Nanako Oba, Japan’s first ever “birth coordinator,” knows what it takes to educate the public about a topic too often avoided in Japanese society: sex.
The 51-year-old mother of five, who runs four businesses, takes a prevention-rather-than-cure approach and believes in pre-empting potential problems regarding sex with education. For Oba, there is no better way to empower girls in society.
Oba, who is also pursuing a master’s degree in comprehensive human sciences at the University of Tsukuba, offers classes on sexual and reproductive health that target a wide range of age groups, while running a program to train birth advisers like herself.
“There should be a governmental infrastructure to support sex education in Japan. I think it should focus on birth rather than contraception,” Oba said in an interview.
Oba’s classes for students focus on positive and healthy images of sexuality, such as the wonders of life inside the womb, rather than birth control and STD prevention, which is more prevalent.
“The term ‘sex education’ scares parents off as well as kids. In Japanese the kanji for ‘sex’ is a combination of the two characters for ‘heart’ and ‘life,’ but it’s not seen that way,” she said.
In 2005, Oba struck upon the word tanjogaku — literally “the study of birth” — and five years later it was accepted into the lexicon of contemporary terminology.
Today, her 400 trained tanjogaku advisers visit between 1,000 and 1,200 public schools per year, using their own methods to teach about pregnancy and birth in an effort to get students to become with their sexuality and improve their self-esteem.
“There’s not a single female who gets pregnant wishing for an abortion. But every day in Japan there are about 45 girls between the ages of 10 and 19 who abort their babies,” Oba said.
“For girls who enter adulthood with little or no sex education at school, it’s like being told to steer a wrecked ship in rough seas without a map, telescope or sail.”
Oba’s 30 years’ of parenting experience raising two boys and three girls has made her a child care expert, and she teaches grade-school kids and adolescents in such a way that they are guided to believe that every life, including their own, is a gift.
“The problem is that there is no standard sex education in Japan. It’s completely up to the teacher, and even then a teacher is not allowed to teach anything that is not approved by the government or the board of education,” she said.
Oba advises all parents to start giving kids home-based sex education as early as possible, because by age 10 most children will be introduced to pornography through their friends or through the internet, and simply blocking R-rated online content isn’t a magic bullet.
That children come into contact with sexual images is not so much the problem, but their inability to distinguish sex where women are treated like objects from sex as a form of communication between couples in mature relationships is, Oba said.
According to research by the Life and Birth Studies Association, a public-interest incorporated group launched by Oba, in Japan there are about 80 girls between the ages of 10 and 19 who get pregnant on any single day. To Oba, this means there are too many youths out there who have not been handed the weapon called education.
“I gave birth five times but I also had five miscarriages. Life can’t be just made like a paper airplane. That’s why I want all pregnancies to start with a ‘hurray’ and not ‘oh no.’ For that to happen I will help in any way I can,” Oba said.
“People talk about economic stability, but I think health stability comes first. My granddaughter just turned 1, and I was awed thinking that in a matter of 700 days a man and a woman can meet, live together, bring a new life into the world, and see that life start walking. Talk about what money can’t buy.”
A report by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry states that in 2014 there were 17,854 girls under 20 whose pregnancies ended in abortion, which accounted for nearly 10 percent of all abortions performed in Japan that year.
“I want to work together with schools to teach girls how not to get pregnant. I also want to teach the parents how to teach their kids, because what we learn from our parents we pass on to our kids, and a lot of information that adults have is inaccurate.”
Oba said Japan lags behind the rest of the world in the gender gap index (101st among 145 countries as of the latest rankings in 2015), and the changes are too slow and gradual. It’s time to tackle the awkward topic of sex, she said.
“Japan is 15 years behind when it comes to sex education, and 15 years behind in childbirth preparatory education. We have a very low infant mortality rate and live in one of the safest places in the world, yet why are so many girls getting abortions?”
The total number of abortions may be decreasing, but Oba thinks this is because of improvements in information infrastructure and birth control methods, not in the sexual health education system.
Despite having a near-perfect literacy rate, the nation’s suicide rate exceeds the global average by 60 percent. Oba cannot help but think this reality could change if all schoolchildren are given the opportunity to learn how to become mentally, physically and sexually responsible adults.
“Ignorance cannot be an excuse for unintended pregnancy. Boys and girls should be taught more about life and birth, and how all lives are connected. This is about the survival of the human race,” Oba said.
“Japan is such a competition-driven society and there may be high academic performers, but many of them have poor mental health. We are blessed with the chance to change our future for the better, and change is what we need,” she said.
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