Bringing 40 Days for Life to Japan: The Cultural Coloring of Pro-Life Work in East Asia
A week or so ago I sat in on a Zoom meeting hosted by the London office of 40 Days for Life. Prolifers will recognize the name: From its inception back in 2004 as a Lenten movement to shut down a Planned Parenthood in Bryan, Texas, Forty Days for Life has grown into an international pro-life mission. The concept is simple, but the implementation is hard. For the forty days of Lent, volunteers keep vigil outside abortion clinics, praying for those inside and for an end to abortion in the community. The hard part is that the vigil is for forty days—and nights. If there are enough volunteers, then participants can cover the vigil in one- or two-hour shifts. But if they are lacking, or if someone doesn’t show up for her or his turn, then the volunteer team captain has to fill in. It can be a grueling marathon of lost sleep and exposure to the elements.
But that’s the whole point—to be out in the public square at all hours of the day and night, witnessing to the reality of abortion and the desire among average people to stop it. Out on the sidewalks, passersby see prolifers in silent prayer, holding loving signs calling for all women and their children—for all human beings—to be respected and valued. Abortion clinics don’t want the public to know what goes on behind their closed doors. Forty Days for Life volunteers testify, by their silent presence, to the truth about the taking of innocent life.
Last year, 40 Days for Life got started in South Korea. Abortion was decriminalized in the country in January, 2021, but even before that the practice was widespread. South Korea, which has the lowest fertility rate in the world, is badly in need of sustained witness to life. During the recent Zoom meeting, I and other prolifers in the region gleaned valuable insights from the Korean team on how to bring 40 Days for Life to East Asia.
There are many opportunities for bringing pro-life solutions to bear on changing social conditions in Japan. The population here is aging, and has also gone into a slow but steady decline. More and more men are helping with childrearing and housework (so-called “ikumen,” or “men who help raise the kids”) and women have been entering the workforce by the millions as part of former Prime Minister Abe Shinzō’s “Abenomics” structural economic reforms. (In fact, as of 2019, Japan had a greater percentage of women in the workforce than did the United States.)
However, the Japanese government has not approached the various social changes and challenges here with a pro-life mindset. The country’s ruling party, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), is often described by foreign media as “conservative,” but when it comes to pro-life issues the LDP is anything but that. Government officials seem much more focused on preserving their tax base than on adopting a pro-life, pro-person, pro-family set of policies for dealing with population decline. My friend and mentor, the famed education-policy historian and expert Takahashi Shirō, has been sounding the alarm recently on the “Kodomo-chō” (“Department of Children”) proposal now working its way through the government. Professor Takahashi points out that the Kodomo-chō would potentially involve sex education for very young children, as well as decriminalization of abortion across the board, amounting to an overall imposition of a far-left agenda on Japanese children.
Abortion is readily available in Japan, but there are no “flagship” abortion providers, such as Planned Parenthood in the United States. So, a 40 Days for Life campaign here would have pro-life volunteers potentially standing in front of ob-gyn clinics or hospitals. Passersby would be puzzled, even angered: Why would anyone protest doctors and nurses, especially during a pandemic? And even if volunteers were able to engage with people on the sidewalks and distribute literature about abortion, there is a very strong cultural undercurrent of “staying out of other people’s business” (ookina o-sewa wo shinai). A 40 Days for Life campaign in Japan could easily alienate many more people than it convinced, due to cultural preferences for discretion, and to the near invisibility of abortion here.
The issue of visibility came up during the Zoom meeting. Sr. Maria Fidelis, an inspiring pro-life Argentinian nun based in Taiwan, compared trying to bring a pro-life message to the public square to “fighting with a ghost.” There is a core group of devoted activists in Taiwan, Sr. Fidelis told us, but for most of society, the issue is invisible. People simply don’t discuss it, and many seem unaware that abortion is a social problem at all. Unfortunately, the same is true of Japan.
To be sure, there are many pro-life heroes here, including Ikeda Masa’aki, leader of the March for Life in Tokyo and easily the most passionate prolifer I have ever known. Another is Pastor Tsujioka Kenzō, a Godly gentleman who has done pro-life work in Japan for decades and has personally been involved in the adoptions of many children into loving Christian homes. Just because there is very little talk about abortion here does not mean there is a complete code of silence. Pastor Tsujioka has published books and given talks on the subject, and many in his congregation are pro-life. Mr. Ikeda, a Catholic layman, is also a very active and enthusiastic proponent of the pro-life message, and many of his fellow parishioners, as well as Catholic believers across the country, agree with him. Abortion may not be visible in Japan, but there is a great deal of “subcultural” or even counter-cultural support for prolifers.
This points to what I think is a strength that 40 Days for Life can play to: There is an enormous societal fund of goodwill in Japan. Volunteers will flock to help anyone in need. Kids’ Cafeterias (“kodomo shokudo”), for example, have been popping up everywhere. There are more than 6,000 such child-centered food banks in the country, a number that has more than doubled since 2018. Animal shelters are flooded with donations. And even a hundred years ago, Japan was far and away the most enthusiastic supporter of the International Red Cross. People here are pro-life in fundamentally important ways.
But the issue of abortion remains taboo. I have never heard it mentioned in conversation outside of pro-life circles, and until recently it was almost never mentioned (with some notable exceptions) in the press or in the parliament (Diet). Recently, however, there has been increasing discussion of oral abortifacients, and the way politicians and journalists have been presenting the issue has revealed a deep ignorance of the pro-life message. It would seem that most of them aren’t even aware that a pro-life position exists. Oral abortifacients are promoted without any reference to the potential harm these drugs can do to women, or to the fact that they are designed to destroy the life of a human being. In other words, even in the context of chemical abortion, the topic of abortion itself is treated euphemistically, if at all.
Other cultural obstacles also stand in the way. One of the participants in the Zoom meeting told us that he frequently tries to speak with abortion-minded women in Japan. “If you want me to keep this child, are you prepared to care for him or her?” is the reply he often receives. The reality on the ground reflects this mindset. According to the Nippon Foundation, a respected social issues research organization in Japan, there are only around 500 or so adoptions of children in Japan every year. ) There are tens of thousands of “adoptions” certified here annually, to be sure, but the vast majority of those are adults adopting other adults, often as a way for elderly business owners to leave their firms to the husbands of their daughters. There is still a lot of work to do to connect efforts to save children from abortion with other pro-life efforts to feed the hungry and care for the socially disadvantaged.
There is another challenge on the horizon, as well. “Gender equality” has become a catchphrase in Japan, thanks in large part to the socialist propaganda known as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) . As part of “gender equality,” activists have begun pushing emergency contraception pills as a fundamental right of all Japanese women. Now that “gender equality” is part of the lexicon in Japan and a plank in the media platform, the fight against emergency contraception is likely to prove difficult for pro-lifers.
But this difficulty could be a blessing in disguise. I came away from the 40 Days for Life meeting with many concerns, but also with hope. This hope must be tempered, I am fully aware. Our brothers and sisters in South Korea were able to build on a strong Christian social base, but also faced tremendous hostility in the public square to their pro-life message. A 40 Days for Life campaign in Japan is likely to be met with less hostility, but will also have initially a much smaller network of concerned citizens on which to rely for support. And we will also have to solve the problem of how to do a 40 Days for Life campaign without there being any prominent abortion clinics in front of which to pray. Perhaps it might be more effective to go to the hip Harajuku neighborhood in downtown Tokyo and pray on a street corner there, where many young women will see us and may think twice before aborting. Unlike South Korea, Japan has a minuscule Christian population, so reaching hearts will require creative thinking and perhaps some unorthodox—by the standards of Christian societies—approaches.
Japan remains, however, in my view, a fundamentally pro-life country. The cultural scales tip heavily in favor of the human person. Most of all, I am hopeful that as abortion becomes a more and more visible topic here—precisely what the public witness of a 40 Days for Life campaign is designed to foster—the goodness of Japanese society will rise up to meet the threats to human life that have been largely ignored thus far.
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