In the fourth and final installment of this series, Tateiwa Shin’ya, professor of sociology and social philosophy at
Ritsumeikan University’s Graduate School of Core Ethics and Frontier Sciences, traces the development of bioethics
in Japan and recommends a number of works in the field that deserve to be translated for the benefit of
readers in other countries.
The first books to introduce and comment on American
and British developments in the field of bioethics began to
appear in Japan in the mid-1980s. Since then, dozens of
specialist studies by Western scholars have been published
in Japanese translation, including the work of George J.
Annas, Howard Brody, Hugo T. Engelhardt, Leon R.
Kass, Helga Kuhse, James Rachels, Peter Singer, and
Robert M. Veach. A Japanese translation of the third edition
of the Encyclopedia of Bioethics came out in 2007.
Numerous textbooks and reference guides for classroom
use have appeared in recent years, in addition to books
discussing practical ethical issues in the context of medical
In a sense, therefore, bioethics as an academic subject
was imported into Japan, where it was embraced and
practiced as a discipline in its own right. But to concentrate
solely on this aspect would be to give a misleading
impression of developments over the last several decades.
Although there are areas of overlap with Western developments
in the field, philosophical and practical approaches
to thinking about life existed independently in Japan long
before the arrival of bioethics from the West.
In particular, beginning in the 1960s there was growing
criticism of the damage caused to human health and life
by pollution and medical drugs, along with a growing
public awareness of the issues affecting patients in mental
hospitals and other facilities. In the early 1970s, in the
context of reforms to the Eugenics Protection Law, there
was lively academic debate about the status of women and
people with disabilities, often focused on such issues as
prenatal diagnosis and selective abortion. In the late 1970s
there was a movement to legalize euthanasia, promptly
matched by a corresponding movement opposing legalization.
There was also debate about the acceptability of various
kinds of new technology.
The number of texts on these subjects is not particularly
large, although they do probably number in the hundreds.
The majority, however, were written for a specialist
academic audience and have not been published.
There is a need to review the history of the field in
Japan, introducing these and other publications, to examine
the significance of past trends, to develop our theoretical
approach, and to introduce Japanese achievements to a
wider audience around the world. A few books already
serve this purpose to a certain extent. One recent publication
is Kato Masae’s Women’s Rights? The Politics of Eugenic
Abortion in Modern Japan, published in 2009 by
Amsterdam University Press [amazon]. The four essays included in
Dark Medicine: Rationalizing Unethical Medical Research,
edited by William R. Lafleur, Gernot Böhme, and
Shimazono Susumu and published in 2007 by Indiana
University Press [amazon], also provide a good introduction to recent
trends in the field in Japan. But such books are still
few and far between, and addressing this lack of suitable
materials is a major issue for the future.
One difficulty will be the deep divide that exists between
the approach taken in Japan and the focus typical of
mainstream bioethics in the West. Broadly speaking, there
are two major differences. One involves value judgments
relating to quality of life; the other is the principle of autonomy.
Of course the importance of a good quality of life
and respect for the thoughts and feelings of the individual
deserve to be acknowledged and respected to some extent
in every society. Naturally Japan is no exception. But in
mainstream Western bioethics, quality of life and autonomy
have often been regarded as more important than a
person’s continued existence, and on occasion have even
been seen as at odds with it. Japanese scholars have historically
been skeptical of such an approach.
Of course it is only natural that differences should exist
between one person and another or between one society
and another. But in this case the differences seem to stem
from fundamental causes located deep within the societies
and individuals involved. Unexamined assumptions stand
at the very foundations of our systems of scholarship--
and not only in the field of bioethics. Without shared assumptions
at a basic level, no debate is possible. I have
experienced myself how difficult it can sometimes be to
communicate across this divide.
But at the same time, perhaps this also suggests that
what we say has real significance. We do not believe that
an approach that differs from the mainstream of bioethics
is something that is unique to Japan or East Asia. Such
differences exist in every part of the world, regardless of
whether they have cohered as a formal system of academic
study. We believe that our claims are logically consistent
and universal. We will continue to build a body of
discourse and thought, making it available in a range of
different languages. The Global COE Program of Ritsumeikan
Unversity, Ars Vivendi: Forms of Human Life and
Survival , will continue to strive to become
a center for this kind of activity.
Professor, Graduate School of Core Ethics and
Frontier Sciences, Ritsumeikan University)
Seimeigaku ni nani ga dekiru ka: Noshi, feminizumu, yusei shiso [Life
Studies Approaches to Bioethics: A New Perspective on Brain Death,
Feminism, and Disability]
By Morioka Masahiro
Keiso Shobo, 2001. 193 x 134 mm. 506 pp. 3,800yen. ISBN 978-4-326-65261-7 (4-326-65261-6).
This study examines post-1970 feminism--including works by Tanaka Mitsu--and the disability
movement to discuss what lies at the root of a denial of eugenics. Morioka is a leading proponent
of life studies, and administers the English-language website .
Kazoku keikaku e no michi: Kindai Nihon no seishoku o meguru seiji
[The Road to Family Planning: The Politics of Reproduction in Modern
By Ogino Miho
Iwanami Shoten, 2008. 195 x 138 mm. 380 pp. 3,400yen. ISBN 978-4-00-022488-8.
This is more a historical study than a work of bioethics. How did the idea that having children was
an individual choice come to be taken for granted? This book examines the concept of reproductive
rights while tracing the development of the related discourse from the Meiji era (1868-1912)
to the present.
Inochi no onnatachi e: Torimidashi ?man riburon [For Women of Life: An
Informal Theory of Women’s Liberation]
By Tanaka Mitsu
Pandora, 2004. 194 x 134 mm. 400 pp. 3,000yen. ISBN 978-4-7684-7823-3 (4-7684-7823-9).
This is not an academic work but a personal account by a leading figure in the Japanese women’s
liberation movement of the early 1970s. Both the philosophical approach and the nature of the
writing are quite different from bioethics. In places it can appear illogical, and has been critiqued
as such. If much of the apparent logical consistency of bioethics comes from a habit of not questioning
our assumptions, however, then perhaps this book represents a more honest approach to
thinking in the field.
Yoi shi [Good Death] and
Tada no sei [Sole Life]
By Tateiwa Shin’ya
Yoi shi: Chikuma Shobo, 2008. 210 x 148 mm. 376 pp. 2,800yen. ISBN 978-4-480-86719-3.
Tada no sei: Chikuma Shobo, 2009. 210 x 148 mm. 424 pp. 3,200yen. ISBN 978-4-480-86720-9.
The first of these publications, Yoi shi, considers euthanasia as an “autonomous,
natural, and altruistic death” and demonstrates that approval of these
values does not necessarily lead to an approval of euthanasia itself.
Tada no sei examines developments in the discourse regarding terminal
care in Japan. Discussion focuses in particular on how an understanding of
limited resources came to be common knowledge. The book also assays the
debates between academics and others working in the field, beginning with a
critique of the anti-anthropocentric arguments of Peter Singer and Helga
Khuse. It also examines arguments made by such Japanese scholars as Kato
Shuichi, Komatsu Yoshihiko, Shimizu Tetsuro, and Koizumi Yoshiyuki.
Shiteki shoyuron [On Private Property]
By Tateiwa Shin’ya
Keiso Shobo, 1997. 217 x 156 mm. 530 pp. 6,000yen. ISBN 978-4-326-60117-2 (4-326-60117-5).
This work critiques the concept of property fundamental to the structure of modern society and
emphasizes the alternative values and norms that exist within human beings. There are also discussions
of such subjects as reproductive technology and eugenics. Work on an English translation
is approaching completion, and the author is currently looking for a suitable publisher.