Making Abortion Unthinkable in Japan

The Japanese cultural outlook may hold the key to rethinking the fight for life


Life Issues

In December, a U.S. abortion clinic employee tweeted a photo of his Christmas tree, topped not with a Christmas star but with a pair of forceps used to extract dismembered babies from the womb during abortion procedures. A week or so later, The Satanic Temple revealed its billboards in Texas and Florida advertising abortion as a “religious ritual.” (Planned Parenthood works with The Satanic Temple to increase abortion revenues.) That same day, Thomas D. Williams reported that “Argentinean abortion activist Florencia Rumpel has launched a new video game called ‘Little Fetus Doom’ in which players must kill off pro-life women, priests, and police before winning the game by shooting a human fetus.”

What in the world is going on? How did the West, which launched the pro-life movement, become overrun with people celebrating abortion and laughing at the murder of children? How did a culture once defined by Christianity come to see The Satanic Temple and “religious ritual” abortions as inside the Overton window of acceptable discourse?

Ikeda Masa’aki has wondered about this trend, too. Ikeda is coordinator of the March for Life in Tokyo and a devout Catholic father and husband. He lives and breathes pro-life work, and for many years he looked to the West, especially America, as the model for his activism in Japan. Recently he’s begun to rethink things.

“The March for Life in Washington was my inspiration,” Ikeda says, speaking of his first experience at the giant March years ago. “I wanted to bring that to Japan, to turn the tide in Japan toward a culture of life.”

Ikeda did this. The March for Life in Tokyo started small, but with the help of Protestant pastors such as Dr. Tsujioka Kenzo and Catholic priests such as the late Fr. John Nariai, the March for Life got bigger year by year. People from every inhabited continent now join the Tokyo March, which is just one part of the pro-life movement in Japan. Ikeda hosts pro-life seminars here throughout the year, and Catholic groups are dedicated to the cause of life.

Ikeda took the fight to the United Nations, proposing an eighteenth Sustainable Development Goal (SDG), “Protect Unborn Life.” But this is where Ikeda began to worry that the UN, the self-proclaimed champion of Western-style human rights, might be precisely the wrong venue for confronting the culture of death.

“When I realized that the UN had no interest in promoting life, was in fact anti-life,” Ikeda says, “I started to ask myself, ‘Is this the best way to end abortion?’”

The problem seems to be one of outlook, of civilizational disposition. “The West has so many fighters for life,” Ikeda continues, “but at the same time Western culture is legalistic and sometimes Western thinking is too abstract. Pro-lifers in the United States fight to overturn Roe vs. Wade, for example. This is a good thing, but I want to think bigger. I want to make abortion, not illegal, but unthinkable. And I’m not sure the West is the forum for doing that. In the West, one is pro-life. I want to be in awe of life, to change hearts and not just laws.”

Ikeda has lately been suggesting that Japan, not the West, might be the place to regroup the pro-life movement and lead a new charge for human dignity.

“Japan used to be the abortion capital of the world,” Ikeda says. “After World War II, Japanese politicians, under pressure from the American Occupation, legalized abortion. There were so many rapes of Japanese women, by Russians, Chinese, and Koreans as Japanese civilians fled the Korean peninsula and Manchuria in 1945, and by American servicemen beginning with the American takeover of Japan, that the Japanese and American authorities wanted to erase the evidence of those crimes. It was politically convenient to do so. After that, the floodgates opened. Women from around the world came to Japan for abortions. Japanese women, too, many of whom were war widows and already homeless and caring for young children, rushed to procure abortions. It was a slaughter of the unborn.”

And yet, for all of this, it is unthinkable that anyone in Japan would celebrate an abortion.

“In Japanese, the colloquial way to refer to the baby in the womb is as a baby, akanbo or akachan. You don’t find the legalism and the semantic distinctions you find in the West,” Ikeda says. “Nobody denies the humanity of the unborn, or thinks that abortion is a good thing. Women mourn their aborted children. I have read countless online message boards, posts by women who are distraught after abortions, who beg their babies to forgive them. It is heartbreaking. But nobody tries to escape by saying the baby is not a human being.”

That is a very important difference, Ikeda now thinks.

“Japan is not a perfect place,” he says. “There are crimes here, too. Rapes, murders, child abuse—it happens in Japan just like everywhere else. But even criminals know right from wrong. When a crazy man killed nineteen people at a nursing home in Sagamihara a few years ago, he justified his actions by saying he did a service to society by removing what he saw as ‘useless’ people. The Japanese public was shocked and horrified. There are no useless people. Everyone is a human being—that is the Japanese cultural outlook.”

Ikeda wants to build on that, to take that message and make it the foundation of a new pro-life movement. Ikeda wants to stop fighting over laws and speak directly, in plain language, to average men and women: “You know in your heart that abortion is wrong. You know that there is a baby inside the woman’s body who is growing and who wants to be loved. You know that, if you are honest with yourself. That life is awesome, is precious, is worth every sacrifice that you have to make.”

Japan is one of the least Christian nations on earth. The efforts by early missionaries to proselytize in Japan were thwarted by Buddhist monks and by military-government leaders, who initiated horrible pogroms against the faithful. So why does Ikeda Masa’aki, a rare Catholic in a sea of religious pluralism and even religious indifference, think Japan is the place to win the fight for life?

“Japan’s big strength,” Ikeda says, “is anti-abstractionism. We know what a human being is and we don’t say one thing is something else. A child is always a child here. That is a good place—the only place—to start.”


Jason Morgan is associate professor at Reitaku University in Kashiwa, Japan.

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