A Million Couples Use NFP in Japan

Anthony Zimmerman
4 Feb. 2000
Reproduced with Permission

When I read the request made by Dorothy Dugandzic for testimonies by priests converted to NFP, I responded that I don't qualify because I had always believed in it. She wrote that I should contribute anyway to help the cause.

I remember the day some fifty-five years ago when our Dogma professor marched into the classroom so agitated that he broke out English instead of Latin: at the neighboring parish the pastor was passing out free thermometers to couples preparing for marriage! How could he??? Isn't marriage for children?

Well, I don't think we were as surprised as he was. Some of us forward-looking seminarians, as we considered ourselves, had read the book on the thermometer method of natural family planning written by Dr.Leo Latz. We thought it was great. Dr. Latz was our seminary doctor at the time, who gave us the required physical examination before Ordination. Despite the Dogma professor's misgivings, I was among those who thought that thermometers deserved a place of honor in the marriage preparation instructions.

I shipped out to Japan as a missionary in 1948 when General Douglas MacArthur laid out the red carpet for such as myself. Ever since he had accepted Japan's surrender on the deck of the Missouri, corn-cob pipe ever handy, he welcomed missionaries to keep Communism at a distance, and to ease the transition of the popular mind away from Tojo's misadventures toward democracy.

MacArthur had no love for Communism. The story went around that at one of the meetings of the Supreme Command of Allied Powers (SCAP), the Russian officer informed the group that a flotilla of Russian ships was coming to strengthen the peace efforts. MacArthur, Supreme Commander, thanked him for the information. "As soon as a ship appears on the horizon," he said, "our cannons will go into action." The ships never came.

He hated those obligatory, but to him meddlesome SCAP meetings, which cramped his style. Was he not the Supreme Commander? We heard lots of stories. He kept the meetings short. Some of them would last a full five minutes. One was adjourned after forty-five seconds. We loved the Old Soldier.

The Japanese Government had been promoting large families, a policy suitable for Tojo's ambitions. The huge war venture suddenly crashed. Now population control took over with a vengeance. Before we get to that, here is a very interesting fact that continues to haunt me.

Harry Truman called for an "Unconditional Surrender" of Japan. The words were translated correctly grammatically but not semantically. Tojo and all Japan took them to mean the worst - no more Emperor, no more human rights. Young women at one of our parishes in Nagoya practiced fending off rapists with sharpened bamboo poles. Tojo continued the war until the bombs fell because there was nothing to lose, so everyone thought.

But MacArthur and the first waves of troops were different. They were G.I. Joes and Johns, big fellows who liked fun, who also passed out chewing gum and chocolates to saucer-eyed children. The kids caught on quickly: "They're like Babe Ruth!" Many were Catholic. They took off their shoes and knelt on the tatami at Sunday Masses, with crowds overflowing to the outside - a thing never seen before in Japan. We owe a lot to the fathers and mothers of those first soldiers.

But the government which had been giving prizes to families with ten children until now, turned a full 180 degrees to almost menace large families. A mother with four children cried, wondering whether she had been unpatriotic. The word resounded from Hokkaido to Kyushu: birth control or bust.

An American commission studied the situation and reported in essence that Japan's population was at a crisis. It had 75 million people in 1946. The nation had to stop absolutely at 85 million. That was the point of no return. Either stop at 85 million, or be forever overcrowded, a beggar nation unable to support its own livelihood. A land of chaos, apt to brew another war. (Despite the doomsday forecast, the population passed smoothly through the 85 million barrier in 1955. In fact, that's about the time that Japan's tremendous economic development took off, powered by a fantastic growth in population due to the former large family policy. The bubble burst in the 1990's however, when the birth control policy worked its way up the demographic column and the labor force decline put a drag on the economy.)

The Population Division of the Welfare Ministry, responding to the influx of returning troops and to the postwar baby boom, then launched a policy to promote birth control. Almost as an after-thought they also legalized abortion, in case contraception would fail. That was in 1948, the year when I arrived here.

The foresight of the Ministry proved more than prophetic: abortion became the primary means of birth control. Demographers calculated that abortion accounted for 70% of birth control "success" at the time. By 1953 over a million legal abortions were reported. Contraception failed routinely. The Ogino rhythm method was difficult to calculate, and condoms were not always there, and Japan would have nothing to do with IUD's, nor later on with Pills.

I visited a local public health institution and saw there the "Ogino Rhythm" learning device. If you inputted the correct days for indicated abstinence and intercourse (infertile times) the machine praised you. You had to input the longest and shortest cycles to find the infertile times. Then you pushed the button for intercourse. If you hit a fertile day, bells jangled and sirens screamed. People laughed. You walked away from the machine sheepishly.

Doctor Hiroshi Ogino, son of Kyusaku Ogino who had discovered the basic key to NFP, was in the Public Health Department at the time so I visited him there. He gave public lectures about the effectiveness of the method based on the theory which his father had published in 1923. Basically: ovulation occurs once per cycle, 12-16 days before the next menstruation. From your past cycles, find the infertile and infertile days by that central calculation. Surveys indicated that one out of four couples was trying to follow the Ogino method in 1950, and by 1957, 46% were trying to use it.

But Dr. Hiroshi Ogino ruefully told me that few people understood even the basics. Instead of beginning the count of the days from the first day of menstruation, many began on the last day of menstruation. Of course, that would calculate exactly the wrong days for finding the infertile time. Hardly anyone was teaching the system and women were reading magazines or asking their husbands to explain the safe days. One can only imagine how husbands didn't always teach correctly.

Ogino told me that for 75% of the population the method was reliable 95% of the time; and if they added abstinence days for safety, effectiveness increased accordingly. Because of the routine "failures" the user percentage dropped to 20% by 1984 and use of the condom prevailed. Birth control pills for contraceptive purposes were outlawed in Japan until June 1999, but sales are not phenomenal; practically zero as of now (February 2000).

More recently the temperature method of locating the fertile days of the cycle is coming into popular use. Now one out of six young couples follows the temperature method, and a strong Billings Method group is teaching the mucus method.

Our Japan Family Life Association invited some of the big time experts on the Sympto-thermal method of natural family planning to give lectures in Japan during the years 1975-1985. They received extensive and favorable media reports. In contrast to the USA, the media, and leading gynecologists in Japan, are friendly to NFP.

A few years ago I asked the people who do the Mainichi Newspaper Surveys to put their materials through the computer again to calculate how many couples use pure NFP, without condoms or other. The numbers in the survey are such that a wide margin of error must be allowed, but in general the indications are that at least 1,000,000 couples use pure NFP without contraceptives in Japan, which has only 440,000 Catholics.

Mother Teresa inspired mothers and couples during three speaking tours in Japan. The Japanese media and people give her supreme respect and love. She told 20 million listeners on National Television the following message on May 24, 1981:

And so I think we should train our children for the future to respect life. By teaching respect for the dignity of life, that life is a creation of God. We teach them that by purity of life and the sanctity of their lives, they will be able to face the future if they use simple means, the natural means that God has created.

So many poor people have said to me - because we are teaching the young people so that the future will become simple for them - and the poor people told me from the time we are practicing this way of life our family has remained united, our family is healthy, and we can have a baby whenever we like.

And it has brought so much peace and unity in the life of our poor people. That is something so wonderful to see, the peace of the family because they are not destroying anything, and they are not killing anything, but they are using their body to glorify God in the sanctity of their family life.

The eyes of the NHK interviewer began to glisten by this time in the strong television lights. Interviewers are supposed to remain dispassionate, but this one actually came to tears as he was overawed by the overwhelming persuasive power of Mother Teresa, with her bell-like musical voice. She continued:

And I think that if we can bring that into Japan also, if our people will come to know natural family planning, I think there will be more peace, more love in the family between parents and children...

Telephones rang off the hook by now, from mothers around the nation. Until twelve midnight they poured their stories into the sympathetic ears of TV monitors, captivated by the message of Mother Teresa. Because of her national popularity NHK repeated the hour- long telecast at a later date. I count her message as one of the reasons why likely over a million couples, mostly non-Catholic, practice the abstinence method of birth control in Japan.

Priests and bishops here as elsewhere tend to shy away from promoting NFP. One reason in Japan is cultural: the Catholic religion should concern itself with things of heaven and the angels, so one told me, less so with getting their feet dirty in the mud of earthly things, like sex. I have heard other reasons: "What's so natural about using a thermometer to date the times of intercourse!" But why this selective fuss about use of thermometers, I ask myself. I think some priests have an allergy against NFP. A few Catholic Doctors in Japan, misled by a dissident theologian, openly defend the practice of contraception. It's less evil than abortion is the excuse. But our experience has been that contraception is a super-expressway to abortion.

Give us time, and give the human race time, to get there. Now a fantastic electronic thermometer is on the market here. It is integrated with a mini-computer and has a six month memory. It remembers the history of the past six cycles and on that basis, displays the expected earliest arrival of the fertile time in the current cycle. Over 400,000 couples already bought them. You can buy them from your local US distributor, Dr. Lloyd Duplantis: Telephone 504- 876-3798. E-mail: laddie@cajun.net.

My prognosis is that knowledge about NFP will slowly seep into doctors' offices, nurse schools, diocesan bureaus, parish bulletins, and outstanding families. Around the globe couples are already giving it increasing welcome. NFP couples, not contraceptors, are happy, and it is they who are winning the "battle of the cradle" with plenty of love and plenty of children. I prophesy: NFP will be common folklore long before the angels blow their trumpets to call an end to life on earth.

A reminder for Judgment Day: Be sure to wear your NFP badge prominently. The angel ushers will be looking for them. They have standing instructions from Peter to hustle NFP families and their parish priests over to the right side of the stage to be seated there, even before the Lord arrives to begin the judgment process.