Why Didn't Japan Approve 'The Pill' Until 1999?

Why did it take so long for the Japanese Department of Health to approve the birth control pill for use as a contraceptive?

I understand that Japan did not approve it until 1999, whereas the United States F.D.A. approved it decades ago. Why the difference?


I’ve heard many news stories over the years regarding the state of women’s reproductive rights in Japan and often the reporters and columnists make reference to chauvinism on the part of the Japanese bureaucracy.

Despite being one of the most advanced nations on Earth, when it comes to sexual stereotypes Japan is still one of the more conservative cultures. For instance, take a look at the persistence of the male/female roles in family life and vocation: the male becomes a corporate drone, and stays out drinking every night with his fellows, while the female stays home and is expected to be the faithful, industrious housewife. And the fashion styles that wash in fleeting fads over Japanese teenage girls, while appearing tame to us, play off every fetish known to dirty middle aged men in that culture. And surely, I don’t have to mention the stereotypes that permeate anime, of the various flavors…

And yet, Japan has one of the lowest rates of violent crime and sexual predation in the industrialized world.

The differences in our cultures don’t end there… not by a long run. They’re a strange bunch.

But then they think the same of us.

bughunter has got part of the reason correct. Male chauvinism in the Japanese bureaucracy kept the pill from being approved in the Japanese market and it may very well still not have been approved had it not been for the introduction of a new pill on the market for men. Viagra. When Pfizer introduced Viagra, it was quickly approved for sale in Japan. The discrimination was only too obvious. Although the pills performed different functions, they were both connected to sex. Why Viagra was so quickly approved despite concern for side effects whereas the contraceptive pill had been proven to work safely in years of use in other countries and still not approved, was quickly pointed out by the few but vocal feminists in Japan.
It became an embarrassment for the Japanese Ministry of Health who then finally approved the female contraceptive pill in Japan.

The official response was something like the pill was made for western women… and could affect badly the jap women. Otherwise I agree with bughunter above.

(shuddering at phrase of "jap women’)

I spoke to a Japanese leader in women’s rights in a conference about a year and a half ago. She denied that chauvanism had anything to do with it.

Instead, she pointed out that under Japanese law, the government may be held liable for damages if it approves a drug that turns out to be unsafe. She explained it as though it were a simple issue of accountability.

(oops, last part cut off)

Personally, I did not buy her explanation, but it is worth commenting that there is another view to the issue.

I haven’t heard that one. I did hear that there were some studies indicating possible dangers, so maybe those seemed to show some racial differences?

I think the strongest argument was that pills would discourage condom use and increase the spread of AIDS. The Japan seems to pride themselves for the low number of AIDS cases (though I wouldn’t be surprised if the official stats turn out to be a severely underestimated.)

However, as I understand it, pills were unofficially available even before 1999. They were not approved for contraception, but the same medication was approved for treating medical problems. Women could go to their doctors, express concern about their irregular periods (or whatever) and get the pills prescribed. At least that’s the impression I got - I have no firsthand (or even secondhand) experience.

A more plausible explanation is the Japanese medical industry’s quite hefty investment and dependency on childbirth. Compared to childbirth in the U.S., for example, costs and profits are considerably higher in Japan. Even with its national health insurance program, the price of having a baby is very high. The average Japanese woman faces a week-long stay in the maternity ward following childbirth at a hospital, with a bill to match. How many women in the U.S. stay in the hospital that long after a complication-free childbirth?

Birth-control pills threatened to put a considerable dent in the already declining birthrate in Japan.

On a side note; condoms have always been a “woman’s product” in Japan. That is, women buy them more often than men do. In drugstores, convenience stores and supermarkets, condoms are found alongside other feminine products such as tampons and sanitary napkins, because men seldom purchase condoms.

The relatively quick approval of Viagra did not go un-noticed by women in Japan. A drug with the potential to help increase the birthrate of the nation? Welcome, indeed!

bughunter, I caution you against making comparisons based on TIME and NEWSWEEK articles about Japan. Every thing you said in the above portions of your post could truthfully be said about society in the U.S.

You know; The Moral Majority, the failure of the passage of the ERA, football widows, “daytime drama”, the continued adulation of celebrity sexual predators (as long as they’re male), Britney Spears and …

and how do you know so much about hentai anime?

This is the Internet. Everybody knows about hentai. :wink:

I’m not sure if I buy that. Abortion has been legal in Japan for a long time, and there’s very little social stigma associated with it. Remember, Japan is as secular as it gets so there’s no religious objection to abortion. I don’t see how pills would cause a further decrease in birthrate.

Question, here:

Was there a large number of people clammoring for The Pill, or just vocal minority? Could it be that the average woman really didn’t see much of a need for it, since their current methods seem to be working?

At one point, those opposed to the pill here offered the argument that the increased hormone levels in women’s urine would harm the environment. Considering that this is the same country that ‘solved’ the dioxin problem by raising the “acceptable” level to ten times that of the US or Europe, this rang a bit hollow.

I know nothing about the details of this particular case, but I’ll lay odds that there is a pile of Yen at the end of the story and that approving the pill would have somehow threatened some domestic Japanese industry.

The Japanese have traditionally been masters of absurdist trade protectionism. This is, after all, the country that barred the importation of foreign skis because “Japanese snow is different!”

I am not making this up.

Hardly.Viagra can benefit women, too.

That link seems not to have worked. This one should work; it is a link to a thread about insurance and Viagra.

…but the general public doesn’t know this. I seem to recall something about this a while back but forgot all about it until you mentioned it. The ignorant masses believe that Viagra is a male drug, IMHO, which is the important point.

It’s true that abortion has been legal in Japan for quite a while, but I think your point reinforces, rather than negates my assertion that medical economics was behind the delay in approval of birth-control pills, scr4.

Think about it: a woman doesn’t have the pill, and her man doesn’t want to use the condoms that she has bought, so when the unwanted pregnancy occurs, they decide that she should get an abortion… who is going to perform this legal abortion?

A doctor, of course; and that doctor is going to charge money for the abortion, which is by no means cheap.

As far as the secular thing goes; there may be no big religious objection to abortion, but many Buddhist temples have developed a thriving business by assuaging the consciences of Japanese women who have had abortions by accepting monetary dedications to O-jizu-sama, the incarnation of the Buddha who is the protector of the souls of dead children. There is a very prominent sub-temple for Misuko Jizo (fetus Jizo) at Kiyomizudera in Kyoto.

Misuko Jizo

This article (PDF), places the blame for delay of the approval of the pill mostly on the abortion industry (!) and Buddhist temples.