Pro-life marchers in Tokyo braved heat and indifference. Photo: Neil Day
Pro-life marchers in Tokyo braved heat and indifference. Photo: Neil Day

It was a small rally, but a determined one. Amid the blistering July afternoon sunshine, in the face of puzzled onlookers, approximately 250 people braved Tokyo’s heat to march from Tsukiji to Hibiya Park.

Carrying banners, signs and fans, the sweat-soaked marchers wound their way past high-rises and the old wooden shops of Chūō Ward, flanked by a handful of policemen in starched blue uniforms directing traffic with tasseled white batons.

There was a matsuri, or festival, atmosphere. Some marchers held aloft a festooned statue of the Virgin Mary, while singing in Portuguese and Japanese.

The “March for Life” though, now in its fifth consecutive year, remains an oddity in Japan. Begun in 2014 by Japanese Catholic activist Masaaki Ikeda after attending the March for Life in Washington, the Tokyo event, though small in numbers, stands out for its cosmopolitan  character.

At an informal rally outside the Tsukiji Catholic Church before setting off, Ikeda asked where marchers were from. Ireland, Taiwan, India, Argentina, the Philippines, Peru, American Samoa, the United States, Colombia, Hong Kong, South Korea, Costa Rica, France and Brazil were just some of the replies.

Ikeda Masaaki, organizer of Tokyo March for Life, addresses marchers at Tsukiji Catholic Church. Photo: Jason Morgan
Masaaki Ikeda, the organizer of the Tokyo March for Life, addresses marchers at the Tsukiji Catholic Church. Photo: Neil Day

Pastor Kenzō Tsujioka, who was instrumental in publicizing and organizing the march during the earliest days when only a couple of dozen people took part, encourages marchers to smile and avoid confrontations. Dr Ligaya Acosta, the regional director for Asia and Oceania at pro-life powerhouse Human Life International, attended the Tokyo march for the first time this year.

According to her, it is an opportunity to unite across national borders in defense of the natural dignity of humans. Joe Woodard, a pro-life leader based in Hong Kong, agrees that the march is emerging as a key human rights event for Asia.

Friendly smiles, dark history

The friendly demeanor of Japan’s pro-life movement contrasts with Asia’s dark history of eugenics – policies designed to improve the genetic quality of the population – sterilization, racial politics and widespread governmental population control.

During the 1930s and early 1940s, Tokyo needed as many people as possible to colonize Taiwan, the Korean peninsula and Manchuria, work in the factories and at home and man the army as the government enacted expansive and aggressive policies. At a time when the infant mortality rate was high, multiple births were encouraged. But with Japan’s 1945 defeat, and the subsequent loss of her overseas empire, Tokyo shifted from inflationary biopolitics to biopolitical austerity.

Hundreds of thousands of women began streaming back to the home islands – many of whom had been raped by Soviet or Chinese soldiers, or by Korean men. Abortions would become the order of the day.

This hidden history is only now coming to light. In a new book on an evacuee repatriation center in Hakata, author Masaharu Shimokawa  mines contemporary diaries and records to show how Sei’ichi Izumi– the archaeologist who would later become famous for his discoveries of Incan religious sites in the Andes – personally arranged for doctors and nurses to assemble in Fukuoka and perform hundreds of abortions on rape victims. There is even evidence that Prince Takamatsu approved these emergency measures.

The biopolitical history of occupation

But the threat to Japan’s “racial purity” was becoming permanent at home. Rapes were a never-ending source of tension between US occupation forces and Japanese authorities. The Japanese government, at the request of the Americans, opened special “Recreation and Amusement Authority” (RAA) centers – essentially, licensed brothels like the now-infamous “comfort stations” provided for Japanese forces during the war.

Yet mixed-race children continued to appear, both from rape and from fraternization. The occupation press code prohibited Japanese media from reporting on crimes committed by the US military, but American brass were plagued by how to cover up evidence of rape.

A solution was hit upon: the infamous 1948 Eugenics Protection Law. This law was the first to recognize the legal right to abortion, although only in “exceptional cases” – a clause which could be taken to mean abortion on demand, without restriction.

The Japanese government got to keep their population racially pure; the American government got to minimize the negative publicity of thousands of mixed-race babies. The Eugenics Protection Law was, in effect, a complement to the laws and rules already in place prohibiting American servicemen from marrying Japanese women and bringing them back to the United States.

Japan: Abortion capital of the world

Subsequently, women from across the globe flocked to Japan for abortions. In 1954, for example, the abortion rate in Japan for women of all nationalities was an astounding 64.6%; the abortion rate for Japanese women for 1955 was a very high 40.3%. It remained at that level or higher throughout the rest of the 1950s.

The eugenics mentality remained strong in Japan for decades. Government guidelines in 1960 advocated teaching “national eugenics” at high schools. Guidelines for 1970 still contained recommendations for “marriage eugenics.” A law allowing forced sterilizations for mentally handicapped women was not revised until 1996, and cases from the age of eugenics continue to work through the court system in Japan today.

Population control: ‘One child’ China

Japan’s attitudes toward abortion changed slowly in the 1960s and ’70s, due largely to the efforts of Dr Noboru Kikuta (1926-1991). Kikuta had been a prolific abortionist before undergoing a religious conversion at the hands of March for Life’s Tsujioka.

After Kikuta stopped performing abortions, he started helping place orphaned children into adoptive homes by forging household registry paperwork. He eventually took his fight public, helping to change public opinion about adoption while highlighting its high rate.

The international makeup of marchers reveals that many countries in the region and beyond have their own histories of biopolitics and population control – histories entangled with American biopolitics.

For example, the 1974 Kissinger Report, formulated by the CIA and other American government agencies, called for population control, including abortion and sterilization, in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines and a half-dozen other countries outside of Asia. There is a grassroots effort in the Philippines today to overturn the policies and laws implemented with money and influence from the US government operating under the Kissinger Report.

Yet even this was dwarfed in scale by what may be the biggest population-control experiment in world history: China’s “one child” policy, which is estimated to have resulted in some 336 million abortions.

Pro-life marchers in Tokyo were small in number, but cosmopolitan in makeup. Photo: Jason Morgan
Pro-life marchers in Tokyo were small in number, but cosmopolitan in makeup. Photo: Neil Day

Given the long history of foreign interference in Asian biopolitics, it is significant that countries throughout Asia are reforming their approaches to abortion. From the Philippines to South Korea and beyond, a new democratic movement is challenging the status quo and speaking up in favor of national sovereignty.

Birth rates throughout the industrialized world continue to plummet, but if Tokyo’s March for Life is any indication, there is a response brewing outside the halls of government that may end up overturning nearly a century of American-led biopolitical interventions.

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