FEATURE: Japanese schools, companies working to demystify menstruation

Discussion about the delicate topic of menstruation is slowly becoming more accepted in Japan as schools and workplaces engage in educational programs that demystify the issue in hopes of broadening understanding and acceptance.

"Talking about menstruation used to be a taboo subject. But social recognition is changing," said an official of a sanitary product maker that offers seminars on the issue.

The topic is being broached more regularly due to organizations wanting to help women navigate their lives around their cycles. Also, they want to be able to take more tangible steps like preparing stockpiles of sanitary products for distribution if a shortage occurs during a natural disaster.

Underwear and sanitary item producers are receiving more and more requests for their seminars from schools and companies.

"I was surprised to know that women need to change pads so many times in a day," said Yunosuke Suzuki, a 16-year-old first-year student at the all-boys Hongo Junior and Senior High School who attended a seminar on menstruation held at his school in Tokyo in September.

The seminar was organized by Be-A Japan, a Tokyo-based manufacturer of reusable, more sustainable period underwear, and attended by some 30 students from Hongo and other schools to learn basic facts about menstruation.

Among other things, they were educated on how much menstrual fluid napkins absorb and how women dispose of them after use.

When one student asked if diapers could be used if menstrual pads are unavailable, Kumi Takahashi, 47, the president of Be-A Japan, explained that it has happened during natural disasters.

"Knowledge about menstruation enables men to think how they should approach women and what they can do," Yayoi Matsuo, a 48-year-old teacher at Hongo, said, explaining why she asked Be-A Japan to hold the seminar.

Students at Shinagawa Joshi Gakuin Senior High School, an all-girls high school in Tokyo, began engaging their local community about menstruation as they felt, from experience, there is nowhere to share their frustrations or seek advice. The activities include visits to nearby elementary schools where they explain to pupils that "menstruation is nothing they should be embarrassed about."

Due to financial difficulties caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been an increase in an issue known as "menstruation poverty." It affects a significant number of women who are unable to afford the feminine hygiene products they need.

A Cabinet Office survey found that as of July this year, 715 municipalities provide or plan to provide support such as free sanitary napkins at schools and public facilities for those who cannot afford them -- an increase to 40 percent of all local governments. Last year, 581 offered the service.

"The problem (of menstruation poverty) has prompted young people to start discussing menstruation on social media without treating it as a taboo subject," Takahashi said.

Unicharm Corp., a top producer of sanitary napkins and diapers, began seminars on menstruation for companies and other organizations in 2020. There were fewer than 10 seminars held in the first year, but the number jumped to over 100 in 2021. In 2022, it is increasing at a faster pace than even that.

According to Unicharm, participants will often ask how to engage with an employee about menstruation in a discreet manner that is not considered sexual harassment. One company introduced a paid menstrual leave system following a seminar.

Many local governments send officials to Unicharm's seminars to learn how to respond in times of natural disasters, including to gain an understanding of how best to address women's health needs in an emergency.

Japan knows too well the problems shortages of such products can cause. Following the devastating earthquake and tsunami that hit the northeastern Japan region of Tohoku in March 2011, women lacked access to basic sanitation and hygiene resources.

Women's openness in talking about menstruation with their partners and others is also changing in Japan. LunaLuna, a popular mobile app for women's health management, has a function that enables women to share their menstrual cycles with their partners.

When LunaLuna was launched in 2010, many women were reluctant to share such "personal information," according to MTI Ltd., the app's operator.

But recently, more women have welcomed it as a facilitator of communication. "More and more women want to tell men about their periods, so they get a better understanding of how women feel," said an official in charge.

© Kyodo News