The Tokyo March for Life is held every year on “Marine Day,” the third Monday in July. A public holiday in Japan, Marine Day was inaugurated just before the beginning of the Pacific War to commemorate a 19th-century sea voyage by the Meiji Emperor; today the three-day weekend it affords is little more than a nice break from work during the hottest part of the year.
In Japanese, Marine Day (literally, “ocean day”) sounds exactly the same as “day of birth,” umi no hi, a phrase different from and much less familiar than the standard “birthday” (tanjōbi). “Day of birth,” as a pun on “Marine Day,” calls attention to the act of giving birth, and, by extension, to the fact that abortion is a widespread social practice in Japan, as well as throughout much of Asia.
There is something fitting about holding the Tokyo March for Life during the sweltering July heat. Tokyo in the summertime is a steamy furnace, and those who undertake the March pay a heavy price in sweat equity—and also run a significant risk of heatstroke. The March is a beautiful gathering of good-hearted people, but it is also a broiling penance and a reminder of how much women and babies suffer under the culture of death.
As I marched last month, I was reminded of a similar event held annually on the other side of the world and in the opposite season. A few years ago, I was in Chicago for the city’s January March for Life; it turned out to be one of the coldest days I have ever experienced. The marchers were cheerful and kind, as prolifers almost always are, and spirits were high as we took to the streets of a metropolis, like so many others, hostile to the culture of life. I remember the manly refrains of a Polish contingent carrying a banner emblazoned with an image of the Blessed Mother, singing songs in their native language to her.
I wanted to sing along with them, but couldn’t. I don’t know Polish, but even if I did, at that moment I could barely move my mouth. Despite being decked out in plenty of winter gear—I was living in Wisconsin at the time and no stranger to a day in the deep freeze—just a few minutes after our party left the bus and hit the streets I could barely feel my thighs, and before long my face was numb with cold. The Tokyo March is like crossing the Sahara, but the Chicago March (and, from what I hear, the Washington, DC, March, too) can be like joining Roald Amundsen on his trek to the South Pole.
This year, walking through the intense Tokyo heat, I wondered if there might be something more to this contrast between Japan and Illinois, something that went beyond just a personal anecdote. I think there is.
In the United States, we tend to speak about abortion in the language of liberalism, which emphasizes rights, equality, utility. I have often heard pro-abortion Americans—almost always female—say that a child in the womb is an “illegal occupant” of the mother’s body, even “parasitic” on her, or, in any case, that the mother’s rights trump those of her gestating baby. In Asia, however, I almost never hear children in the womb denigrated so. In Japanese, one speaks of the fetus as an “akachan,” the everyday word for “baby,” and abortion, far from being celebrated, is universally lamented. Women who have chosen abortion here do not try to justify their action by turning it into a personal achievement.
There are temples in Japan sacred to the Buddhist bodhisattva of deceased children, and I have seen women there in silent prayer, faces streaked with tears, surely asking their departed babies for forgiveness for what they had done to them. Whatever the circumstances, abortion here is a tragedy with a human cost, not a clinical exercise in the algebra of liberal rights.
It is therefore somehow poetic, I thought, that American life marches take place in January, the month the Supreme Court applied thoroughly liberal reasoning to decide that the rights of the stronger party took precedence over those of the weaker. Our Hobbesian justices made a Malthusian choice, and liberalism ever since has reaffirmed their cold-hearted application of an inhuman calculus to the value of human life. When we sing for life in the United States against the bitter January wind, we are reminded that we face the frigid atmosphere of liberalism—an ideology that reduces our humanity to cold logic—all year round.
It’s different in Japan. Liberalism has taken shallow root here; our humanity remains in view. In the July heat, we grapple with the reality of abortion, with the havoc it wreaks in hearts and homes, with the hot tears we cry in the anguish of our own private evil. We can much more readily admit here, as a cultural byproduct of liberalism’s weak showing, that abortion is a murder of at least one, a wounding of at least four—baby, mother, father, and physician—and a terrible stain on our human community. Here in Japan, abortion feels much closer somehow, much more difficult to dismiss with liberalist sleight of hand: rights, laws, inhuman abstractions.
Join us in Tokyo next July, fellow prolifers, and you’ll see why the future of pro-life is here in Asia.