Japan: the land of "bio" (English original)

Journal: "Alte Angste Neue Welt; Gentechnologie, Im visier Nippons", Edition Zeitthema (Austria) No. 2 (1993), 46-47.
Author: Darryl R. J. Macer
Japanese have the highest awareness of the word "biotechnology" in the world, with opinion surveys since 1991 suggesting 96% have heard of it. This is the result of many years of soft education by industry and government, and the marketing use of "bio". Almost everyone uses biocandy or biodetergents.

The public in Japan has a high level of interest in science. Like people everywhere, Japanese perceive both benefits and risks from technology and believe that science will improve their quality of life. Over the past decade the understanding of biotechnology has increased, but the perception of benefits and risks remains similar. In the last 2-3 years there has been more discussion of biotechnology and bioethics in the media, with little measurable change in opinion.

The retail market for bio-products in 1991 in Japan was 386 billion yen, up 29% from 1990. Just the sales of interferon for use against chronic hepatitis C added another 150 billion yen in 1992, and are expected to increase to 200 billion yen this year. Erythropoietin to treat kidney disease, can also be expected to reach over 100 billion yen, because of a shortage of kidneys for transplants resulting from legal obstacles to the use of organs from corpses. Both these proteins are made in Japan under license to foreign companies, with Japanese courts recognising the patent claims of foreign companies. By the year 2000, the total bio-market is estimated to be between 3-15 trillion yen, making it the second largest biomarket in the world after the U.S. market. The main investors are big companies, with few small biotech companies unlike the USA.

Agricultural biotechnology has been slower to develop than in North America, EC, Oceania or China, partly due to a cautious approach and bureaucratic regulations for field trials of transgenic organisms. The first outside trial of transgenic rice (virus resistant) began in May 1993. There are contained trials of transgenic animals and fish. There is a broad public consensus that genetic manipulation of plants and environmental release of disease resistant transgenic plants is acceptable.

Open response survey questions reveal common concerns about biotechnology in Japan and Oceania. Unusual applications are seen to be against nature, or playing God, with more general environmental concerns and fear of human misuse, and concern about human health. The level of concern is higher in Japan than in Australia, New Zealand or the USA for general questions, but less in Japan for specific examples. If people perceive a benefit and no risk than people of all ages will readily eat biocandy and wash their clothes in biodetergent (incidentally, Japanese use cold water for washing clothes, and the enzymes in new detergents work very well - saving energy).

There is a long history of fermented foodstuffs and alcohol brewing, for sake and beer, and new yeast strains are being introduced. The fermentation industry is the strongest part of Japanese biotechnology, being a world leader in the production of antibiotics. Japanese use about 15 times the amount of antibiotics used in Britain, largely because doctors profit from the commission they receive for directly prescribing drugs, and the government retains financial incentives for Japanese pharmaceutical companies to develop new antibiotics. The medical system in Japan is dominated by money more than most countries!

In 1993 a controversy erupted over the high incidence (1 in 400) of side effects from a MMR (mumps, measles, rubella) vaccine made and used in Japan. It was withdrawn after the media released unpublicised government risk data. At the time of writing no MMR vaccine is being offered to children because the government refuses to use the US vaccine, which has a 20 year history of safe use with almost no side effects. The scandal reveals that the Japanese Ministry of Health and Welfare has been attempting to encourage Japanese industry by not using a foreign vaccine, while risking public health. This is not surprising to many Japanese, who have little trust in the ethics of the medical system. However, it is unlikely to change the confidence that Japanese have in other parts of biotechnology.

There is less opposition to the use of prenatal genetic screening in Japan than in the USA, but it is uncommon in practise. Guidelines for gene therapy were released in 1993, and the first clinical trials are expected later in the year. In surveys I conducted in May 1993, over 80% of Japanese people said that they would personally undergo gene therapy to cure a fatal disease, a proportion that has increased somewhat since 1991. The Human Genome Project is being pursued enthusiastically in Japan, but less than 1% of the funds are being spent on ethical, legal and social impact studies, much less than in other countries. Japanese scientists are against patenting of human cDNA fragments, like the NIH attempted, until their function is known.

Surveys indicate more homogeneity in the views of public and academics in Japan than in New Zealand, and less education dependent difference in opinion about genetic engineering in Japan than in the USA. Japanese scientists perceive a similar level of concern about genetic manipulation of plants and microorganisms to the public. High school biology teachers perceive both significantly more risks and significantly more benefits from genetic manipulation than the public, but there is little teaching of these issues in schools. All groups are supportive of gene therapy to treat disease.

Most people believe that biotechnology should be regulated by government and industry, with input from the public and third parties, but in practise the public still has no role in decision-making in Japan. In 1991-2 the Agency for the Environment made a strong bid to regulate genetic engineering by new legislation, but it failed because many saw the existing regulations by other Ministries to be sufficient (or excessive).

The public says that they do not trust safety statements, but in practice they will until harm is rumoured. Openness may be better at winning long term public support than spending money on pro-biotechnology advertisement campaigns, or further laws. Most Japanese are already aware of the benefits of biotechnology, but they will remain concerned about decision-making that is hidden. However, there is a very weak environmental lobby because Japanese people keep their concerns to themselves and don't organise national groups. In Japan there is no major independent national group to question government and industry about anything.

The opinions expressed in open response survey questions suggest that people in Japan, New Zealand and Australia share the same hopes and fears. Japanese companies are good at making money, and this will ensure continued growth of the biotechnology industry in Japan. Public confidence in science is high, perhaps too high. Biotechnology is viewed here as a way to green the deserts of the world in the 21st century, global eco-engineering. Regulations are sufficient for now, but one can hope that the new generation of more educated Japanese public take a more active interest in decision-making and voice their dreams and nightmares at a social level.

Recommended reading:

D.R.J. Macer, Attitudes to Genetic Engineering. Japanese and International Comparisons (1992, Eubios Ethics Institute, 31 Colwyn St, Christchurch 5, New Zealand).
D. Macer, "The 'far east' of biological ethics", Nature 359 (1992), 770.

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