Respect for unborn life is at the heart of Japanese culture

In April 2020, Japanese actress Kumiko Okae passed away. It was reported that she died of COVID-19 while undergoing cancer treatment. This sudden news saddened all of Japan. Okae was a familiar face on Japanese television as well as a Pokémon voice actress. She had been affectionately nicknamed the “Mother of Japan”.

The word for “mother” in Japanese is Okasan. Thanks in large part to his acting, Okae embodied the image of Okasan for many in Japan. Indeed, it was the long-running TV drama Ten todoke facts (“Reach up to Heaven”) which catapulted her to stardom. This hugely popular drama ran for most of the 1990s, in which Okae played the role of a devoted mother of no less than 13 children. It is based on a true story.

Ten todoke facts depicts the happy and peaceful life of a large family. But the drama takes a brutal turn when the thirteenth pregnancy of Okae’s character, Sadako, is discovered. At the same time, Sadako is diagnosed with an incurable disease. Her doctor recommends an abortion.

The older children, now in middle school and high school, beg their mother to do what the doctor recommends. But Sadako smiles sweetly at them and says she has no intention of having an abortion. His moving words “I think God will decide in the end” [最後は神様が決めてくれると思うの] get them to adopt his way of thinking.

In the drama, Sadako leaves everything to God, gives birth and survives. She regains good health, and resumes her life within the family.

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Saint Gianna Beretta Molla.

The testimony of Saint Gianna Beretta Molla

Sadako is not portrayed as a Christian in the drama. However, her story bears some similarities to the life of Italian pediatrician Gianna Beretta Molla (1922-1962), canonized by the Catholic Church in 2004.

Given that less than 1% of Japan is Catholic, it’s no surprise that many Japanese don’t know about Saint Gianna. But his story is one they find easy to appreciate.

During her fourth and final pregnancy, St Gianna developed uterine fibroids. Her doctors recommended a total hysterectomy, but St Gianna opted to remove only the fibroid, putting her baby’s life above her own.

The morning of Holy Saturday April 21st 1962, St Gianna gave birth to a baby girl. A week later, however, she died. In Catholic circles, she is sometimes referred to as the “martyrdom of life” or the “martyrdom of maternal love”.

March for life at Hibiya Park Tokyo, July 18, 2022. (Photo credit: Shinya Hirose)

Japan’s Devoted and Devoted Mothers

During my work for the Pro-Life movement of Japan, I strive to introduce St. Gianna to non-Catholic Japanese people at every opportunity. Although in past centuries many Catholics in Japan have also sacrificed their lives to bear witness to their faith, the life of Saint Gianna is one with which many Japanese people find it particularly easy to identify. Indeed, when I tell her story to people in Japan, they often say, “My mother probably would have done the same for me.”

In this sense, Kumiko Okae’s character, Sadako, was “ordinary”, despite having 13 children. Her courageous determination to protect her child at all costs, even if it meant sacrificing her own life, is the norm for many Japanese mothers.

In Japan, where self-sacrifice is considered a virtue, the word Okasan evokes a tireless devotion. We think, for example, of the patient mother of Megumi Yokota, a girl who was tragically kidnapped by North Korean agents when she was only 13 years old. This is why some feminists don’t like the very word Okasanbecause it implies a feminine ideal quite different from that of complete autonomy, so prevalent in the West today.

Indeed, we might suggest that there are two competing interpretations of Okasan— the devoted and self-sacrificing mother on the one hand, and the “unliberated” woman on the other.

Masa’aki Ikeda participating in the March for Life, downtown Tokyo, July 18, 2022. (Photo credit: Shinya Hirose)

Walk for life in Japan

I am one of the organizers of Japan’s “March for Life”, which started in 2014. It is held in Tokyo every year on Navy Day (when pronounced, the phrase Umi no hi can be taken to mean either “Navy Day” or “Birth Day”). I helped establish this event after attending the March for Life in Washington DC. I was also inspired by Pope John II’s call in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae (“The Gospel of Life”) to protect the weak and helpless.

2023 will mark the 10e anniversary of the March for Life in Japan. Although on a small scale, it has been steadily growing year by year. On this march, people from all over Japan and beyond gather, regardless of religion, to celebrate and cherish all human life, from the moment of conception to natural death. This underscores our belief that the human race is one human family.

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We are supported in action and in spirit by the Okasan from Japan. While we walk for life only once a year, countless mothers across Japan sacrifice themselves for their children every day, 365 days a year. Japanese mothers are our inspiration, one of the unsung strengths of this beautiful country.

Kumiko Okae as “Okaasan” in the TV series “TENMADETODOKE”. (Photo credit: TBS, provided by the author.)

Japan’s Little-Known “Culture of Life”

There are those who oppose our message, both inside and outside Japan, believing that personal autonomy must come before the sanctity of life. So there are marches for life all over the world, to oppose what Pope John Paul II called the “culture of death,” the culture of attacking the weak and vulnerable.

One of the goals of our pro-life activism is to help St Gianna, whose heroic life made her a model, to be better appreciated in Japan. This is the easy part, however, as there are countless St Giannas hidden across Japan! No matter how much some may claim that abortion is a woman’s right, many Japanese Okasanas Kumiko Okae’s character in “Reach up to Heaven”, adopt a different point of view.

This makes Japan a natural leader in the global Pro-Life movement. Japanese culture values ​​the weak and helpless. And in Japan, mothers have always assumed their role as protectors of children, acting as beacons of the “culture of life” within the Japanese archipelago.

March for Life, downtown Tokyo, July 18, 2022. (Photo credit: Shinya Hirose)

Japan’s Abortion Tragedy

This does not mean, of course, that there are no abortions in Japan. Unfortunately, abortion is also part of Japanese culture. In the past, some mothers may have felt compelled to abort their thirteenth child, for example because of poverty. If such a mother was being begged by her eldest children not to give birth again in order to save money so that her other children would have a better chance of survival, she may, in some cases, have chosen to make this frightening decision.

In Japan, statues of the Buddhist bodhisattva known as Jizo are commonplace. Many have been erected in memory of aborted or miscarried children. In temples dedicated to mizuko (i.e. aborted or aborted babies), a woman is sometimes seen with her hands clasped in prayer and tears streaming down her cheeks. It is true that a Japanese mother sometimes gives up her own happiness under the pressure of her family.

Japan as a pro-life model

Despite this dark history, I believe Japan can serve as a pro-life model for years to come. At a time when the United States Supreme Court recently overturned the highly controversial Roe v. Wade, who promoted widespread abortion across America, our journey has only just begun. The time has come for many nations, including America, to begin to reclaim their lost “culture of life” and build a better future based on respect for the inherent dignity of all human beings, including the unborn child.

Japan represents fertile ground for the global Pro-Life movement. Through the hardships of war and the suffering caused by natural disasters, we Japanese people have learned to cherish life. As Pro-Life advocates around the world consider how best to capitalize on the encouraging developments in America, I hope they connect strategically with Japan. In this sense, it seems fitting that three of the greatest saints of the 20th century, Pope John Paul II, Mother Teresa and Saint Maximilian Kolbe, all visited these islands in order to preach the Gospel of life.

I believe that Japan has the potential to become the center of the Global March for Life in the very near future. Because in the many devoted countries of Japan Okasanwe have an abundance of heroic role models who, like Saint Gianna Beretta Molla, can teach us the inestimable value of every human being.

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Author: Masaaki Ikeda

Mr. Ikeda is the president of and a father of four children.

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