Japan's birth control policy

Anthony Zimmerman
Submitted to SVD VERBUM, May 1965
Reproduced with Permission

Japan was in serious social and economic difficulties during the years immediately after World War II. Responsible leaders became convinced that a policy of birth control would preserve and promote national welfare. After stormy debates the Diet passed the Eugenics Protection Law in July of 1948, which legalized the sale of contraceptives, and in vaguely defined cases, sterilization and abortion. This marked the end of the "Increase and Multiply" policy which had characterized the preceding decade, and the beginning of a far-reaching birth control movement.

The fact that Japan is an island country with a closely knit population made it possible for the new policy to become effective at an astonishing rate. The Planned Parenthood Federation had the ready ear of the Government, and in fact, many of its members occupied Government research and advisory offices. Newspapers were very enthusiastic for the new policy, an important factor in a nation where practically everyone reads at least one of the great national dailies.

Other mass media, radio, magazines, public movie showings, exhibits, and later the newly invented television, carried the same message, that for the sake of happy family life, joyful and healthful education of the children, and national welfare, all should cooperate with the birth control program.

The Government did not ostensibly adopt an official policy of promoting birth control for the sake of national welfare, that is, for the sake of accelerating economic recovery and progress, or of preventing unemployment. The Eugenic Protection Law permits the sale of contraceptives with a view of improving family welfare; and it permits abortion when continued pregnancy would endanger the health of the mother; this was amended in 1952 to permit abortion also when there is economic hardship:

A mother whose health may be affected seriously by the continuation of pregnancy or by delivery from the physical or economic viewpoint is entitled to receive an abortion at the discretion of a physician who is designated by the prefectural medical association.

The people, however, did not draw a fine distinction between the theoretical intent of the government, and the practical manner in which promoters of birth control were explaining the policy. To them it seemed that birth control was nearly a patriotic duty. As the popular writer, Ryo Omura, interpreted their mind in the book Mono Iwanu Nomin on page 195:

After all, villagers are saying: "During the war the birth, regulation policy was promoted from the higher-ups (including newspapers and magazines) by this slogan: "Increase and multiply." But now the slogan is "Don't bear, don't multiply." What's the big idea? Formerly we were told to have many children, now we are told to avoid then. We are being told that it is shameful to have many children, as though that were something bad.

One also hears things like the following from villagers: "Over there, in that house, they are having one child after another, although the family is poor, and despite the fact that the authorities have been instructing us exactly about what we are supposed to do; what kind of people are they anyway, who pay so little attention to orders?" Such an atmosphere must be increasing abortions beyond necessity.

Records indicate that the observations of the villagers were literally correct. Two who had taken a leading part in the "Increase and Multiply" policy promotion before and during the war, became leaders of the birth control policy in the postwar, and still occupy the positions. They are Dr. Minoru Tachi, Director of the Population Problems Research Institute, Ministry of Welfare, and Dr. Yoshio Koya, President of the Japan Family Planning Federation. Both, however, oppose abortion; and recently, both have expressed their opposition to sale of contraceptive pills in Japan because their safety is not yet certain enough. Dr. Koya also opposes legalization of Pill sales because he fears the birth rate would be depressed excessively if sale of the Pill were permitted.

Japan's conditions in 1948 were grim indeed, and the arguments in favor of stopping population growth appeared invested with all the semblance of sweet reasonableness. The national territory was shrunken to 54% of its prewar size when Korea, Formosa, and other lands were lost. There were 80,010,000 Japanese on the 142,640 square miles of the homeland, and five-sixths of this was not suitable for cultivation. Population had escalated from 72 million to in 1945 to 80 million in 1948, powered by the large influx of repatriates, and by a marriage and baby boom with the return of peace. World War II bombings had made a shambles of cities and industrial areas. About 2,250,000 buildings were destroyed, and about 44% of the manufacturing facilities were gutted or out of commission. A giant labor force cast about for useful work but found that industry was next to paralyzed. Food, clothing, housing, medicine, fuel, means of transportation, all were in acutely short supply.

Gone was Japan's power to flood the world with her manufactured products and thus earn purchasing power to supply domestic needs. Her merchant marine was at the bottom of the sea, her trade pattern of imports from parts of her former empire was a footnote of the inexorable march of history. Control of population growth appeared to be a barren but necessary alternative to total collapse. As one put it: "I write with tears [in favor of birth control] but what else in left?"

Foreign "experts" helped Japan to make the decision in favor of birth control. Dr. Edward A. Ackerman of Chicago University, for example, advised in 1948, that the nation should hold its population at the 80,000,000 1evel, so that it would be possible to maintain a balanced economy and a modest level of living without perpetual economic dependence upon the United States. Mrs. Irene Taeuber, American demographer, warned that it would be difficult to provide adequate employment for an ever increasing labor force in Japan. Some Catholic theologians in America expressed an opinion, in private circles, that Japanese couples have an obligation to limit the number of their offspring in order to enable the nation to solve what they considered to be an overpopulation problem. [N.B. addition August 2000: People did not yet realize that normally the chief resources of a nation for national welfare and development are its population.]

A resolution of the Japan Welfare Ministry's Advisory Council on Population Problems, August 24, 1954, stated that conception control should be promoted for the sake of the over-all population policies, because the heavy pressure of population hinders the accumulation of capital and the rationalization of industries. It recommended that contraception should be promoted in order to stem the harmful tide of abortions which were having a bad effect upon the health of mothers; it admonished that active cooperation of welfare agencies, of factories, mining companies, and other establishments, should be sought, and that measures should be taken to eliminate prejudices against contraception. It advised that the taxation system and wages should discourage large families. Mr. Kusabe, Minister of Welfare, thereupon recommended that the basic principle of Japan's population policy should be a limitation of its growth.

As a matter of fact, the mood for birth control has become very strongly engrafted into public opinion by this time, and the economic system has fortified this mood intensely. In the early days of the campaign, factory employers frowned upon pregnancy, frequently provided free supplies of contraceptives and even offered to cover expenses for abortion. Ads for employment mentioned that parents of children, or of more than one or two children, need not apply. Apartment owners, taking advantage of the acute housing shortage, advertised for couples without children only. Even today, very many couples live under a wordless contract to leave an apartment if they have a third baby. The following story illustrates the situation.

A newly-wedded couple was living in an apartment in Nagoya. Both of them were working. After about a year a baby girl was born. The parents and child hardly had room to stretch out at night in their tiny apartment of less than 9 square meters. In that same room was the dresser, the electric frigidaire, a television set, a sewing machine, and other furniture.

After a year the mother conceived a second time. Because the house was too small for a second child, the pregnancy was terminated artificially and the little one was buried.

When the little girl was three years old, the mother conceived for a third time. This time both parents wanted the child, so they began to search for a new apartment. They were aware that it would be hard to find, and that they would have to pay about two months of wages just for "key money." They took along the little girl and went far and wide in this city of over 1.7 million inhabitants to find a suitable apartment, Everywhere they were curtly refused because of the child, and her condition of pregnancy. Finally a prospect opened up when an acquaintance who owned an apartment house heard of their search; but he lost interest too, when appraised of her condition of pregnancy, and his manager refused. After many days of searching, they finally located a tiny and inconvenient apartment, far from the husband's place of employment. They decided to take it. But before they could move in, the mother had a miscarriage, due to over-weariness and excitement, and so they buried their second unborn baby, then moved into the inconvenient apartment in utter loneliness.

At the present time the former positive enthusiasm for family planning in Japan in not much in evidence, either in the press or in the air waves. Quite to the contrary, more and more warnings are given against abortion, and even against the birth control mood in general. A prominent member of the Japan Society of Demographers, Dr. Mizushima, stated at the annual convention on April 24, 1965, that the time has come to amend the Eugenic Protection Law in order to halt abortions, and that we ought to worry deeply about the declining trend of the population.

In a message written to the delegates present at the Eighteenth Meeting of the Japan Catholic Population Research Association, His Excellency Archbishop Mario Cagna, Apostolic Inter-nuncio to Japan, noted the following:

Your studies have indicated that many in the nation are now convinced that the demand for birth control has exceeded proper bounds, and should be corrected. Companies which had promoted family planning before are in isolated instances promoting larger families. The Governor of Gifu Prefecture has announced a new policy to commend and award large families. The Welfare Ministry is readying a bill to make family allowances compulsory so that parents will be able to support the education of children more easily.

It was significant that the Japan Family Planning Federation took such pains to explain that it had never been their policy to promote small families. They did this during the National Convention held at Shizuoka through a spokesman on November 6, 1961. "Planned families, not small families," he insisted. They furthermore disclaimed responsibility for the abortion problem, since they urge contraception in order to prevent abortion. The Association is now in an awkward position in Japan because there is so much pre-occupation with the declining school enrolment. Add to this the problem of shortage of labor which is threatening to slow down the smooth functioning of the national economy. And there is danger that the Association will be made the scape goat for the deeply entrenched abortion problem. Doctors at the above mentioned JFPF Convention mentioned that a chief reason for so many failures of contraception in Japan is the fact that legal abortions are so easy to obtain. This makes people careless, they said. A statement of the Federation made on July 17,1964 urged the Welfare Ministry not to permit the sale of contraceptive pills in the nation. One reason they gave for this advocacy was the lack of sufficient births in the nation:

The birth rate of our nation has become the lowest in the world. There are many among the national intelligentsia, and members of the National Diet, who are deeply worried about this situation. Why then, should there be need of issuing permission to market this medicine which is 100% effective as a contraceptive, and will lower the already excessively low birth rate still more, just at this very tine when measures to correct the excesses arising from the Eugenic Protection Law are being considered? The time when the Government will have to take the lead in encouraging people to have children is not far off, judging from the present condition of the birth rate and the net reproduction rate.

The above passage indicates a growing disillusionment with the birth control policy in Japan. Sensing the national trend, Prime Minister Ikeda, on January 1, 1963, spoke in favor of more births in an interview with Asahi newspaper:

The hitozukuri (human development) I speak of is not confined to improving people who already exist in this world. It is also important that fine babies be born. It goes against the order established by God to restrain by artificial means the entry of unborn children into the world. I wish that people would realize that when the population is increasing the nation prospers. I believe there are other ways of solving the overpopulation problem.


There were not many abortions, relatively speaking, during the period when the "Increase and Multiply" policy was in force. Perhaps there were 100,000 per year before the war, and this declined to about 50,000 during the war. But in 1948, the year when the Eugenic Protection Law opened the way for contraception and abortion, legally registered abortions exploded to 246,104; four years later the number vaulted to 1,068,066. In addition there was an unreported number of unknown magnitude. The actual number of abortions may therefore number between two and three millions per year, as compared with 1.6 million live births. This is by no means a pleasant experience for the nation. Year after year the Planned Parenthood Federation has been replaying its tired record that the contraception movement must be intensified to reduce the abortions. Year after year the abortions continue at a rate of about 4000% (four thousand percent) higher than before the popularization of contraception was introduced.

Dr. Ayanori Okazaki of the Population Research Institute, Welfare Ministry, has stated that it was the very popularization of, contraception which gave rise to the abortion problem. The President of the Family Planning Federation, Dr. Yoshio Koya, indicated that a causal relation exists between the promotion of contraception and abortion:

From the increase in induced abortions per 100 pregnancies ... it would appear that women preferred the consequences of an induced abortion to the alternative of bringing an unwanted child into the world. Can we blame then for that? Absolutely not, because this line of reasoning reflects the results of our educational activity.

The statement appears in his paper presented at the World Population Conference at Belgrade, and in his book Pioneering in Family Planning, page 84. From my own experience in this field, which covers many talks with specialists and with people of all walks of life, I am convinced that the abortion problem is due mainly to the birth control "mood" and that this mood has been generated artificially, in large part, by the promotion of contraception. The lightning that the media blitzed across the nation was promotion of contraception, the blast of thunder that followed was abortion.

Dissatisfaction with abortion is indicated by the growing public criticism of the practice, and by the fact that the Japan Medical Association, the Welfare Ministry, the so-called "Movement to Treat Life Respectfully" and different Religious bodies are now working on proposals to amend the Eugenics Protection Law in order to curb abortions.


It is the writer's opinion that the great prevalence of abortion in Japan has been a major block to the spread of Christianity. The women are especially sensitive to the evil of the practice. Once a woman realizes that she has destroyed her inner integrity so drastically, and that she is living in circumstances where she will probably have to do this again and again, she loses hope of drawing close to God; one does not wish to come to the light when following a practice which one recognizes as very evil. I fear that a whole series of other nations is going to go through a similar sad experience during the coming decades.


Before closing, I wish to emphasize that many sincere people, both Japanese and Westerners, were convinced in 1948 that birth control was the best solution for Japan's so-called overpopulation problem. Today no economist of note in Japan believes that the birth control policy had much to do with the nation's postwar recovery and her marvelous progress up to the present time. Foreign economists may still believe so, but not the Japanese, nor those who know Japan well. Experience has taught the important lesson that an overpopulation problem is not so simple and monolithic that it can be solved only through birth control. In fact, birth control appears to be a threat to smooth economic development rather an than a help. The same, in my opinion, applies to other countries; but each has its peculiar problems, and generalizations are hazardous. Secondly, the whole-sale promotion of birth control in Japan has not resulted in a healthy form of family planning. It resulted in a dictatorial mood which occasions over 2,000,000 abortions annually to the grave moral harm of the individuals, and of the nation as a whole. Despite this unpleasant fact, now seen in retrospect, we know that some Catholics, especially in America, once theorized that it was proper to instruct the Japanese that they had a duty towards the common welfare of their neighbors and of the nation to limit the number of their offspring. It is precisely this manner of thinking which resulted in the excesses experienced in Japan. This should not be forgotten when indiscriminate family planning is contemplated in other countries.

P.S. August 2000: Several attempts to tighten the abortion law were made, but they collapsed under attack by the media. The prohibition against marketing the birth control pill held fast until that too was abandoned in June 1999. The population replacement rate is at an all time low of 1.35 births to replace the two parents. It means that Japan is on a slide toward eventual oblivion. Thus far she has not taken hold of herself to say no to contraception and to abortion. I look for honest and healthy families with four and more children who will inherit the land after the birth control advocates off-stage themselves for lack of offspring.

PPS, October 4, 2000: The Government of Japan seeks ways and means to increase the birth rate. The following report appeared in The Daily Yomiuri, October 3:

In an attempt to reverse the nation's declining birthrate, the ruling coalition...(is) set to launch a study over the possible introduction of what they call a "child pension" system, whereby the government would provide parents with one or more children up to a certain age with cash to subsidize child-rearing costs.

What is missing in Japan is a public glamor honoring and respecting motherhood. Whether cash can change this dys-fashion remains to be seen. The media, which have been shouting "overpopulation" for fifty years are still loathe to confess "mea culpa."