TOKYO — After decades of debate, the Japanese government is finally gearing up to legalize the Pill, but many women are worried it will further erode their position in Japan's chauvinistic society.
The Health and Welfare Ministry announced last year that it would lift the ban on oral contraceptive pills by the end of the 1980s. But only 35% of married women welcome the move, according to a newspaper survey, and only 13% were willing to use it because of worries about side effects.
"More dangerous than its physical side-effects are its social impacts," said Yuriko Ashino of the Japanese Family Planning Federation.
In Japan's male-dominated society, the Pill could strengthen the attitude that birth control is exclusively the woman's responsibility and that men do not have to be bothered, she said.
Family planning activists, doctors and officials say they also fear that sexual morality will decline if women are able to control their own fertility through the Pill.
Concerns About Side-Effects
The Pill became available in most Western countries in the 1960s, but its introduction in Japan was delayed largely because of concerns about side-effects, both medical and moral.
Condoms and the rhythm method have been the most widely used forms of birth control in Japan since World War II. But liberal abortion laws have also played a crucial role.
According to official figures, there are 500,000 to 600,000 abortions every year, compared to around 100,000 a year in the 1950s. "Women are silently bearing the burden of unwanted pregnancy through abortion," Ashino said.
Some women obtain the Pill from doctors who prescribe them ostensibly on medical grounds. Doctors and feminists estimate about 700,000 Japanese women now use oral contraceptives.
But the long ban on the open sale of the Pill has meant that many Japanese women know almost nothing about how it works.
One 30-year-old married woman with two children said she understood the Pill only needed to be taken before sexual intercourse to prevent pregnancy.
"I would prefer to take contraceptive pills than have an abortion," said another woman, 27 and married with two children. "But I don't know anything about it and I'm worried about the side-effects."
Apart from a lack of accurate information and proper sex education, Japanese women are traditionally expected to be naive and obedient to men, which hinders an open discussion about birth control between couples, said Ashino.
The delay in legalizing the Pill seems to have helped create the belief, at least among Japanese men, that it is the ideal birth control method.
"My wife refuses to take the Pill," said one sociologist, a father of three. "I do not understand it because other methods are not reliable enough and she used to take it when we lived in Europe."
Even without the Pill, Japan's birthrate has been falling steadily for years and last year hit 11.4 per thousand, the lowest since 1899.
A Political Football
Debate over the Pill is linked to calls from conservatives for stricter abortion laws.
"Restriction of the abortion laws could follow the Pill legalization," said feminist activist and author Yayori Aoki.
One bill which would have made almost all abortions criminal offenses nearly passed through parliament in 1982.
It was sponsored by a conservative religious group called Seichounoie, which combines the doctrines of Buddhism and Christianity with Japan's indigenous Shinto beliefs. The movement has close links with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.
"The Liberal Democratic Party could collect support from the Seichounoie religious group if it introduced anti-abortion legislation. It would be easier to do so once the birth control pill is officially introduced," said Aoki.
Japan's first anti-abortion law was passed in 1880 when the government wanted to encourage more births to increase the supply of potential soldiers.
Now, feminists say, Japanese industrialists are in favor of abolishing liberal abortion laws for much the same reason--they want to ensure a large pool of both labor and consumers.