by Suvendrini Kakuchi
(IPS) TOKYO -- In Japan, the only major industrialized nation in which new HIV/AIDS infections have been increasing since 1993, new infections hit a record high in 2004.
Equally troubling, about 40 percent of new HIV/AIDS cases in Japan are people in their teens and 20s -- up 20 percent from 2003.
Eri Iwase, 19, a first-year university student, says she is not worried about the HIV virus, even though she is sexually active.
"I just feel AIDS is a disease that has nothing to do with me," she said, explaining that her studies, part-time work, hobbies and meeting her boyfriend keep her too busy to learn more about the virus.
Such complacency among sexually active young people represents the uphill struggle that Japan faces in trying to control AIDS.
"Despite various programs, we are finding it really hard to penetrate the younger generation, and already the statistics show nearly half of 17-year-olds have experienced sex," says Hideko Fujimori, who heads Action Against AIDS, a small grass-roots organization promoting protection against AIDS.
Fujimori cited poor sex education programs in schools, the lack of frank discussion of sex, especially between parents and children, and minimal financial support from the government.
"When I visit schools to talk about HIV/AIDS, there is a renewed interest among the students, but that dies down a week later. New measures to make it 'cool' to talk about AIDS protection is the best way to empower children to help themselves," he said.
Fujimori is planning to launch a new project next April where high-school students will be trained to develop programs geared to raise awareness.
Takuya Togawa, director of the AIDS program at the Health and Welfare Ministry, acknowledges the lack of progress in combating HIV in Japan.
"There are barriers in our current projects aimed at reaching youth. We are requesting a larger budget from 2006 to strengthen AIDS awareness projects that will, from now on, involve more activists rather than rely too heavily on doctors and health centers manned by local municipalities," he said.
Japan's AIDS/HIV budget is around $80 million per year. Activists say a large part of the money is spent on research and treatment, leaving insufficient money to finance protection programs geared specially to youth.
For instance, HIV testing centers manned by municipalities also cover various other diseases and are based on appointments restricted to once or twice a week. Activists say that even though the testing is conducted on an anonymous basis, the formal atmosphere turns young people away.
Dr, Masaki Kihara, a well-known AIDS expert, has developed sex education classes that incorporate social issues affecting children such as lack of peer support, problems with parents, and the importance of being able to develop close and equal intimate relationships with the opposite gender.
"My research has shown that freewheeling sexual habits among youth usually stems from their poor personal relationships. By being able to talk about these social issues in class, we aim to help children develop self-confidence that will protect them from risky sexual behavior," Kihari said.
Kihara's methods have found support among teachers and parents who oppose explicit education in schools such as condom usage, a major problem for advocates who see the gap between attitude towards sex between the older and younger generations.
Kihara also hopes to tackle the lucrative sex industry in Japan that employees young women, some in high school, which he says is linked to the Japanese AIDS problem.
Police reports this year indicate that the sex-delivery business -- where customers are offered services over their mobile phones -- has now reached more than 2,700 businesses employing around 500,000 people each.
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