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.