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Friday, Feb. 8, 2002

MATTER OF COURSE

BREAKING THE SILENCE

It's time to say: Let's talk about sex, babies


In all my years of studying Japanese, I never learned the word I need right now. How do you say "nocturnal emission"? I need to know because my 10-year-old son is starting sex education at school, and I haven't told him that part of "the facts of life." His Japanese is pretty good, but I think he'll understand the lesson better if I explain it to him in English first. And give him the Japanese words he'll be hearing.

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In Japan, seikyoiku (sex education) generally begins in fifth grade, when kids get a very basic lesson about how their bodies will change when they enter puberty. But Japanese children are maturing earlier. This year, for the first time, the health teacher at our school decided to start seikyoiku with the fourth-graders.

I was a little surprised. My son may be the biggest kid in his class, but his hormones have definitely not kicked in yet. Girls are still gross. His only passions are computers and basketball. But one of the girls in the fourth grade just started menstruating, the health teacher told me. That means it is time to talk to the kids about the birds and the bees.

I thought the health teacher did a great job of introducing the subject in a natural way. In January, during the bimonthly shintaisokutei (height and weight check), she made a chart for the fourth grade. The girls, she pointed out, are taller and heavier on average than the boys. "Know why?" she asked. "Because the girls' bodies are preparing so they can become mothers later."

The teacher used color charts to explain -- to the girls and the boys -- how girls' bodies change during puberty. She explained menstruation and why girls use sanitary napkins during their periods. Later, she said, she'd show the girls how to use them. And at the next height-weight check in March, she promised to explain the changes that boys' bodies undergo.

This is why I have the health textbook for fifth- and sixth-graders open on my desk. I'm making a list of vocabulary I need before I talk to my son. The section on shishunki (puberty) covers hensei (change of voice), shasei (ejaculation), seieki (semen) and musei (yup, that's "nocturnal emission"). Somehow, these words never came up in Japanese 101.

I found the health textbook pretty interesting. It's a 41-page paperback with lots of color illustrations. Six of those pages deal with puberty, including physical changes as well as emotional changes such as increased self-consciousness and moodiness. In April, when the new school year starts, third- and fourth-graders will get a health textbook for the first time, in part to encourage teachers to start sex education earlier.

The problem with sex education in Japanese schools is that there isn't much of it. At most, my kids will get about an hour of seikyoiku while they are in elementary school. And because the Education Ministry gives schools discretion about how much sex education they teach, some schools -- even middle schools and high schools -- don't teach it much at all.

I'd like to see the Education Ministry take some leadership and add sex education to the national curriculum guidelines, conduct teacher training and provide lectures or handouts to encourage parents to talk to their kids about sex. But the bureaucrats seem to believe in the fallacy that giving kids information about sex will encourage them to have sex too soon. That attitude is usually expressed as nemutta ko o okosu na ("Don't wake a sleeping baby").

I've got news for the bureaucrats: The baby is already awake, and it's having sex. Probably without protection.

These days, most young Japanese become sexually active in high school, according to the Japanese Association for Sex Education. The association's most recent survey, conducted in 1999, showed an earlier onset of sexual activity among all the age groups surveyed (middle school, high school and university students) compared to six years before. Both boys and girls were most likely to have had their first sexual experience at 16.

A separate survey, conducted last year among teen couples in Tokyo, found that more than half of both boys and girls said they had already had more than two sex partners. But only about 20 percent of those having sex said they took precautions every time against pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

Although teenage pregnancy is less of a problem in Japan than in other developed countries, Japanese girls are getting pregnant, more now than ever before. In 1995, there were 26,117 abortions performed on women under 20. In 1999, that figure jumped to 39,637, a 52 percent increase. The actual number is probably higher -- many underage abortions are not reported.

The rate of HIV infection among young people is also on the rise. Until last year, people under 20 made up less than 30 percent of those infected. In 2001, the figure rose to more than 40 percent.

When JASE asked young people how they learned about sex, most said they learned from friends, television and manga (comic books). Kids learning about sex from manga?! Japanese comic books are full of violent sex and warped male-female relationships. Now that's a frightening thought.

It's sad that so few respondents said they learned about sex in school. Sadder still that none of them said they learned about sex from their parents. Sex is so much more than a physical act. It involves emotions and spirituality and morals. Schools can't teach all that. Parents need to help their kids figure out how to incorporate sexuality into their lives.

It's really not that hard. I just sat my son down for our little shasei-musei chat. I showed him the health textbook. It took about four minutes. When I was finished, he said, "OK, Mom, thanks. Now can I go play basketball?"

Alice Gordenker is a Tokyo-based writer and the mother of two American children attending Japanese public elementary school.


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