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What do We Learn from Japanese Feminist Bioethics?

Masahiro Morioka

-- Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 8 (1998):183-184.
-- Reprinted in Women's Health Journal, Vol.3-4 (July 2003):87.

Japanese grssroots bioethics was launched as feminist bioethics in the early 1970s, which is fairly different from bioethics in the English speaking world before 1990s. This essay is a brief outline of Chapter 3 of the book, Life Studies Approaches to Bioethics.

*Page numbers in the original are marked by [(preceding page) / (following page)].

    I would like to start my talk by explaining the reason why a male philosopher gives 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 altered. Women completely altered my mind 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 with every point of their opinions. I do not call myself "feminist", but I really respect some feminists' philosophies and their ways of life in this society.

    The Japanese women's liberation movement started in 1970, and they fought against the anti-abortion backlash that was led by the government. In Japan, abortion has been legal since 1948. Women argued three points, namely, (a) the state should not interfere in the sex and reproduction of individual women, (b) abortion is a right of women, and (c) we have to create society where women want to give birth based on their own intentions. The government's conspiracy to restrict abortion failed. Japanese feminism began acquiring political power little by little during the period.

    Their main attention was focused on raising consciousness and strengthening solidarity among women. They emphasized that the most important thing for women is "self-affirmation," that is, the affirmation of their own existence as women, and [183/184] on the basis of this affirmation women can begin to live their lives for their own sake free from government pressure and patriarchal suppression.

    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 women themselves should decide whether to have an abortion free from government pressure and patriarchal suppression, but some of them were hesitant to say that abortion is a women's "right." Actually, there were two kinds of opinions regarding "women's right to abortion." First, there were feminist groups who clearly stated that abortion is a women's right. Chupiren, a women's lib group, was a typical example of this. They said in 1973 that abortion is a 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 cutting off its tail.

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

    Among these feminists there was a charismatic women's lib leader, Mitsu Tanaka, who established Japan's first women's liberation center at Shinjuku in 1972. Tanaka believes that it is women that determine whether to have an abortion or not. However, 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 a self-consciousness that cannot be persuaded either by the idea that a fetus is not a human person, or by the idea that women have a right to abortion. Tanaka calls it the self-consciousness of a "fetus killer". She writes as follows.

    If people call a woman who has an abortion a "killer," I take a defiant attitude and say that yes I am a killer, and then I want to choose abortion. Gazing at the chopped up fetus body, I admit that I am a fetus killer, and then I am going to make every effort to accuse our society that made me kill the fetus.(3)
    Tanaka thinks that a woman who has an abortion sways between two kinds of consciousness, that is, the consciousness that it is her right to determine whether to have an abortion or not, and the consciousness that she is going to be a fetus killer. Tanaka concludes that women should face this "confused self" swaying between these two kinds of consciousness, because this "confused self" should be the basis of the women's movement and the coming new philosophy of life. She stresses that the most important thing for us 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 lives. The real encounter is made possible only between people with swaying and confused selves. Hence, what Tanaka was aiming at was not bioethics in the narrow sense of the word, but real philosophy of life through which we contemplate the meaning of life, seek to encounter others who have existential suffering and pain in their hearts, and try to find ways to change this society into better one where people can live their own lives, 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 life without regret, and (3) living in good relationship with all living things surrounding us.
    In conclusion, let me show four points that I have learned from Japanese feminist bioethics in the 1970s.

    First, the question of how to live here and now is most important. And we will have to change this society into one where every one of us can get full self-affirmation in everyday life.

    Second, of course the theory of bioethics and the academic discussions are important, but the theories and/or discusions that are not accompanied by any self-transformation of the researchers are nonsense.

    Third, when thinking about life in our society we should never forget to take account of power relationship between women and men, minority and majority, and so on.

    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. If men sincerely face this fact, they may find a narrow way leading to a truly meaningful discussion with women who are running ahead of us.

*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, Nov.3, 1998, Tsukuba Science City, Japan


1) Masahiro Morioka, 1998, "Women's Liberation and Bioethics in the '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 the Question: Is Abortion a Vested Right?" (in Japanese) in Mizoguchi et al. eds. Shiryo: Nihon Uman Ribu Shi. Vol.2, p.63.

*This paper is a summary of the Chapter 4 of my book, Life Studies Approaches to Bioethics: A New Perspectives on Brain Death, Feminism and Disability. (2001, in Japanese)

*"Disability Movement and Inner Eugenic Thought: A Philosophical Aspect of Independent Living and Bioethics" (2002) deals with similar topics.

Reprinted in
Women's Health Journal