Genetic Engineering in Japan: Preliminary Results of Public Opinion Surveys

- Darryl Macer, Ph.D.

Institute of Biological Sciences, University of Tsukuba, Tsukuba Science City, 305, JAPAN

Eubios Ethics Institute Newsletter 1 (1991), 71-73.


In July 1991 a study on the attitudes of Japanese to science and technology, and in particular to biotechnology and genetic engineering, and the applications of them, was begun. An extensive questionnaire was randomly distributed to samples of the population.

This study is still ongoing, as the data is still being analysed, and some replies from certain groups are still being received. It will be written up and published in a bilingual report by March 1992, Japanese Attitudes to Genetic Engineering: National and International Comparisons, as advertised on the back page of this issue. The data presented here is preliminary, and intended only to illustrate a few of the findings and the trends.

Questionnaires were sent out in July to 800 scientists and 500 high schools throughout Japan. High school headmasters were asked to pass the questionnaire to a biology (or science) teacher. Data from these samples only is presented here (and some further replies may be added from these sample populations). Also part of the survey were questionnaires to 700 University of Tsukuba staff, and interviews throughout Japan with members of the public. In October another 1500 questionnaires were also sent out to the public. Also University students were surveyed.

There were a total of 21 basic questions included, but some had multiple parts, as will be seen below. The results to questions 7, 8, and 20 are presented here. Also presented is a brief comparison to the results of international studies. One of the most extensive surveys of public opinion about genetic engineering that has been conducted, is that of P.K. Couchman & K. Fink-Jensen, Public Attitudes to Genetic Engineering in New Zealand (DSIR Crop Research Report No. 138, 1990, obtainable for US$18 from: DSIR Crop Research Division, Private Bag, Christchurch, New Zealand). Many of the questions used in that survey have been used in this survey so as to obtain data that can be compared internationally. Other questions used included some on genetic screening and therapy used in the 1987 OTA report in the USA, and some from recent European surveys.

Knowledge of Genetic Manipulation
Q7a was "Can you tell me how much you have heard or read about? Manipulating genetic material in human cells
Manipulating genetic material in microbes
Manipulating genetic material in plants
Manipulating genetic material in animals:
1 I have not heard of this
2 I have heard the words but no more
3 I have heard the words and have some understanding of the idea behind it"

There are several apparent differences between the results. The responses to Q7a in New Zealand indicate a higher level of unawareness of genetic engineering in humans and animals. Part of this difference could be related to the publicity associated with the increasing use of human gene therapy, in mid 1991 compared to mid 1990, however this may not explain all the differences.

The level of awareness of genetic manipulation among scientists in Japan has increased in the last decade, but as seen in the following results, they still have concerns.

Acceptability of Genetic Manipulation

In both countries genetic manipulation of plants is the most acceptable type. Followed by genetic manipulation of microbes, animals and human, in order of decreasing acceptability. About half of these samples think that human genetic manipulation (human cells) is acceptable, in both countries. The reasons for unacceptability were asked, and these will be presented in the report. They are perhaps the most interesting result. For different organisms they were different, as in New Zealand.

Perceived benefits, and hazards, to the National Interest

Both plants and microbes were perceived to give the most benefit, with genetic manipulation of animals significantly lower with about 70% seeing a benefit, and there were less benefits percieved from human genetic manipulation. More New Zealanders believed that there would be benefits from genetic manipulation, especially for animals and plants. The perceived benefits were also asked, and again make interesting reading.

More Japanese perceived a possibility of hazards from genetic manipulation. This was especially true for genetic manipulation of humans and animals, and also teachers perceived more risks. There have been no accidents in Japan involving GMOs, in fact only one field release of GMOs, compared to about 20 in New Zealand, and this may be related to the high level of perceived risk. The results of the public opinion will be more revealing, and people were asked to express the risks that they perceived. Also, many people in both countries thought that genetic manipulation involves both possible benefits and hazards.

Table 1: Opinion of High School Teachers and Scientists about genetic manipulation on different organisms. Results, in tables below, are expressed as % of answered questions. The figures for the New Zealand results are taken from P.K. Couchman & K. Fink-Jensen, Public Attitudes to Genetic Engineering in New Zealand, and are shown in the brackets to give a comparison. The sample sizes were: High School Biology Teacher N=224 (NZ, No=277), (45% reply rate) Male/Female 90%/10% (NZ 64%/36%); and for Scientists N=481 (NZ, No=258), (59% reply rate) Male/Female 95%/5% (NZ 87%/12%).

Question: Human Plant Microbe Animal

Q7a: Teacher Scientist (across page)
1 Not heard 9 (32) 9 (34) 3 (4) 2 (12) 4 (4) 3 (19) 5 (12) 4 (16)
2 Heard only 29 24 19 16 13 16 26 21
3 Understand 62 67 78 82 83 81 69 75

Q7b: Which, if any, of those biological methods you've heard of are acceptable to you for any reason?

Acceptable 46 (49) 59 (54) 87 (85) 93 (83) 82 (72) 91 (75) 74 (82) 79 (77)
Unacceptable 54 (51) 41 (46) 13 (15) 7 (17) 18 (27) 9 (25) 26 (18) 21 (23)

Q7c: Which, if any, of those biological methods you've heard of could provide benefits for Japan (NZ)?

No Benefit 49 (40) 39 (45) 21 (3) 14 (6) 26 (19) 16 (18) 33 (18) 27 (18)
Benefit 51 (60) 61 (55) 79 (97) 86 (94) 74 (81) 84 (82) 67 (82) 73 (82)

Q7d: Which, if any, of those biological methods you've heard of could present serious risks or hazards in Japan(NZ)?

No Risk 15 (57) 33 (43) 46 (74) 61 (61) 30 (43) 52 (44) 32 (75) 49 (57)
Risk 85 (43) 67 (57) 54 (26) 39 (38) 70 (57) 48 (56) 68 (25) 51 (43)


Consumption of Food made from GMOs

People were asked about their awareness that GMOs could be used to produce food and medicines, and in both teachers and scientists 97% said they were aware of this. In New Zealand 97% of teachers and 95% of scientists were awre of this, a similar level. Given the difference in response to Q7a, this raises a question about higher proportion of the NZ samples which said that they had not heard of genetic manipulation. They were then asked the question, "If any of the following were to be produced from genetically modified organisms, would you have any concerns about using them?"

The results are in Table 2. The New Zealanders appear to be less concerned about consuming products containing GMOs or made from them, than do the Japanese. However, people were also asked to express their concerns, if they had any, so further analysis is required. The major concern expressed was about human health effects and the regulations controlling food safety.

The results from the public may be more like half concerned, half not concerned, as in New Zealand the public (about 40% concerned) are more concerned about consuming foodstuffs or medicines containing GMOs, than scientists and teachers in NZ.

Biotechnology Regulation

A question, Q20, was asked, "How do you think biotechnology research should be regulated?" The positive responses are shown in brackets as %'s of total answering this question. (Teachers/ Scientists)

1 Standards and practices decided by government (31%/23%)
2 Standards and practices agreed jointly by industry and government (47%/56%)
3 Standards decided by industry (2%/1%)
4 Left to the discretion of individual researchers or companies (2%/5%)
5 Other (please write..)" (18%/15%)

(Responses included various alternatives, such as review by committees including lay people, and cooperation between individual researchers and the government. The detailed results will be presented in the report)

More scientists saw a cooperation between industry and government in setting standards. The results from the public opinion appear to be similar in order of preference at this stage of analysis. In Japan most decisions involve industry and government, so this is probably more favoured as an option than in Europe. Still a significant proportion think that government standards should be used, regardless of industry decisions.


Table 2: Opinions of High School Teachers and Scientists about consuming foodstuffs containing GMOs. Results expressed as % of those who answered the question, with NZ figures in ()s as in Table 1.

Q8 Dairy Products Vegetables Meat Medicine

Teacher Scientist (across the page)

No concern 64 (87) 66 (76) 68 (90) 70 (78) 64 (86) 65 (76) 65 (90) 73 (80)
Concern 36 (13) 34 (24) 32 (10) 30 (22) 36 (14) 35 (24) 35 (10) 27 (20)


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