Japan’s First Lady meets with students to open up a discussion about HIV

On 12 April, 2015, the University of Tokyo held a symposium for high school, university and graduate students on preventing HIV. Among the guest speakers were Japan’s First Lady Ms. Akie Abe (the Japanese Prime Minister’s wife), Ms. Caroline Kennedy (the United States ambassador to Japan) and a number of renowned professors and scientists. Together with the attending students, they discussed in depth about HIV-related stigma and discrimination in Japan and how HIV prevention should be promoted to younger people.

I had the honour of facilitating the discussion. I was startled, however, how little many Japanese students seemed to know about HIV and the stigma attached to it. Before the start of the event I asked some students about their thoughts on the current state of HIV in Japan, but many were not sure what to make of it. ‘I don’t know much about it’ was a response I heard frequently.

Towards the end of the event, however, I noticed that the atmosphere in the room had started to change. There was a sense of great excitement and eagerness among the audience to take action to tackle the ignorance and complacency around HIV in Japan. Speaking to some of the participants at the end of the symposium made me realise that many of them went home feeling inspired and with a different view on HIV.

‘I used to think that if someone had HIV, they would look weak and ill due to the decline of their immune system’ one student told me. ‘However, after today’s symposium, I realized that even if someone has HIV, they can still be very healthy and be just as energetic and optimistic as any other person.’

‘I enjoyed the energy of the students and the ideas that came out of the debate. Now we have to make sure that these ideas and proposals will really being implemented and enacted upon’ another participant told me.

A high school student suggested that ‘it would be great to host discussions at schools or even at family homes to spread knowledge concerning HIV/AIDS, which would ultimately end the ignorance surrounding it’.

One student summarised the general sentiment towards the end of the symposium very well: ‘Just as the phrase “Living Together” implies, the event was a great opportunity to think not just of HIV/AIDS, but of how various individuals with different backgrounds and situations can better co-exist in society.’

If we want to eliminate HIV-related stigma and discrimination in Japan, we need to embrace the diversity of our society. We need to educate ourselves and share knowledge, experiences and stories with each other, including those of often marginalised communities, such as men who have sex with men (MSM) and people living with HIV. We need to talk more openly with our friends and family about HIV prevention, HIV testing and make sure that everyone is accessing the sexual health education and HIV support systems that are available. An attitude of indifference when listening to someone’s story about HIV will not eradicate the virus.

It is important for young people to meet up and talk openly about HIV. Every single person, not only in Japan but also in the rest of the world, should be concerned about their sexual health and act in whatever way they can right now to stop the spread of HIV!

(Photo credit: Bill Couch)