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50 years ago, the ‘Bernard Nathanson of Japan’ began his campaign to save the lives of the unborn

by | Mar 14, 2023

A Japanese doctor who changed laws and attitudes even before becoming a Christian

By David Kolf

If asked to name a life-related event in 1973 that sent a shock wave felt by millions, Roe v Wade would come to the mind of many MercatorNet readers, I would imagine. This year, though, also marks the 50th anniversary of another event from the other side of the Pacific.

It is a story of deep pro-life conviction and moral courage which is unknown outside Japan.  

On April 17 and 18, two local newspapers in a small city named Ishinomaki ran an ad seeking couples willing to adopt babies. While to a layman the phrasing of the ads would seem innocent enough, they constituted a deliberate act of defiance of Japanese law that eventually brought about legal change.

The ads were written by Dr. Noboru Kikuta, who could rightly be called the Bernard Nathanson of Japan. He had opened his own clinic in 1958, ten years after the Eugenic Protection Law made Japan one of the most permissive abortion states in the world. A personal conversion brought him to leave that lucrative business and dedicate himself to protecting life.

To this end he had to break down barriers both cultural and institutional. His ads constituted, one could say, a first salvo.

Background to the 1948 Eugenic Protection Law

More than once I have seen Japanese scandalized at Western jokes about boys teasing or torturing insects or other animals. Buddhism’s First Precept, “I will not willingly take the life of a living thing” runs deep. Yet abortion and infanticide (euphemistically called “mabiki”, as if pulling plants from an overcrowded garden) were widespread in pre-modern Japan, and were never openly censured by Buddhist or Shinto teachers. “Fuzziness” is a word I have heard used, fairly or unfairly, to describe thought in this culture that avoids an overt challenge.

During Japan’s attempts to modernize in the late 19th century and early 20th century, the government adopted a much more pro-natalist policy. Truth be told, though, much of the government’s motivation for encouraging more children was to be able to better project geopolitical strength as Japan entered a more and more expansionist and militaristic phase. After World War II this rationale lost much of its appeal. Have more children? Not for maintaining an empire stretching from Manchuria to Indochina.

During the same period, eugenics was growing in certain intellectual circles. A Hegelian-Darwinist view of history divided civilizations into strong races and weaker ones; the strong were meant to dominate, while the weak needed to be weeded out. Americans champions of eugenics like Charles Davenport, Harry Laughlin, and Margaret Sanger had followers in Japan.

Throughout the War, the Japanese were often cast as an inferior race by American forces. In the immediate post-war period, MacArthur’s team also thought it would be politically expedient to eliminate evidence of the mass rape of Japanese women by Russians; Japanese authorities also wanted babies fathered by American soldiers erased to preserve Japanese purity. The stage was set for liberalizing abortion.

Birth and adoption regulations

This extremely ugly collusion of forces is what engendered the 1948 Eugenic Protection Law. At a more grass-roots level, social dynamics peculiar to Japan were also working against the unborn, and it was here that Kikuta’s ads were to have their greatest influence.

At birth, Japanese are registered in their family koseki, which stretches back for generations and is viewable by any family member. Prior to 1987, the register would record whether the child was a natural born child of their parents or an abandoned child that they were adopting. This requirement discouraged many would-be parents from providing a home for children who would otherwise be aborted.

In more rural areas and times, this rule could be circumvented by midwives who could quietly find families and record the birth as a natural child. Such falsification, though, would cost hospitals and doctors their license, even if their intention was to save innocent lives.

Kikuta’s conversion and campaign

After years of silencing his conscience on the matter, Dr. Kikuta stopped performing abortions and began issuing false birth certificates so that adoptive parents could register children as their own. He saved over 100 children this way, before deciding that the system itself had to be changed.

The ad was phrased thus:

“Urgent Announcement! Seeking someone to raise a newborn baby boy as their own child. Kikuta, gynecologist. Tel:…”

Kikuta was thereby publicly announcing his civil disobedience. It was immediately picked up by the major nation-wide media outlets; it cost him his license (which was restored years later).

In subsequent speaking and writing, Kikuta made several proposals: allowing adoptive parents to call babies their natural children (this has been allowed since 1987, in large part due to his campaigning); creating an agency to select foster parents, place babies, and follow up on adoption; revising abortion laws to be more restrictive. He argued on behalf of mothers who needed alternatives, and in favor of the happiness of babies. Never did he resort to villainizing; never did his words take on a “holier-than-thou” tone.

Kikuta’s early pro-life work seems to have been motivated by his own conscience, and by a desire to ensure that he and others could promote human life without being regarded as a criminal. As a student he did study Christian teaching, but after a bad experience with a pastor he seems to have harbored antipathy toward churches. In 1981, though, he was invited to meet Mother Teresa on her visit to Japan, and was moved by her comments on the words of Christ in the Gospel: “Whatsoever you do to the least of my brethren, that you do unto me.” A few years later he met Pastor Fujioka, founder of a pro-life group, and was baptized by a Protestant pastor, Akira Saeki, in 1987.

Noboru Kikuta’s legacy

Noboru Kikuta was awarded the World Prize for Life by the International Right to Life Organization in Geneva in 1991 and died later that year. Pro-life work in Japan continues aiding pregnant mothers and facilitating adoption, often under Protestant auspices. That type of grass-roots, person-to-person work makes few headlines, but every pro-lifer knows that it is an essential part of what the cause is about.

At the same time, Kikuta’s case shows how vital legal work is, too, as has also been shown in other areas of the globe.

Prefectures in Japan have little to no authority to make significant changes at the local level, and lobbying at the national level is at a near standstill. Much remains to be done.

It seems almost certain that next month’s anniversary will be met with an unwelcome irony, as the government is poised to allow sale of an oral abortion pill for use in Japan.

Editor’s note. This appeared at Mercator Net and is reposted with permission.

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