National / Media | MEDIA MIX

In Japan no one wants to talk about sex education

by Philip Brasor

In Dec. 2016, Dr. Yasuhiko Onoe, a urologist, was on the TBS Radio talk show “Session-22” discussing the alarming rise in sexually transmitted diseases (STD) in Japan. During his explanation, he struck an odd note whenever he referred to the male sex organ, calling it by the childish word “ochinchin.”

This reluctance to use grownup vocabulary when talking about sex is common in the media. The English “penis” — which rhymes with “Venice” in katakana — is the preferred technical term when discussing male genitalia in Japan, but even that seems to be taboo in broadcast situations. Sexual squeamishness is not unusual, but when doctors avoid certain words you know the problem goes deeper.

On March 16 this year, the Liberal Democratic Party’s Toshiaki Koga, a member of the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly, complained about a sex education class that was taught on March 5 at a public junior high school in Adachi Ward, which had earlier conducted a survey asking students if they thought it was all right for high schoolers to have sex. Forty-four percent answered “yes.” According to the Asahi Shimbun, based on the results, the unnamed school projected that the number of abortions would rise among students after they entered high school, and so devised the special class, which covered condom use, among other topics.

Alerted by Koga, the Tokyo Metropolitan Board of Education said junior high school was too early to expose children to these matters, and condemned the use of terms like seikō (sexual intercourse), hinin (contraception) and jinkō ninshin chūzetsu (artificially induced pregnancy interruption) in the class. It added that it was permissible to discuss prevention of STDs, but not intercourse, birth control or abortion.

The Adachi City Board of Education replied that there was nothing improper about the class or its content, and that the purpose was to help students avoid pregnancies, not encourage sexual activity. Adachi is one of the poorest wards in Tokyo. As one official pointed out, such a curriculum is important since teen pregnancies perpetuate the cycle of poverty. Tokyo responded that if students are “suspected” of having sex or they become pregnant, then the correct action is to “provide guidance” on an individual basis, not in a classroom setting.

This conflict is pertinent in light of an education ministry survey the results of which were released on March 30. In 2015 and 2016, the ministry found there were 2,098 pregnancies among high school girls. Of these, 642 dropped out on their own and 32 quit on the “advice” of their schools. The ministry has now asked schools not to press girls into dropping out and, while the majority of pregnant teens who leave school supposedly do so of their own accord or at the insistence of guardians (it’s difficult to tell how voluntary these actions really were, since the study surveyed schools and not students), schools did not try to dissuade them. Also, many schools do not have measures in place to assist pregnant girls so that they can complete their secondary education.

The ministry said nothing about the role of sex education in the matter, but girls and boys who are not taught the details of intercourse and childbirth before adolescence are going to be unprepared to face sexual situations when they arise, and the education ministry report implies that high school is too late to teach these things.

The Jan. 30 issue of the Mainichi Shimbun’s Okayama edition ran a feature about a local group who found that the reason pregnant high school girls drop out is that there is no support for them. Schools won’t even talk about the matter because their policy is that “students must not become pregnant.” The same newspaper on Feb. 21 reported on a forum about teen pregnancy where specific cases of girls who dropped out and girls who remained in school were discussed. The forum concluded that dropouts were much more likely to live in poverty, and that “family support” was not enough. Schools, it added, should not only persuade these girls to stay in school, but prepare for those circumstances as well. The tendency, they found, however, is that schools would rather avoid the issues, thus passing the buck to parents who are notoriously nervous about discussing sex with their kids.

In that regard, Adachi Ward is at least trying to do something by offering sex education, with the purpose of preventing teen pregnancies. But the attitude that discourages some schools from devising strategies to address adolescent sexual activity also informs decisions like that of the Tokyo Metropolitan Board of Education when it prohibits schools from providing sex education.

It’s notable that Koga, the man who sparked Tokyo’s attack on Adachi Ward, is the same politician who in 2003 headed a campaign to stop a sex education class at a Tokyo public school for children with special needs. Nanao Yogo Gakko in Hino started the class because it was concerned that some of its students with learning disabilities would get into problematic sexual situations when they became adolescents. After discussing the matter with parents, the faculty came up with a course that relied heavily on visual aids and used words like “penis” and “vagina” openly. Koga led a raid on the school, saying the class was obscene and in doing so received a lot of publicity, especially in the Sankei Shimbun, which echoed his disgust. Teachers were punished but the school eventually sued Tokyo Prefecture and Sankei, first winning through Tokyo District Court in 2009, then winning two appeals in the High Court in 2011 and the Supreme Court in 2013.

In an essay about the Nanao case at Yahoo News, Tamaka Ogawa pointed out that it is important for children to know about sexual relationships before they “develop biases.” As she notes, the age of consent in Japan is 13, which means, theoretically, someone who has sex with a 13-year-old child may not be prosecuted if the police find no evidence that the child tried to resist. But how many 13-year-olds will understand the concept of consent unless someone teaches it to them?