Teenage Sexual Trends Create Health Concerns
J. Sean Curtin (Professor, Japanese Red Cross University)
A whole series of newly released statistics and surveys dramatically illustrate that the health of many Japanese young people is in danger. The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare recently released figures showing that nearly 40 percent of all Japanese newly infected with AIDS were teenagers or people in their twenties. The same Ministry also announced that 46,500 women under twenty had abortions in 2001. This is the highest recorded level and represents an 80% increase on the same figure for 1995. Other statistics indicate that sexually transmitted diseases are spreading rapidly amongst the young. For example, cases of chlamydia have nearly tripled in the last decade hitting 37,028 in 2000.*
Research clearly shows that young Japanese are becoming sexually active at an earlier age. A recently published Tokyo poll showed that 45.6% of third year female high school students and 37.3% of male students have experienced sex.** An earlier March 2001 survey on second-year high school students in an unnamed prefecture showed 52.9% of boys and 51.6% of girls had already had more than two sex partners while 20.6 percent of the boys and 18.1 percent of the girls claimed to have had four or more partners.*** You can get an idea of the shift in sexual trends from a 1974 survey conducted by the Japanese Association for Sex Education, which showed that only 5.5% of high school students had a sexual intercourse.
Although regional surveys produce differing results, the overall trend is clear. Young people are engaging in sexual activity earlier than in previous decades. Despite surveys showing that sex is now solidly entrenched in teen culture, until recently the government has done very little to effectively promote healthy sexual practices amongst young people. Many experts blame the school system for a lot of the shortcoming, saying that most school sex education programmes fail to convey even the most simplest message about safe sex and health issues.*
As the potential crisis in youth health gathers momentum, the Japanese government is adopting measures to tackle the problem. To boost teen and general awareness about the danger of HIV, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare began screening television commercials in July, which star Seigo Narazaki, the popular national goalkeeper. Next year, Japan will also host a regional AIDS conference in Kobe. However, an on-going controversy over a sex-education book for junior high school students illustrates that government strategy remains inconsistent.
A forty-page pamphlet entitled "Love and Body Book for Adolescents" is currently being distributed to junior high schools nationwide. It gives detailed information combined with illustrations on a wide variety of issues such as contraceptive use, sexual diseases, masturbation and same-sex relationships. This is the kind of book healthcare experts have been recommending for years. The book was produced by the Mother-Child Hygiene Research Foundation (Boshi-eisei kenkyukai), which is affiliated to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare.****
Despite professional backing, the booklet has not had a good press. Politicians and the educational establishment have been shocked by the explicitness of the information provided. They argue that such literature will encourage junior high school students to engage in sex. This is the so called "don't wake the sleeping children" philosophy. Eriko Yamaya of the Social Democratic Party says the pamphlet promotes casual sex. Much more seriously, there appears to be a rift in government between the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare and the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sport, Science and Technology (MEXT). Atsuko Toyama, the MEXT Minister, has been quoted several times as being critical of the book.*****
During July 2002, the book was withdrawn from some schools in Kyushu by the Kumamoto Board of Education on the grounds that it promotes the contraceptive pill. The board says that teenage girls who have only recently started menstruating should not be advised to use the pill due to the risk of breast cancer in later years. This controversy could eventually effect the book's national distribution. *****
The debate over the book illustrates the challenges of promoting sex education for young people. Conservative elements still prefer the traditional "don't wake the sleeping children" approach. However, since research indicates that many young people are sexually active, the government must work out a consistent and effective strategy. Unless decisive action is taken, the long-term economic and social consequences could be very severe. Perhaps it is also time to confront the traditional view with a more contemporary slogan along the lines of "Don't let the sleeping children die!"
* Experts struggle to boost prophylactics among teens
Taiga Uranaka, The Japan Times, 10 May 2002
** Seitaiken, kou3joshi no 45.6% [45.6% of High School Girls had Sexual Experience]
Asahi Shimbun, 24 July 2002
Brief summary for non-Japanese readers:
The poll was conducted in the Tokyo area by a teachers union in January 2002. The results show that 45.6% of third year female high school students and 37.3% of male students have experienced sex. 3064 students were surveyed with a response rate of about 90%. 48.2% of boys said they always used contraception while only 21.9% of girls said they did. The survey is conducted every three years.
*** The survey was conducted by the Hiroshima University Medical Department.
See: Single Mothers and Teen Sex
J. Sean Curtin, NBR'S JAPAN FORUM, Monday 18 February 2002
**** For Japanese information on the book "Love and Body Book for Adolescents" and the Mother-Child Hygiene Research Foundation
***** A Japanese Language 9 August 2002 updated article from the Kyushu outlet of the Yomiuri Shimbun had the minister's comments and explains the controversy. Search for this story and updates at: