 2½ years after the birth of her son. I believe helping her raise her little boy prepared me to raise my little Micah, whom I adopted a little over two years ago. He has Down syndrome and is the cutest little guy you’ll ever meet.”
Ruble admits that LHN has had its ups and downs. Apart from technical problems, Ruble says that in the beginning, she was clueless as to what she was getting into. “We got home-stays from the first year, and we had some hard times. We had to gradually learn to do what was best for the women we were helping long-term. It’s very easy to do things that make you feel good and think, ‘My, I am a very nice person!’ But often that’s not what the other person needs. Keiko Tarashima became our new manager after three years. She had a lot of life and work experience that helped move us forward in the quality of our care and counseling. I’m very happy with where we are now.”
LHN mainly supports women with unplanned pregnancies and women who are suffering from postabortion stress. “While I never had the privilege of giving birth to my own baby, I can say there’s nothing better than holding a newborn and knowing you had just a little something to do with him or her being here.
“We have many ‘birth stories,’ such as the time a baby was born in the car of our midwife staff member. We’ve had sad times, such as when a baby died due to a bad heart, and tough times, when home-stays had to say goodbye to their babies who were going to be adopted. But we’ve also had many happy times when women have become good mothers and they come to visit, bringing their cute toddlers with them. Or when a woman who had a tough time giving up her baby for adoption gets married and then pregnant with a child she can keep. Our happiest time is when, instead of brokenness and regret, we see happiness and hope in the life of a client.”
Recently LHN has been getting more and more calls from women with postabortion stress. “I have been surprised by the degree of suffering by women in Japan because of abortion, which is not considered ‘wrong’ here. I can say from experience that the emotional cost of abortion in Japan has been high. We get a good number of deeply depressed, even suicidal, clients. The first thing we want them to know is that they are not alone. Sometimes they just want someone to talk to, but those who really want to move on in their lives and leave this pain behind them will usually try to go through our study program. It helps them organize and deal with their emotions, and overcome their grief and guilt.
“We have noticed over the last few years that the government is offering more and more support to single mothers. There’s tremendous financial support for teenagers going through a pregnancy in Japan, and women who truly have no resources are well taken care of in this country. Besides financial support, which includes free delivery and health care, there are single-mother dorms. But most often, Japanese parents will end up helping their daughter and new grandchild.
“I really wish that children were not so equated to money in Japan, and people could lower their expectation of what material things children need to be happy. Another hope we have is that adoption will gain a better image in Japan so that women who just can’t raise their baby would feel that they have an option. We have found that often young women are interested in adoption but their parents will not be able to accept it and will push for abortion. Also, we’d like to see the government adopting more babies instead of letting mothers put them in orphanages for years on end. Overall, we’d love for the government to make healthy families a major initiative and focus for the country, as that is the only way for Japan to have a bright future.”
For more information about Life Hope Network, visit www.lifehopenet.com (in Japanese and English).