What do we Learn from Japanese Feminist Bioethics?

- Masahiro Morioka

Integrated Arts and Sciences, Osaka Prefecture University, Gakuencho, Sakai, Osaka 593, JAPAN

Email: morioka@heart.cias.osakafu-u.ac.jp


A paper from The Second Conference of the International Association on Feminist Approaches to Bioethics: Globalizing Feminist Bioethics, at the Fourth International Tsukuba Bioethics Roundtable, 3 Nov. 1998, Tsukuba Science City, Japan
Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 8 (1998),183-184.

I would like to start my talk by explaining the reason why a male philosopher, me, is going to give a lecture on Japanese Feminist bioethics. I have studied "philosophy of life," including bioethics, for more than ten years, and found out that Japanese bioethics began in the early 1970s as feminist bioethics. This was a surprising fact for Japanese bioethics researchers because most of them have believed Japanese bioethics began in the 1980s influenced by American bioethics. I wrote a paper on the early 70s Japanese feminist bioethics (1). This is why, I think, Naoko Miyaji, a coordinator of today's session, nominated me as the first speaker.

In addition, I would like to emphasize that through the research, through lots of discussion, and through exchanges with women, my former worldview and the way of life have been changed. Women completely changed my brain and body in the process of my combat against them. This is the second, but most important reason why I am here today. We have a variety of feminism. I do not necessarily agree on every point of their opinions. I do not call myself "feminist", but I really respect some feminists' philosophy and their ways of life in this society.

The Japanese women's liberation movement started in 1970, and they fought against an anti-abortion movement that was led by the government. In Japan, abortion has been legal since 1948. The women argued three points, namely, (a) the state should not interfere individual woman'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. The government's conspiracy of restricting abortion was failed. The Japanese feminism movement got political power little by little through the period.

Their main attention was focused on raising consciousness among Japanese women and strengthening solidarity. They emphasized that the most important thing for women is "self-affirmation", or affirmation of their own existence as women, and on the basis of this women can begin to live their life for their own sake free from the chain forced by men or the government.

In a leaflet published in 1972 we can find the following sentences: "Women's revolution means to gain the environment in which women can affirm themselves everyday. In other words, to fight full of vivid feelings of living everyday." (2)

Feminists emphasized that the woman herself should decide whether to have an abortion or not free from the pressure of men or the government, but some of them were hesitant to say abortion is women's "right." Actually there were two kinds of opinions regarding "women's right to abortion." There were feminist groups who clearly stated that abortion be women's right. Chupiren, a women's lib group, was a typical example of this. They said in 1973 that abortion is women's right, and went on to say that a fetus is a part of the woman's body, so that abortion is just like a lizard's cutting off its tail.

On the contrary there were feminists who express hesitation in saying the words "right to abortion." They thought abortion is necessary for women, but something must be wrong with using the word "right" in the case of abortion. They felt uncomfortable in calling abortion "women's right" because abortion means destroying human life that may develop into a human person in the future.

Among these feminists was Mitsu Tanaka, a charismatic women's lib leader, who established Japan's first women's liberation center at Shinjuku in 1972. Tanaka believes that a woman must be the person who determines whether to have an abortion or not, but at the same time, she doubts the way of thinking that abortion is acceptable because a fetus is not a human person. Tanaka goes on to say that women have self-consciousness in their mind that can never be persuaded by the idea that a fetus is not a human person, or women have a right to abortion. Tanaka calls this self- consciousness that of "fetus murderer". She writes as follows.

If people call a woman who has an abortion "a murderer", I take a defiant attitude toward them saying that yes I am a murderer, and then I want to choose abortion. Gazing at the chopped up fetus body, I admit that I am a fetus murderer, and then I am going to make every effort to accuse our society that make me kill the fetus. 3)

Tanaka thinks a woman who have an abortion sways between two kinds of consciousness, the consciousness that she must be the person who determines whether to have an abortion or not, and the consciousness that she is going to be a fetus murderer. Tanaka concludes that women should face this "confused self" swaying between these two kinds of consciousness, because this "confused self" must be the basis of women's movement and coming new philosophy of life. She stresses that the most important thing is "the sway of confused self" because this sway of confused self leads us to encounter others who are also swaying between another type of dilemma in their own life. The real encounter is made possible only between people with swaying and confused selves. Hence, what Tanaka was aiming at was not bioethics in a narrow sense of the word, but real philosophy of life in which we contemplate the meaning of life, seek to encounter others who have existential sufferings and pain in their heart, and try to find ways of changing this society into better one where people can live their own life, in other words, society where nobody becomes anybody's victim or slave. Tanaka seems to say that "meaning of life" consists of (1) saying yes to one's own existence and life, (2) living every moment of one's own life without regret, and (3) living in good relationships with all living things surrounding us. In conclusion, let me show four points that I have learned from 70s Japanese feminist bioethics.

First, the question how to live here and now is most important. And we will have to change this society in order for every one of us to live with self-affirmation in everyday life.

Second, of course bioethics theories and academic discussions are important, but those without any self-transformation of the speakers are nonsense.

Third, when thinking about life in this society we should never forget to take account of power relationships between women and men, minority and majority, etc.

Fourth, men have to think deeply what is their own "sway of confused self." Men have escaped from facing the fact that men's mentalities are full of grave confusions and contradictions. By "theoretically" rationalizing this, men have turned their eyes away from their inner confusions and contradictions. Sincerely facing this fact, men may find a narrow way leading to truly meaningful discussion with women who are running ahead of us.


1) Masahiro Morioka, 1998, "Women's Liberation and Bioethics in 70s Japan" (in Japanese) Seimei, Kankyo, Kagakugijutsu Rinri Shiryoshu. Vol.3, Chiba University, p.110-139.
2) Anonymous author, 1972, "For the First Lib Meeting in May" (in Japanese) in Mizoguchi et al. eds. Shiryo: Nihon Uman Ribu Shi. Vol.1, p.356.
3) Mitsu Tanaka, 1972, "I Dare Pose a Question: Is Abortion Vested Right?" (in Japanese) in Mizoguchi et al. eds. Shiryo: Nihon Uman Ribu Shi. Vol.2, p.63.

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