A History of Sex Education Films in Japan Part 1: The Pre-War Years

1 December 2006
picture: A History of Sex Education Films in Japan Part 1: The Pre-War Years


There are several genres within Japan's large cinematic legacy which - for better or worse - haven't drawn much attention so far. One of these unexplored genres is the sex education film, which despite persistent criticism has at times enjoyed considerable popularity. Osan eiga, junketsu eiga, basukon eiga, seiten eiga, seikyoiku eiga - these and many more names were used at different times for films that were made with the - real or alleged - intention of educating and enlightening spectators about sexual matters.  As varied as their name was the content of the films. The genre - if one can speak of a single genre at all - ranges from purely scientific documentaries for doctors to pseudo-scientific sexploitation films and consists of films with different formats, scopes and reception contexts. This series shall look at the history of sex education films in Japan, beginning with the pre-war period.

One aim of the Meiji government in its quest for modernization was the "improvement of body and soul" of its citizens (shinshin no kairyo). In order to resist the pressure from Western colonial powers the enhancement of the "nation body" or "Volkskörper" and "nation spirit" or "Volksgeist" had high priority. The enforcement of eisei, a newly coined term taken from the German "Gesundheitspflege" or "hygiene" introduced in 1872 by Sensai Nagayo, one of the key figures during the formation years of Japan's modern health system, became a central concern of doctors, bureaucrats and social reformers alike. Together with the promotion of modern science this resulted at the beginning of the 20th century in the establishment of the field of seigaku or "sexology" which was strongly influenced by the German Sexualwissenschaft. During the liberal Taisho period the seigaku discourse reached a peak before it was suppressed by the nationalistic policy of the 1930s and during the war.

picture: scenes from Japanese sex education films

Situated between academic and popular discourse seigaku became a kind of obsession of the mass-media which featured articles by experts on all kinds about sexually related topics from masturbation to venereal diseases, from the propagation of teiso (chastity) to the condemnation of hentai (perversion). Newspapers and magazines ran sex education series and counselling columns, and those whose curiosity was not satisfied by these could turn to one of the sexological magazines that flourished between 1917 and 1926 under titles like Hentai Seiyoku ("Pervert sexual desire"), Hentai Shinri ("Abnormal mentality"), Seiyoku to Jinsei ("Sexual desire and Life"), Sei ("Sexuality"), Seikagaku Kenkyu ("Sexological Studies"), Sei to Shakai ("Sexuality and Society"), Hentai Shiryo ("Pervert materials") or the interdisciplinary magazine Jinsei ("Der Mensch"). The seigaku boom was an integral part of the Taisho culture that - not unjustly - is often characterized by the catchphrase ero-guro-nansensu (erotic, grotesque, nonsensical).

The leading sexologist of this period, by the way, features prominently in Japanese film history, albeit only post mortem. The funeral procession of Senji Yamamoto, doctor, scientist, politician, social reformer and victim of a right-wing assassin in 1929, was the topic of the first two films of the Proletarian Film League (Purokino).

A declared aim of the sexologists was the dissemination of "correct" information about sexuality. For that purpose they used not only newspapers and magazines but also films. When exactly the first sex education film was shown in Japan is not clear. In the mid-1920s, however, at the peak of the seigaku boom, so-called osan eiga ("birth films") attracted attention. Norimasa Kaeriyama for instance mentions these films in his book Eiga no Seiteki Miwaku (Cinema's sexual attraction) published in 1928. These were scientific films mostly imported from Germany and made primarily for doctors. Kaeriyama gives no specific titles, but from his quotation of intertitles one can guess what kind of films these osan eiga must have been. From the fact that those quotations are in English one can assume that these films were not made for German doctors alone but for a larger international medical community:

  1. Vaginismus is a defensive action of muscles of the pelvic cavity and is caused by the fear of having the orifice of the vagina and its adjoing (sic!) parts come in contact with some object.
  2. As soon as the white dabber approaches the orifice of the vagina and even before it touches the latter, the patient contracts the muscles of the pelvic cavity as an expression of fear and by doing so closes the orifice of the vagina.
  3. The fear of having the orifice of the vagina touched is here caused by soreness of the perineum, and under the circumstances even a slight touch of the external genitals is extremely painful.

The intertitles would fit the film Chitsukeigaku to Sono Ryoho (Vaginismus and its medical treatment) made by the University of Frankfurt, were it not that the latter is listed in the Japanese Film Censorship Newsletter of 1935, that is seven years after the publication of Kaeriyama's book. In any case, Kaeriyama sarcastically remarks that one has to be German to make a film like this.

Whereas this specific film appears to actually have been made for use in medical classrooms, Kaeriyama also states that not all osan eiga were like this. Among them were also films that according to him "look more like they were made to satisfy the sexual rather than the scientific curiosity" and it is perhaps no coincidence that Kaeriyama mentions them together with the so-called himitsu eiga ("secret films") or stag films. Stag films (himitsu eiga or waieiga) were first imported from Europe and China and were shown in "secret societies" from the beginning of the Taisho period onward. In the early Showa period the domestic production of stag films started. They were of course officially forbidden and the police cracked down on them. The line between osan eiga and himitsu eiga was in any case not clear and - as with later films - the intentions of the producers were not necessarily identical to the intentions of the exhibitors or the expectations of the viewers.

As with stag films the circulation of osan eiga seems to have been rather limited, though there were cases where some of them were shown in regular cinemas. Koichiro Ogura, too, mentions osan eiga in his book Sekai Eiga Fuzoku-shi (History of Eroticism in World Cinema) published in 1931. He states that these films were primarily made for scientific purposes, but that the motivations of some exhibitors were less noble than those of their producers. A cinema owner, who scented a chance to make money, put one of these films on display at his cinema. He announced the film very sensationally, putting up big "adults only" signs (which at that time meant older than 20) and hired lecturers - these were still the benshi days - who talked about pregnancy, childbirth, venereal diseases and other sexual matters. Ogura quotes an acquaintance who had acted as such a lecturer. According to him it was not unusual that some of the ladies fainted during the show. In an adjacent room they had spread blankets on which the women could recover from their shock. At times, he recalls, up to seven ladies were stuffed into the tiny room. The film was shown to great success for a month, but when the exhibitor tried to get a permission to prolong the show his request was denied by the authorities. Ogura (who clearly knew Kaeriyama's book) also mentions no title, so it is difficult to determine what film this was. But it can safely be assumed that the film was less explicit than the intertitles in Kaeriyama's book suggest, because censorship regulations were quite strict.

In any case, the above example was rather the exception than the rule. Usually such films were not allowed to be shown at the cinemas. The authorities imposed certain conditions as to where and under what circumstances the films could be shown. The film Chi no Teki for instance passed censorship in 1935, but with the restriction that it be used "only for medical lectures" (eisei kowa kaijo ni kagiri). The film was imported from Germany where it had had a regular cinema release in 1931 under the title Feind im Blut (Enemy in the Blood). It was one of the so-called Sittenfilme that flourished in the Weimar republic. Feind im Blut was directed by Walter Ruttmann who had attracted attention as the director of the avant-garde documentary Berlin - Symphonie einer Großstadt (1927). From the aesthetical point of view the film is very interesting because it combines documentary and fiction, avant-garde with more conventional elements, silent film with sound, and it is an important document of the cinema of the late Weimar Republic. Feind im Blut aka Chi no Teki belonged to the subgenre of the so-called seibyo keimo eiga ("venereal disease enlightenment films") - in Germany they were known as "Syphilis-Filme" - which drastically presented the effects of venereal diseases and denounced the dangers of prostitution. Another film imported from Germany which treated the problem of venereal diseases in a more conventional way was Falsche Scham - Vier Episoden aus dem Leben eines Arztes (False Shame - Four episodes from the life of a doctor) directed by Rudolf Biebrach for the UFA Kulturfilm division in 1925. In Japan it was shown under the title Ayamateru Shuchi, but as Chi no Teki it could be shown only in the context of a "medical lecture".

The military in particular regarded the prevalence of venereal diseases as a high priority problem and employed seibyo keimo eiga in order to raise the awareness of the recruits. In addition to imported films like Chi no Teki, Seibyo ni Tsuite (Venereal Diseases) or Sei no Tanawari (The Gift of Life), the Monbusho commissioned several such films. Karyubyo (Venereal Diseases, 1935) and Suizan no Aki (Emaciated Autumn, 1935) were made in cooperation with the Japanese Association for the Prevention of Venereal Disease (Nihon seibyo yobo kyokai), the predecessor of today's Japanese Foundation for Sexual Health Medicine (Sei no kenko igaku zaidan). The Association was founded as "Nihon Karyubyo yobo kyokai" in 1905 by Keizo Tobi and Shinpei Goto and renamed "Nihon Seibyo yobo kyokai" in 1921. The shift from the old term for venereal disease karyubyo to the new term seibyo is significant, because - as Hikaru Saito has shown - the term sei for "sexuality" became established only in the second and third decade of the 20th century. Before that the terms iro, shiki, shoku and in were used - thus, shikijo, koshoku and inyoku all were replaced by seiyoku (sexual passion, lust). It was in the 1920s and 1930s that new words like seiyoku (sexual desire), seihanzai (sexual crime), seibyo (sexually transmitted disease), seikyoiku (sexual education), seigaku (sexology), seiseikatsu (sex life) and many others were created. This tendency can also be observed in the books of Kaeriyama and Ogura, who include sex education films and stag films in the category "seiteki eiga" ("sexual films"). The most commonly used words for the sex education films of the 1920s and 1930s, however, seem to have been osan eiga and karyubyo eiga.

The term eiga, by the way, was also rather new, because the more common term during the Taisho period for film was katsudo shashin (moving pictures). The term eiga was introduced in the late 1910s by the reformers of the pure film movement (jun'eigageki undo) around Norimasa Kaeriyama. Originally it was used for the slides of the laterna magica.

While venereal diseases remained a high priority topic during the war years, the other intensively discussed issue of the 1920s (especially after Margaret Sanger's visit to Japan in 1922), family planning and birth control, lost its importance in the 1930s. The military was not interested in birth control and contraception, but on the contrary in a high birth rate and in many children, i.e. future soldiers. The debate resurfaced only after the war when the American occupation authorities actively preached birth control and family planning. This gave rise to the so-called basukon eiga (birth control film) and kazoku keikaku eiga (family planning film), which shall be discussed in Part 2.


  • Kaeriyama Norimasa: Eiga no seiteki miwaku. Tokyo: Bunkyusha shobo 1928.
  • Ogura Koichiro: Sekai eiga fuzoku-shi. Tokyo: Fuzoku shiryo kankokai 1931.
  • Saito Hikaru: "Seiyoku no bunkateki hyojunka", Kyoto Seika daigaku kiyo 6 (1994), 161-176.