Japanese slow to shake off prejudices: Restaurants have been asked not to refuse to serve HIV carriers. Terry McCarthy reports on entrenched attitudes in the host nation

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OVERCOMING prejudices about Aids is one of the major themes at the international conference on the disease being held in Japan this week, but nowhere have prejudices been more marked than in the host country.

Barely one month before the conference opened, the head of the organising committee, Yuichi Shiokawa, said in an interview that he blamed lax US morality for the spread of Aids in Japan. 'Americanisation of sexual morality has spread Aids in Japan,' said Mr Shiokawa, who is also chairman of the Ministry of Health's Aids Surveillance Committee.

When asked to explain this statement at the conference, Mr Shiokawa, who presided over the opening ceremony, said: 'I wanted to say that sexual behaviour of the Japanese has become more open than the traditional one-on-one contact.' But he refused to elaborate.

Aids has been portrayed by many in Japan as a foreigners' disease. Officially 3,389 people have tested HIV positive in Japan and 441 have died from full- blown Aids. Part of the reason for the low Aids rate is the prevalence of condom usage, as the Ministry of Health bans the use of contraceptive pills.

But critics say fear of stigma has caused extensive under-reporting. In a recent survey, 20 per cent of hospitals admitted they did not tell patients who tested positive that they had HIV.

Eager to make the conference a success, the Ministry of Health has sent circulars to hotels and restaurants around the venue asking them not to refuse to serve HIV carriers, who make up 10 per cent of the 12,000 delegates. The local government has made a video explaining that the virus cannot be contracted from casual contact with luggage, sheets or tableware used by an infected person.

But the comments by Mr Shiokawa show that below the surface, attitudes change very slowly in Japan and the stigma attached to the disease is still very high.

Delegates also attacked Japanese attitudes to homosexuality. In a meeting with Tomiko Okazaki, the vice-minister of education, Hans Hjerpekjon, secretary general of the International Lesbian and Gay Association, asked for a review of passages in a teachers' training manual that he claimed were discriminatory. He drew attention to one passage which states: 'It is desirable that homosexuals be cured at special facilities.' Mr Okazaki later said such passages 'must be corrected at the earliest opportunity'.

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