Complacent young push Japan towards Aids crisis

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The Independent Online

Beautiful, single and sexually active, Emi is the sort of person who causes nightmares among Japan's health ministry bureaucrats. At 20, she says she has had more than a dozen sexual partners in relationships that sometimes lasted just a few days. She admits that condoms are not always high on her list of priorities. "Japan is pretty safe that way," she says.

Beautiful, single and sexually active, Emi is the sort of person who causes nightmares among Japan's health ministry bureaucrats. At 20, she says she has had more than a dozen sexual partners in relationships that sometimes lasted just a few days. She admits that condoms are not always high on her list of priorities. "Japan is pretty safe that way," she says.

Such complacency is part of a potentially lethal cocktail of freewheeling sexual habits and slow-moving government that is pushing this traditionally safe, healthy society towards an Aids crisis, claim medical experts.

"I think we're looking at an Aids explosion in the very near future," says Dr Kunio Kitamura, the head of Japan's Family Planning Association. "This is the only G7 country where the disease has continually expanded since 1993."

Japan has just over 10,000 official cases of Aids, well below rates in most other countries. But in contrast to the UK, where the epidemic peaked in the mid-1990s and the disease remains largely confined to well-defined categories, the epidemic is growing sharply in Japan - a record 1,165 new cases in 2004. And the rate is doubling every four years.

More worrying still is the profile of the victims. Many Aids sufferers in Japan are heterosexual and drug-free and they are getting younger - the Welfare Ministry says 40 per cent of all Japanese newly infected with Aids are in their teens or twenties. Other sexually transmitted diseases are rising even faster. A conference in December last year heard that one in 10 Japanese teenagers had chlamydia. "We know from studies in the US that where chlamydia goes, Aids often follows," said Dr Kitamura. "It shows a lot of youngsters are engaging in unprotected sex."

The key to tacking the looming crisis is changing Japan's sexual habits, say experts, especially among teenagers: a recent poll found that nearly 40 per cent of senior high school students have had sex, rising to nearly 50 per cent for girls, and condom use is falling. "The figures might not seem especially high compared to other countries, but it is an enormous leap compared to what it was 20 or even 10 years ago," said Masako Kihara, a government researcher at Kyoto University.

"What worries me most is the complacency and very high number of sexual partners. There is a lot more awareness of Aids now, but teenagers don't think it has anything to do with them. The children don't know they're engaging in risky behaviour so they don't wear condoms."

The situation is worsened by some of the highest rates of prostitution in the advanced world; Dr Kihara claims more than 10 per cent of Japanese men pay for sex, and thousands of high school girls looking for extra pocket money are contacted by by middle-aged men who use internet dating sites. Critics say the government must do more to crack down on this activity, and spend more on combating Aids. But they say testing centres are in short supply, anti-Aids budgets in many cities are falling, and sex education in schools is inadequate.

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