Mitsuko Kobayashi often gave blood at local Red Cross centers as a young girl, because her mother said she should try to help people. But after giving birth two years ago, she found such trips difficult with a child in tow.
Then a year ago, while shopping in Tokyo’s Kichijoji district near her home, Kobayashi, 34, came upon a center that cared for children every Tuesday while their parents donated blood.
The center is among a growing number offering extra, even trendy, features to attract donors, especially younger ones at a time when donor numbers are falling.
The moves to attract more donors are also in line with a government push to attain self-sufficiency in blood supplies, a policy that came about after criticism that Japan depended too much on imported blood products, and that intensified after the dangers of contaminated imported blood products hit home.
“I think it’s good that they provide (baby sitting) for people who want to donate but can’t because of child-rearing constraints,” Kobayashi said.
Now, with her 2-year-old daughter, she visits the center every two weeks — the required interval for conducting aphaeresis donations, in which components from extracted blood are separated and a portion of the remainder is reinjected into the donor.
Kobayashi’s donations notwithstanding, donors in Japan have been on a decline.
In 1985, about 8.7 million people donated blood, but the figure dropped to less than 5.8 million in 2002, according to Katsuhiko Aikawa, a public relations officer for the Japanese Red Cross Society.
He blamed the fall in part to a waning spirit of social contribution amid the long economic slump.
But Red Cross officials in general believe the drop in donors has more to do with the decline in the number of young people amid Japan’s aging society and falling birthrate, and they fear this could lead to a blood shortfall.
In 1985, more than half of donors were aged 16 to 29. Now, more than 60 percent are 30 years old or older, and 18 percent are at least 50.
The Red Cross extended the donor age limit from 64 to 69 in 1999, but not everyone in that bracket can meet the health criteria to be a donor.
Aikawa said young people today are not as accustomed to receiving inoculations as their older counterparts, and are thus more reluctant to get a needle stuck into them for a blood donation, since school vaccination drives for such viruses as influenza and rubella were discontinued in 1994.
Blood centers are thus making efforts to lessen the trauma young people may fear in donating.
The Red Cross blood donation room near the east exit of JR Shinjuku Station, for example, was renovated in 2000 to cater to young people, providing doughnuts and special events.
The center now looks like an entertainment venue, complete with TV, video, massage chairs, PlayStation 2 game consoles, hundreds of comic books and magazines, and snacks — all free for donors.
The center provides professional semimonthly palm-reading sessions, biweekly tarot card sessions, nail-coloring and color coordination sessions, and color therapy.
According to one of the staff, the center has seen a three-fold jump in donors since 1997, with 250 visiting on a weekday and as many as 350 on weekends.
The fortunetelling sessions are especially popular, drawing many young women.
“It’s amazing that we can get so many services just by giving blood. I’d like to try the services at other (blood centers) as well,” Rie Kanakawa, 19, said as her fortune was being read.
Because she is studying to become a nurse, she said she would probably donate blood even if she could not have her fortune read, but she believes the service can attract many young people.
The Shinjuku center’s success has prompted other facilities to boast features to attract young donors.
The Shibu 2 donation center in Shibuya offers hair-health checks and color therapy, involving interpretation and advice on a donor’s psyche.
The two centers in Ikebukuro offer bread-making and cake-baking lessons, courses to promote health and manual therapeutics sessions, as well as fortunetelling.
Behind the efforts to draw in more young donors is the government’s blood self-sufficiency push, which stems from a 1975 World Health Organization recommendation that member states promote state-operated, voluntary blood-donation programs.
Japan was criticized at the time for being too dependent on imported blood products, using them in large quantities in treatments that did not necessarily require such amounts, Aikawa of the Red Cross said.
According to the WHO, the overdemand spurred the commercialization of blood, especially in developing countries. People end up selling their blood to make a living, thereby damaging their health. The overdemand also increased the risk that contaminated blood would slip through screening regimens.
At present, all blood used for transfusions is supplied domestically, but Japan is still dependent on imports for some plasma derivatives.
According to Wahei Horigane of the health ministry’s Blood and Blood Products Division, Japan is still about 90,000 liters shy of plasma self-sufficiency, and must import half of its albumin products.
Given this shortfall, the Red Cross Society is expanding its blood-center diversification efforts to areas outside Tokyo, debuting unique features to attract more donors.
A center in Nagoya holds wood workshops; one in Osaka’s Umeda district attracts visitors because of its great view from the building’s 25th floor, Aikawa said.
“I hope the services can encourage more people to visit us, and give them the impression that it’s fun to help people,” he said.