Japan has seen a real spike in syphilis – and no one is sure why

Statistics in Japan have revealed a steady rise in cases of syphilis and other STIs since 2010, with a sharp rise over the last year. Levels of syphilis are now on a par with 1970’s figures. Young women are particularly being affected, according to the country’s National Institute of Infectious Diseases.

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Worrying trend

Syphilis is a bacterial infection spread via sexual contact. The fight against syphilis in Japan has prompted an education and awareness campaign centred upon promoting safe sexual behaviours see https://qz.com/881845/syphilis-is-making-a-big-comeback-in-japan-and-the-government-is-enlisting-sailor-moons-help-to-fight-it/.

Many people aren’t aware that syphilis and other STIs can also be spread via oral or anal sex, and penetrative sex does not have to occur for you to be at risk of infection. For more information about the different STIs, see https://www.bexleysexualhealth.org.

Home testing kits

If you are between 16 and 24 and live in London, you can order a free home STI testing kit at https://www.checkurself.org.uk/order-a-test-kit/. The best way to stay safe is to avoid all types of risky unprotected sex. It is essential to use a condom and other barrier methods when having sex, and if you have recently had a new sexual partner it is important that you get tested for possible infections as soon as possible. STI testing in London is quick and easy to access. You can order a home testing kit as described above, or, of course, you can visit your local GUM clinic.


The focus of the Japanese campaign will be on educating young people about the complications of STIs. Many people do not realise that syphilis can lie dormant in the body, with no symptoms, so you can infect someone else even if you currently feel well. It is also easy to treat with penicillin if caught early, yet if it is left to progress, it can cause organ damage and can be life-threatening.

The Japanese syphilis epidemic has not been of sufficient duration yet for adequate statistics to have emerged pointing to its origin. However, 40% of Tokyo’s recent cases have originated from Shinjuku ward, the city’s adult entertainment district. This has led to speculation that specific sexual behaviours may be to blame, and that sex tourism and migration of workers from high-incidence countries may also be playing a role in the recent rise in cases.