December 2023 | Japan Media Review

NHK program challenges Japanese education’s squeamish approach to the birds and the bees

Artwork by Julio Shiiki

On October 17, Japan's public broadcaster, NHK, aired a special program, World Love Journal, on its main terrestrial station. Using a "variety show" format, wherein guests, including celebrities, discuss a given topic supplemented by visual presentations, the program endeavored to cover sex-related stories from different parts of the world. Even before the show was broadcast it provoked controversy on the internet due to reports that it would feature depictions of genitalia, as well as conversations using words that are normally considered off-limits for mainstream television.

The program featured Hitoshi Matsumoto of the popular comedy team Downtown, who admitted at the outset that, despite his reputation for outspokenness, he didn't really know how to talk about sex “casually”. The other guests included a female former adult video actor who is now an author, a famous male rapper, and a woman who hosts a program on NHK's educational channel that often covers sex-related topics. The video clips came from TV stations in other countries and included reports about “sex lessons” for adults in China, the use of sex toys in a Swedish nursing home, the popularity of buttock augmentation surgery in Kenya, and a dating show in the UK where contestants judge one another after only seeing them naked from the waist down. 

The conversations were casual in the variety show style, but they occasionally touched on subjects that were treated more seriously, such as how young people today tend to learn about sex through the internet and how unrealistic and even dangerous the actions depicted in online porn can be. And despite pre-broadcast chatter about full frontal nudity, only illustrated representations of genitalia were aired. All video and photographs of genitalia were masked.

The program clearly showed sex education in Japan is insufficient. Reviewing the show in the online magazine, Minori Kitahara, an adult goods entrepreneur who often writes on sexual themes, was surprised that the guests used the word “clitoris”, since, in her experience as an on-air pundit, it's always been forbidden, though not by law. She applauded NHK for breaking the taboo, saying that it appeared the broadcaster was trying to “establish standards for appropriate language” in Japanese programming. However, she felt that the anxiety on display, especially on the part of the two male guests, was counterproductive to the show's purposes. Obviously, the participants were supposed to talk about sexuality in a serious and interesting way, but she could sense the two men's frustration at not being able to be themselves on air. Matsumoto generally refrained from telling jokes, and the strain showed in his demeanor. Kitahara wrote: "I was expecting to see the rapper, who reportedly hates feminists, say extreme things, but he was subdued and reticent.” Consequently, the only meaningful discussion was conducted by the women present, a development that likely reinforced the opinions of male online critics who predicted the program would be commandeered by “feminists” – a word they used pejoratively. In the end, Kitahara felt the program was a step in the right direction, but that Japanese TV still lagged behind when it came to talking frankly about sex.

Ironically, NHK investigated this lack of openness two years ago on its in-depth local news magazine Shutoken Navi, which covered a project launched by the education ministry to help children understand sexual assault so that they would not become perpetrators or victims. NHK found that the project had a serious flaw: sexual intercourse cannot be discussed in Japan's public schools. The education ministry's own guidelines prohibit teachers from using language “related to sexual contact”. Normally, children learn about conception and pregnancy in the first year of junior high school, but teachers are not allowed to cover what actually leads to conception and pregnancy. This “braking regulation” even extends to the third-year curriculum, when children are supposed to learn about sexually transmitted infections.

Professor Satoru Nishizawa of Yamanashi University, an expert on child abuse who participated in the project, told NHK that he repeatedly complained to the ministry about the regulation. “If you don't talk about penetration, how can you teach anything beyond that?” he said, according to one transcript. “Give me a rational reason.” The ministry simply kept pointing to its guidelines, which prohibited such discussions in class. Junior high school textbooks describe how male and female bodies change as they grow and how babies are conceived and develop in the mother's body, but there is no indication of the physical act that precedes and results in conception. 

The guidelines went into force in 1988, when revisions were made by the ministry. But when NHK asked how the guidelines were formulated, the ministry said no records existed detailing the process behind their creation. 

Some junior high school teachers in Japan discuss intercourse in class – much depends on the school administration. One teacher at a public junior high school in Adachi Ward, Tokyo, was attacked when word got out that she was teaching her third-year students about “personal sexual activity”. The teacher in question, Noriko Higami, told NHK that Adachi has the highest poverty rate of Tokyo's 23 wards, a situation that was exacerbated by unplanned teen pregnancies. The number of abortions performed on high school girls in the ward is disproportionately high. Consequently, she felt it was vital to teach her students about sexual intercourse, contraception, and abortion to help break the cycle of poverty. Most students already know about sexual intercourse by the time they are in the third year of junior high school, but often their information is misleading, and even harmful, because they get it from the internet or friends. 

Higami informed not only the school board of her plans, but also the students’ parents. Since her students were in the third year, the ministry regulations didn't necessarily apply, but 11 days after the lessons concluded, Toshiaki Koga, a Liberal Democratic Party member of the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly, complained about the class to the Tokyo Metropolitan Board of Education, which condemned Higami's use of the terms “sexual intercourse”, “contraception”, and “artificially induced pregnancy interruption” in class, saying junior high school was too soon to expose children to such matters. In response, the Adachi Board of Education said that there was nothing improper about the class or its contents, and that the purpose was to help students avoid pregnancies. The Tokyo board, however, said that such guidance should be provided on an individual basis and not in a classroom setting.

As it turns out, in 2003, Koga was also instrumental in cancelling a sex education class at a Tokyo public school for children with special needs. The school had started the class because it was worried about what might happen when students with learning disabilities reached adolescence and were confronted with sexual situations. The faculty, in consultation with parents, devised a course that relied on visual aids and used words like “penis” and “vagina”. Koga led a raid on the school, condemning the class as obscene. The conservative Sankei Shimbun newspaper echoed his disgust in its coverage, and the relevant teachers were punished. Eventually, the school sued both Tokyo Prefecture and the Sankei. It not only won its case at the Tokyo District Court in 2009, but also two subsequent appeals.

According to the guidelines, contraception and abortion may be taught at high school, but as experts who spoke to NHK pointed out, that is too late, since some students are already having sex by the time they go to high school. According to UNESCO guidelines released in 2009, the full process of reproduction should be taught to children when they are aged between five and eight. Most European countries and Taiwan teach sexual intercourse at elementary school. 

The education ministry's guidelines covering sex education classes in public schools not only render such classes pointless, but also get in the way of changes the central government has made to laws addressing sexual activity. As already mentioned, the education ministry has attempted to incorporate understanding of sexual assault in public school curricula. In June, the Diet revised the country's sex crimes law to define rape as “non-consensual sexual intercourse”. Previously, a charge of rape required that physical force be involved, but now it applies to situations where one partner does not consent. The revision also changed the age of consent, from 13 to 16.

For this revision to be effective, the concept of consent must be understood by everyone before they are mature enough to engage in sexual activity, and that means they have to understand what sexual intercourse entails. World Love Journal aired several video clips of sex education classes and TV programs from Europe aimed at children where sexual intercourse and consent were explained in plain language. The guests in the studio reacted approvingly, while also conceding that this approach probably would never be adopted in Japan.

One of the main reasons why proper sex education is absent from Japanese schools is that the education system is run by male bureaucrats and politicians.

In Japan, and many other places in the world, almost all responsibility for the outcomes of sexual intercourse is pinned on women and girls. In a recent Koron column in the Asahi Shimbun that discussed the newly translated bestseller by American author Gabrielle Blair, Ejaculate Responsibly, three experts discussed the belief that men in Japan are not part of the discussion when it comes to abortion and contraception. These matters are considered the sole concerns of women. Blair wrote her book in response to the huge controversy surrounding abortion in the U.S. as a means of pointing out that men are just as responsible as women for pregnancies – perhaps even more so, since a man can control his ejaculation while a woman doesn't necessarily know if she is ovulating.

Riko Murai, the Japanese translator of Blair's book, told the Asahi that even before it came out in Japan, the book was pilloried on the internet by men who resented the implication that women were not responsible for their pregnancies, even though that is not the position Blair is taking. Murai pointed out that when women in Japan feel like they have no option but to abandon their newborn babies, only they are prosecuted, not the fathers. In 2021, an average of 350 abortions were performed a day in Japan. That means there are 350 men a day who cause a pregnancy but remain invisible. Another participant in the Koron forum, a male professor who has studied unwanted pregnancies, said the idea of the invisible father extends further into society. When couples divorce and the woman is granted custody of the children, 70% do not receive any financial support from their ex-husbands. “This isn't considered an issue,” the professor said, “because the rules are made by men”.

Nothing can be done to remedy this situation without a citizenry that possesses practical knowledge of sexual intercourse from an early age. Even Matsumoto admitted on the NHK program that he learned about sex “wrongly” through pornographic videos. He asked why Japan couldn’t teach sex education without restrictions, as they do in Denmark. It may have been a rhetorical question, but it's one that demands a straightforward answer. 


Philip Brasor is a Tokyo-based writer who covers entertainment, the Japanese media, and money issues. He writes the Japan Media Watch column for the Number 1 Shimbun.