Abortion In Japan: A History

It may not currently be a topic of polite conversation in much of local society, but abortion in Japan has existed for as long as people have. In early Japan, survival could be difficult due to poverty, famine, and health issues. In the Edo Period, pregnancy was often an unwelcome burden to women working in the sprawling pleasure quarters. It wasn’t uncommon for women to view pregnancy as an inconvenience to their livelihoods, and abortion as a necessity. [1]

A Historical Look at Abortion in Japan

However, contraception did not yet exist, and proper abortions were difficult to obtain. Poverty and lack of access led desperte pregnant women to rely on dangerous methods, such as induced miscarriages, self-harm, and infanticide. Natural methods included drinking poisonous substances or herbal concoctions, all of which lacked a scientific basis. Many had adverse effects. Other means included acupuncture, cold water immersion, and vaginally inserting sharp objects such as burdock roots to break the amniotic sack. More fatal means, sadly, included hiring a ‘kosashibaba‘ or ‘kosashijiji‘ (a person who would stab the fetus), or throwing oneself from high places, such as flights of stairs or from walls and buildings. [1][5]

A ukiyo-e print of Yoshiwara, the great pleasure quarters of Edo.
Yoshiwara, the great pleasure quarter of the Shogunal capital, Edo.

Infanticide: An Acceptable Alternative to Abortion in Premodern Japan

What happened when an abortion attempt failed, or a woman decided to complete her pregnancy? As horrible as it may sound today, in ancient times, many viewed infanticide or child neglect as an acceptable, and in some cases safer, alternative to abortion. This was the practice of mabiki (間引き), or ‘thinning out’. Mabiki has a history of over 1,000 years in Japan, becoming more widespread during the Edo Period as a means of population control. [1]

Abortion in Japanese Folklore and Religion

Today, such an act would be unthinkable. However, back then, infanticide was not synonymous with murder. Ancient spiritual beliefs dictated that a child’s life belonged to the spirit realm until age seven. As such, abortion or infanticide simply meant ‘sending the child back home to god’. Later, with the introduction of Buddhism and the idea of reincarnation, people believed it was also for the child’s benefit, as they were simply putting the child’s life ‘on hold’ until it could be reborn to a family who could support it. [1][5]

The Kojiki, Japan’s oldest anthology of creation myths and legends, documents what some interpret as the earliest reference to abortion, as well as inequality in women’s reproductive rights. According to the legend, when the two creation gods, Izanagi and Izanami, attempted to consummate their marriage, an ‘error’ on Izanami’s part (namely, making the first move, despite being a woman) lead to her conception of a deformed child, Hiruko. Hiruko had no bones, and in some stories, no limbs. Regarding this birth as a bad omen, they put Hiruko in a basket and floated him down the river. [6]

Print of Japanese creator deities Izanagi and Izanami.
Izanami and Izanagi, creator deities of Japan.

Although Hiruko eventually winds up in a distant land and survives (and, as many believe, becomes the Japanese deity of luck, Ebisu), the story shows just how far back the negative stigma against disability goes. Back then, people saw disability as a bad omen. Some even believed having a disabled child would bring misfortune to the family and famine to the community.  In this sense, getting rid of an ‘ominous child’ was seen as doing a favor to the community.

Abortion, Buddhism, and Purification Rituals

Nowadays, most anti-abortion views in Western countries stem from religious beliefs originating in European Catholicism and Christianity. However, Japan has never been very religious by Western standards, even with its own native religion, Shinto. People didn’t start viewing abortion as something negative until the introduction of Buddhism. However, even then, it was not considered a grave sin so much as an impurity, and purification rituals developed to cleanse away defilement. [5][6]

One Buddhist priest shares his view on abortion: “Of course we can’t take life. Buddhist law doesn’t allow us to do that. On the other hand, a woman shouldn’t have to have a baby if she doesn’t want to. A child should not have to be born into a family that doesn’t want it. We must have compassion”. [7]

A statue of Jizo, guardian of children and travelers, at Osorezan.

Abortion as a Crime

The first anti-abortion laws appeared in the Edo Period. At this time, although Japan appeared to be flourishing, the population was in a state of apparent stagnation. Shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu attributed this to the practices of abortion, infanticide, and child abandonment, and outlawed all three throughout Edo. Parents who abandoned children were subject to exiled or imprisonment. Those who committed infanticide were subject to death. [1]

A late 19th-century Japanese print admonishing against abortion, featuring a woman, an old lady, and a a baby, with Ameterasu behind them.
A late 19th-century print admonishing against abortion.

With the onset of the Meiji Period in 1868, the new Japanese government prioritized population growth as a necessity for modernization and rapid industrialization. Women were expected to give birth to many children to provide laborers and soldiers. [3]

The government declared new laws establishing control over midwives. limiting the use of drugs and obstetric devices, and surveillance of pregnant women, who had to notify authorities of stillbirths and miscarriages. In 1880, they issued the first nationwide ban on abortion under the new Criminal Code, marking the first time abortion became a criminal offense. [2][5]

This law carried over to the 1907 penal code, the basis for the abortion laws that exist today. It stated that any woman who gets an abortion of her own will, regardless of reason, faced imprisonment for up to a year. The practitioner who carried it out would face anywhere from three months to five years. [3]

Abortion Rights and Japan’s Feminist Movement

Despite the government’s actions, people still faced economic hardships. New laws and edicts weren’t enough to stop desperate women from trying. Underground abortion clinics and con artists promising safe abortions sprung up everywhere. This prompted a call for birth control and reproductive rights to help distressed women avoid taking dangerous measures. Thus began one of Japan’s first feminist movements. Central activists such as Yamamoto Senji, Majima Yutaka, Ishimoto Shizue, and Abe Isoo carried out activities and lectures promoting birth control in urban areas like Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka. Margaret Sanger, leader of the birth control movement in the USA, later joined, helping to establish Japan’s first birth control clinics. Other feminist icons, including Ichikawa Fusae and Hiratsuka Raicho, fought for abortion as a woman’s right through the Abortion Law Reform League in 1932. [5] 

Early Japanese feminists Ichikawa Fusae and Hiratsuka Raichou at the first meeting of the New Woman's Society.
A photo from the first meeting of the New Woman’s Society (新夫妻協会). Ichikawa Fusae is on the left edge; Hiratsuka Raichou sits right of center.

War On Abortion In Japan

Although the movement initially took off, the government began to suppress these movements during the Sino-Japanese war in 1937. In 1941, Japan’s government declared a goal to create a population surplus and send people overseas to conquered territories. The cabinet set ‘Guidelines for Population Policy’, outlawing both abortion and contraception, and making it national policy that the average family should have five children. But after the war and the loss of most of their territories, Japan was stuck with an excess of people, and not enough resources to support them. [5]

Severe post-war food and housing shortages lead to a spike in abortion, infanticide, and child abandonment. By 1947, newspaper articles appeared daily for children needing adoption. This sparked an incident with the Kotobuki Maternity Hospital, which took in abandoned children, yet discovered they couldn’t sufficiently care for them, resulting in as many as 160 babies dying while the hospital continued collecting child-support fees from the parents. [5]

The government begrudgingly acknowledged the need for contraception, and was forced to reverse its population policies. This led to the post-war revival of Japan’s feminist movement. However, that still wasn’t enough to guarantee an easy road for abortion rights activists.

Birth Control Movement Revival in Japan

In 1947, feminist and birth control activist Kato Shizue proposed a bill for new birth control laws after securing a seat in the Diet. However, her proposal was shot down, with the government putting forth a new bill that focused on abortion instead. The Eugenic Protection Law (優生保護法; Yūsei Hogo Hō) went into effect in 1948. It allowed abortions for reasons of economic distress, while further limiting access to birth control and enforcing sterilization of people with disabilities. [5] 

Early post-war feminist lawmaker Kato Shizue.

In reality, this was merely a revision of the 1940 National Eugenics Law. Rather than prioritize women’s rights, it focused on population control through means of preventing what they viewed as ‘undesirable’ births. This meant anything from mixed-race children, to children with mental or physical disabilities. [3][5]

By 1949, the population exceeded 80 million and economic difficulties persisted, becoming a national crisis. That year, the Diet reversed the Eugenic Protection Law. For the first time, the Ministry of Health and Welfare acknowledged birth control through contraception rather than abortion, and approved the use of spermicide and condoms. (Both were previously available, but were incredibly difficult to obtain). However, oral contraceptives were still outlawed, and would remain so all the way until 1999. [2]

Because of this, many women still became pregnant, and abortion rates continued to increase. Family planning began to take precedence. In 1951, the cabinet decided to support contraception on the notion that birth control was the only way to ensure “civilized, healthy, happy families”. In 1952, they revised the Eugenic Protection Law again, allowing abortions with the consent of a doctor. 

Labor Shortages, Coin Locker Babies, and Pro-Abortion Revival

In 1967, as Japan faced labor shortages, Prime Minister Saito Eisaku blamed abortions. This leads the Ministry of Health and Welfare to once again consider a stricter application of the Eugenic Protection Law. A Eugenic Protection Law reform movement resurfaced once again in 1972, with pro-abortion rights and feminist movements reviving in opposition.

As the abortion wars dragged on, a new phenomenon took hold in the 1970s: coin-locker babies. Women were now abandoning newborns in coin-operated lockers, a new invention brought about through Japan’s modernization through the 1960s-70s.

Coin lockers, a very common sight throughout Japan.

The Maternal Health Act

At the same time, abortion was being acknowledged all around the world. The feminist movements overseas resulted in increased social approval of abortion in the United States and other Western countries. The World Population Conference and World Food Conference called attention to the need for population control, and birth control was the solution. Criminalizing abortion again would put Japan at a disadvantage against the rest of the world.

The government revised the Eugenics Protection Law into the Maternal Health Protection Act. However, although this law approved doctors to perform an abortion for economic reasons, it still required the consent of the spouse. And although Japan’s health ministry recently revised these guidelines to remove the consent requirement for women in abusive marriages or who have been raped, it still leaves much to be desired in regards to reproductive rights for all women. [3][9]

Abortion in Japan More Accessible Than Contraception?

Despite the difficulty of access, in 2015, there were one million pregnancies, 17% (about 176,388) of which ended in abortion. The reason for continued high abortion rates is frequently attributed to the Japanese government’s reluctance to improve access to contraception. Even today, studies suggest that condoms and extravaginal ejaculation are the most common contraceptive methods women turn to. [2]

In 1931, the Regulations on the Control of Harmful Contraceptive Devices banned the use of IUDs. The Ministry of Health and Welfare approved hormonal pills in 1960, but only as a remedy to menstrual issues. (Although many women secretly obtained them for birth control, despite the laws). In 1972, a pill was finally approved, but could only be purchased with a prescription. And oral contraceptives were illegal until 1999. [2]

Nowadays, contraception can cost as much as 5,000 yen a month, and still require the approval of a doctor. Most abortions are still performed by the outdated surgical curettage methods, which WHO believes should be ended. [2]

Recently, many are pushing for the approval of the abortion pill. The abortion pill is currently available in over 65 countries around the world, and is an essential medicine, according to the WHO. However, as in previous movements, the Japanese government is attempting to make this impossible to access, as well, suggesting a price of as much as $1,000 out of pocket. [4]

In comparison to other countries, Japan is still far behind in abortion and reproductive rights. However, little by little, we can see small steps toward progress. Earlier this year, the book ‘My Body My Choice: The Fight for Abortion Rights’ by Robin Stevenson was translated into Japanese. [11] However, until reproductive rights are acknowledged as a whole on the national level, there is still much work to be done.


[1] 江戸時代後期の堕胎・間引きについての実状と子ども観(生命観). 了德寺大学・健康科学部看護学科

[2] 「妊娠中絶後進国」の日本女性に感じる哀れさ. Tokyo Keizai Online

[3] 中絶にまつわる3つの法律の歴史をたどる. JOICFP

[4] 未だに「かき出す中絶」が行われている日本の謎. PRESIDENT Online

[5] The Logic of Abortion: Japanese Debates on the Legitimacy of Abortion as Seen in Post–World War II Newspapers. JSTOR

[6] 今も残る蛭子伝説。日本神話に登場する不遇の神「ヒルコ」とは一体どんな神様なのか?Japaaan magazine

[7] The Cult of Jizo

[8] 出産した「赤ん坊」を置き去りに…「コインロッカーベイビー」の悲惨な現実. マネー現代

[9] 母体保護法. Wikipedia JP

[10] 中絶に「配偶者の同意」求めず 婚姻関係破綻なら. 毎日新聞

[11] 中絶について話せる社会に 女性に権利を 闘いの歴史つづる一冊. 東京新聞

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