Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Birth Control in Japan

Among the many things that tickle the fancy of newbie expatriates in Japan, are the condom machines and the amusing names and illustrations on the boxes. A lot of people believe that condoms are sold in vending machines to stop shy Japanese from having to approach a drug store clerk face-to-face and request birth control and this may or may not be true. To be honest, I don't even know if condoms are carried in drug stores in Japan. I've never seen them anywhere, even in the behind the counter area.

The male sexually-active expatriate soon learns that Japanese condoms are of diminished utility to him because they are, indeed, smaller than western condoms. For the average (or above average) man, Japanese condoms are perhaps workable but rather tight. Despite the desire of politically-correct and culturally-sensitive sorts to try and avoid making conclusions about penis size and nationality, the smaller condoms in Japan are an indication that size is related to nationality. I read a book quite some time ago called The Male Sexual Machine: An Owner's Manual which included scientific research on this topic (yes, they made measurements) and the book's chart showed that, on average, Japanese men have the smallest penises in the developed world so it makes sense that the condoms would be smaller. Offering them as souvenirs to western friends, as Roy once helpfully suggested, is good for a novelty but not as a practical gift. ;-)

The picture above of a shop in Shibuya shows that not everyone is shy about letting someone know they're purchasing a prophylactic. Going into a place like this makes no bones about what one is in need of. The sign in front has a pink "female" condom saying "George" and the green "male" condom saying another name which I can't quite make out but it may be "Emily" and it says "Give safe sex a chance." This is a fine slogan for a condom shop but, if you look into birth control practices in Japan, you'll find that condoms are not necessarily used in a manner which is consistent with protecting one from disease.

I did some research on the web and found that, while condom usage is high among married couples (about 70% use them), not all of them use them all the time. Many couples only use condoms (or birth control of any kind) when the woman has determined she is actually fertile. One of the studies I read also said that condom use is far lower when one is having a sexual relationship outside of marriage (45%) so those who are more likely to have a variety of partners and are at greater risk of contacting sexually-transmitted diseases aren't using condoms.

I'm sure that the statistics will slowly alter as the pill (finally) became legal in 1999 (mainly because of pressure to do so after making Viagra legal) but I know for a fact that at least some doctors discourage contraceptive pill usage among Japanese women (both because of discussions with female students and students who are doctors). They over-emphasize the health risks when queried about them. Cynics believe this is because the doctors want to keep a lucrative business in abortions going (35% of Japanese women have had abortions compared to 25% in the U.S.) but I do believe that conservatism and patriarchal wishes play a part as well. Most Japanese doctors, like most Japanese people, are very slow to try new things and the pill is relatively new to them. Also, allowing women to take the pill puts control of reproduction in their hands entirely and it does so in a manner which the man in the relationship cannot detect or confirm. I'm sure this doesn't fit well in a culture which still desires to limit the freedom and status of women.


Roy said...

Shari, if you will allow me to offer my opinion. I think that some condoms here in Japan are smaller but the average condom is generally the same size however less stretchier then western condoms especially the cheap ones. There is more diversity in the quality of condoms here than in the west, probably because of the variety. The cheap ones will not stretch and break very easily. This same discussion came up once in the staff room of the English school I worked at. And since we were all blokes with too much time on our hands we went and bought a bunch of condoms and compared them to western ones. Having said that I always stock up on a bunch when overseas because they are just too expensive here.

Also, they do sell condoms at drug stores in Japan as well as just about any convenience store. They are usually right beside the female napkins.

lostinube said...

Yep, they sell condoms in drug stores, convenience stores and even the 100 yen stores.
In this case, they were in the medical goods section, right above the bandages. I've also seen them right near the cash register next to some cheap toys.

tornados28 said...

Do they have flavored condoms?

Shari said...

I'm sure they do have flavored ones though my husband and I haven't bought any since the FBC started doing business and western condoms could be purchased through them (for obvious reasons). ;-)