pp. 167-168 in Bioethics in Asia

Editors: Norio Fujiki and Darryl R. J. Macer, Ph.D.
Eubios Ethics Institute

Copyright 2000, Eubios Ethics Institute All commercial rights reserved. This publication may be reproduced for limited educational or academic use, however please enquire with the author.

4.6. Internationalization in Japanese Bioethics

Masahiro Morioka.

Osaka Prefecture University, Japan

Since the early 1980s the Japanese have talked a lot about the internationalization of their society (in Japanese "kokusai-ka"). Through the word "internationalization" they have discussed the importance of bilateral communications between Japan and foreign countries, for example, saying that the Japanese should pay greater heed to the global situation, and try to make themselves better understood by people overseas. Some went on to say that the Japanese had to learn the "international" ways of thinking and behaving, and Japan become a real member of the global community. (There were even people who said that internationalization for the Japanese is being able to speak English.)

But, here, a difficult problem appeared. Just what are these ginternationalh ways of thinking and behaving. They argue over what the criteria that distinguish the ginternationalh way from the gnot-internationalh way might be , but they did not reach a consensus. Some said that what European and American people were doing was the ginternationalh way, but many doubted it. Some of them said that Japan should be more western, but others emphasized that Japan had to go its own way following its traditional ways of thinking and behaving. This debate still continues even now.

Bioethics was no exception. Modern Japanese bioethics began in the early 1970s (1). The Japanese women's liberation movement started in 1970, and they fought against an anti-abortion movement that was led by the government. This was the beginning of Japanese bioethics. Japanese bioethics started as feminist bioethics. This is a very important theme, but we do not have enough time to discuss it today.

Women's fight against the government has continued from the 1970s into the 1990s. In the 70s, they argued three points, namely, (a) the state should not interfere with the individual in women's sex and reproduction, (b) abortion was a freedom and right of women, (c) we will have to create a new society where women want to give birth of their own will. Their fight was mainly against the Japanese government. They did not necessarily know much about world wide women's liberation movements. (And, of course, western feminism knew nothing about Japanese feminism in the 70s.) Their main attention was focused on raising consciousness among Japanese women and strengthening solidarity. Japanese feminism itself began in the early 20th century. They have continued a long fight for women's rights throughout this century. The 70s women's lib movement was a contemporary version of this historical Japanese feminism.

Discourse among the pro-choice movement of Japanese feminism underwent a slight but profound change in the early 80s. They started to speak of freedom of abortion under the name of "fundamental human rights" of a woman. In this they were influenced by the world wide feminism movements of the time. In 1975, the first International Women's Conference was held in Mexico; leaders of Japanese feminism took part and brought back information from around the world. They were faced with women's conditions in the third world. Some of them were shocked by the fierce debate between women from advanced industrial countries and women of the third world. In 1980 the Treaty for the abolishment of discrimination against women was adopted in Copenhagen. In that treaty women's rights in sexuality and reproduction were confirmed.

Japanese feminism, influenced by these world wide movements, started to assert that a woman's reproduction should be based on the "fundamental human rights" of a woman. For example, a women's lib group, SOSHIREN, said in 1982 that freedom of choice whether to give birth or not should be a "fundamental human right" of a woman. And they emphasized that their movement was linked with contemporary world wide feminism(2). The Japan Association for family planning asserted the same thing in 1983 and stated that this issue must be discussed and reconsidered based on the contemporary world wide consensus(3).

They looked overseas and found in the international standard "fundamental human rights" a strong tool for the development of their movement. This occurred in Japanese feminist bioethics in the early 1980s.

During the same period, Japanese male scholars began to know of the word "bioethics" as medical ethics through American bioethicists. They invited bioethicists from the United States and began exchanges with them. From the mid-80s a fierce debate on brain death and organ transplants. The boiled up Japanese people showed strong concern about this controversy. Some people said that we had to learn western bioethics and introduce it into Japan. Others said that Japan had a long history of traditional ethics, and hence we had to create a "Japanese" bioethics different from the western one. For example, many people said that the Japanese put greater importance on human relationships, not rather than human rights, and hence they needed a relationship-based bioethics different from the rights-based one. I have discussed this controversy elsewhere(4); and will not repeat myself here.

One of the interesting points was the completely different interpretation of the concept "internationalization" held by these two parties. The former, who think the Japanese have to learn western bioethics consider "internationalization" as following the international basic standard, such as "fundamental human rights," and contributing to worldwide ethical rule-making. On the other hand, the latter, who think the Japanese should go their own way consider "internationalization" as advocating an local ethical tradition, and by so doing, contributing to global diversity among cultures and religions etc.

Interestingly, those who like to speak of "East Asian bioethics" seem to look at the issue through an "East-West" paradigm, and say that eastern or Asian countries need a new type of bioethics different from the western one. However, looking at western countries closely, one can see there has been a strong reaction against hrights-based bioethicsh, for example, the pro-life movements in the United States. Hence, we should note that "westernization" is not the same as "modernization." Even in western countries there are a many people who have strong antipathy towards modernization. Similarly, in Japan, there are many people who have sympathy toward modernization.

Let us go back to "internationalization." Japanese bioethics, since 1980s, has tried to internationalize itself, but has continuously been faced with a difficult problem: "at heart what is internationalization?" It is not following the United States' standard. For instance, with regard to global environmental problems such as regulation of CO2 emission, the United States still refuses to accept an "international" standard. In the bioethics field, ethical standards concerning reproductive technologies are vary even among European countries.

If we pursue rigorously international standards, the concepts remaining in our hands would be a very few, such as "human dignity," "love," "compassion," and so on. Even "fundamental human rights" can be rejected by certain religious groups in some contexts. This means that in this global age we have to think about ethical issues based on very few shared ethical standards.

In conclusion, I want to distinguish three concepts, "Westernization," "modernization," and "internationalization." These three concepts are completely different, but are often used mixed up. Internationalization is not the same as Westernalization nor modernization. But, of course, it is not the same as resting on traditional values. Internationalization may be a difficult goal, particularly for non-western countries that are undergoing a rapid process of modernization.


1. Morioka, Masahiro "Nihon ni Okeru Feminizumu Seimeirinri no Keisei Katei (in Japanese)". Seimei Rinri, Vol.5-1, 1995:60-64.

2. SOSHIREN Yusei Hogo Ho Kaiaku to Tatakau tame ni (In Japanese). 1982:57.

3. Nihon Kazoku Keikaku Renmei Kanashimi o Sabakemasu ka (In Japanese). 1983:282-287.

4. Morioka, Masahiro "Bioethics and Japanese Culture". EJAIB Vol.5, 1995:87-91.

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