Asuka Someya discovered she was pregnant at the age of 20 when she was a university student.
Having had no courage to raise the baby alone or give up on her future plans, she decided to abort it.
“That’s the dilemma that mostly women face and the burden only women take on,” she said. “Such a decision affects one’s entire life.”
Someya, 30, founded Pilcon, a nonprofit organization devoted to raising awareness of sexual health and contraception among youths. She believes their alarming lack of knowledge mostly results from poor sex education at school.
“Young people are taught that sex is a deviancy and brings risks, that’s all,” she said, lamenting that school-based education in Japan is not designed to provide knowledge on how to deal with potential consequences.
Teenagers have few people they can turn to for advice, she said, because sexuality is a Japanese cultural taboo and women’s role in society is submissive.
She said mothers, who in most households are responsible for the children’s education, usually avoid discussions about sex because they are uncertain how to respond or think “this isn’t my child’s problem.”
Someya started a sex education program with friends while attending Keio University’s Fujisawa campus in 2007, inviting experts to lecture about contraception methods and encourage students to become more conscious about making choices that could affect their future.
After working for about five years in marketing at a cosmetics firm, she decided to quit her job to focus on sex education activities and formally established Pilcon in 2013.
Someya, who now works with about 30 volunteers, many students, offers a broad range of programs and workshops for junior high, high school and college students, as well as their parents.
Once every two months, the group hosts sessions for the general public consisting of guest speakers and workshops.
Someya also made a YouTube video on safe sex that includes a mock demonstration of how to correctly use condoms (http://jtim.es/WrD2Y).
She said she made it because she wanted to convey the message in a more upbeat way, and the only known footage on YouTube at that time was a dull video of a male urologist explaining the procedure for putting on a condom.
In December, Japan’s top condom maker, Okamoto Industries, began airing a new TV commercial featuring comedian Yoshimi Tokui encouraging young people to use condoms. The company said it decided to release a rare commercial, its first in about a decade, in an effort to reduce unwanted pregnancies and address the rise in sexually transmitted diseases, or STDs.
It also released online an interview with Tokui about his first experience using a condom, which took place in high school when he wanted to see what it feels like.
Someya said she hopes more people share their own experiences so young people can think of sexual safety as their own concern. Japan urgently needs to foster sexual literacy and create an environment where young people can speak openly about sex, she added.
According to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, the number of pregnancies ending in abortion exceeded 190,000 in 2013, while the number of newborns dropped to around 1 million last year. This means that roughly 1 in 5 pregnancies ends in abortion.
Experts say abortion in Japan became commonplace because of loose regulations in the 1948 law that legalized it so married couples could limit their family sizes after the war.
While Japan is now struggling with population decline, over 80 percent of women who choose to get an abortion are in their 20s or early 30s — the generation regarded as most fit for bearing and raising children.
In addition, given that the use of birth control pills is still quite low in Japan, she said that when it comes to contraception it is usually the man who calls the shots, explaining why many women don’t even bother.
“I wasn’t aware of (the risks) and trusted my (partner),” she said, recounting her college days, when counting on luck seemed to be the norm for women.
According to the education ministry’s guidelines, last revised in 2005, the use of terms like sexual intercourse and contraception are not allowed to be used in junior high school.
“It is believed that junior high school students are too young to learn about it,” Someya said, adding that this approach stemmed from concern that teaching children about sexuality would encourage them to become promiscuous.
However, Someya said her research shows that many females have already had sexual intercourse by the time they turn 18, and nearly half of today’s 20-year-olds are sexually active, she said.
Although sex education has been introduced in high schools as part of physical education, Someya said many teachers do not feel comfortable explaining issues related to sexuality.
Based on questionnaires handed out before her lectures, Someya said many young people are also unaware of other risks associated with unprotected sex, such as STDs that could lead to death or infertility if untreated.
The latest statistics by the National Institute of Infectious Diseases show that syphilis cases reported between Jan. 1 and Oct. 28 last year totaled 2,037, surpassing the 1,617 logged in 2014. Cases among women aged 20 to 24 spiked to 177 cases — 2.7 times last year’s level.
Also, according to the Health, Labor and Welfare ministry, 11,936 men and 13,024 women in Japan were infected last year with chlamydia, another common infection. Cases of chlamydia can reportedly be asymptomatic in up to around 70 percent of women and about 50 percent of men.
In Pilcon’s lectures and workshops, the problem is explained with a simple water-pouring game involving cups held by the participants. As they transfer the water from cup to cup, it eventually turns pink, signifying an STD has been contracted somewhere along one’s line of sexual partners.
Someya said the perception of sexuality in Japan is widely influenced by its robust pornography industry. Some of the content, especially comic books, often illustrate sex in a violent manner and with underage girls.
She also noted the vast influence of the Internet, which facilitates the spread of misleading or inaccurate information about sex. This can give some people the impression sex is something filthy.
According to a government survey in 2011, more than a third of Japanese men aged 16 to 19 either had no interest in sex or were averse to it.
“I hope we will be able to reach young people in more distant areas with help from organizations operating nationwide . . . and also focus on sharing more information via the Internet,” Someya said.