In recent years, there has been a growing trend, mainly in the international community, to shift from "sex education," which focuses on the body and reproduction, to "sexuality education," which comprehensively teaches various aspects of sexuality such as gender, gender identity, and attitudes and behavior toward sex. Many countries have implemented education based on UNESCO’s "International Technical Guidance on Sexuality Education", and the importance of comprehensive education is increasing in Japan as well. In this social context, volunteer employees at Benesse are trying to launch a comprehensive sex education service that will enable children to learn on their own. On the occasion of winning an award under the company’s internal proposal system, we interviewed the person in charge of the project, who is moving forward through trial and error toward the implementation of this service, about her thoughts behind the project.

Worries about sex in the past. What can we do now?

The comprehensive sex education project was born through the Benesse Group's business idea proposal system "B-STAGE," which was launched in 2021. This proposal system, which is open to all Group employees, receives proposals from across the company to deal with customer issues that need to be resolved in these changing times, as well as inconsistencies and problems in day-to-day operations. One of the people who submitted a proposal is Akiko Utsunomiya, who at the time was working in Benesse Corporation's School Division, disseminating information about the new curriculum to high school teachers.

“I was originally involved in a volunteer employee project to think about the future of children, and one day I had the opportunity to reflect on the many worries I had in my own life as a woman. As other participants shared their experiences of worrying about menstruation, appearance, relationships with their partners when they were students, gender bias, and fluctuating gender identities, I was somewhat relieved to know that I was not the only one who had struggled. At the same time, I remembered the anxiety that came from not knowing anything about sex and the loneliness I felt from not being able to talk to anyone about it. As our conversations progressed, we naturally wondered if today's children might be feeling the same way. We want to provide the right information at an earlier stage, rather than dealing with it after being hurt or in trouble, and believe that this will lead to a society where children can grow up feeling secure. Together with my colleagues who share this view, I decided to propose a comprehensive sex education project to B-STAGE that would go beyond the traditional scope of sex education taught in health and physical education at school.”

The project with its strong sense of purpose was extremely well received at the presentation, and it won the first prize among more than 1,700 proposals submitted from the entire company in fiscal 2021. Since then, work has been underway to get the project off the ground.
The Benesse Group’s new proposal system “B-STAGE” which began in fiscal 2021. This is a photo of the first prize being awarded in the new business category.

The growing circle of cooperation from schools and partner companies as the trial-and-error process moves forward

After winning the "B-STAGE" award, Ms.Utsunomiya was transferred to the New Business Development Division in the spring of 2022. Activities toward implementation of the project are in full swing.

“We interviewed children of various ages and their parents to dig deeper into the issues, and created a prototype version. As we repeated this process we made many mistakes and realized many things, and gradually made improvements and moved forward. When we thought about who we should deliver our services to, we narrowed down our target to junior high school students who do not have as much knowledge as high school students but whose range of activities is widening, whose relationships are deepening, and whose worries about sex are increasing. However, when it came time to deliver sex education information to junior high school students, we realized that many of them were interested but were afraid of what would happen if someone found out that they were interested, or wanted to know for someday but thought it was too early now. We changed course, thinking that instead of having children looking for information on their own, it would be better to provide information and services in such a way that the information they happen to get will help them in the future."

"Many junior high and high school students are cooperating with us in interviews. When I consulted about the project with teachers who had helped me when I was originally in charge of the School Division, they gave me their support and even introduced me to their students. The help we’ve received from various connections has been a great source of strength. Also, in addition to information, in some cases products such as sanitary products are essential for solving the childrens’ worries. With this in mind, we consulted with several companies, and received positive feedback from people in charge at Laurier and Bé-A. Their cooperation with the project also gave us a strong boost for moving forward."
Some junior high and high school students, parents, and teachers had a chance to see and touch the prototype and their candid opinions led to improvements (photo on left). The screen of the LINE account "ponoel" (photo on right), where the users can find information related to sex that no one teaches them about their, bodies, minds, and relationships, while monitoring their menstrual cycles (*). Various demonstrations are also planned, including sex education seminars for junior high and high school students and events where they can get sanitary products free of charge. * The use of the menstrual cycle monitoring function is optional, and is designed to be used regardless of whether the user menstruates or of their gender.

Through trial and error, we gradually gained cooperation for the project, and in December 2022 a monitor version of the official LINE account "ponoel" was released. We are making improvements to the service while the students use it.

A society where children can learn about their own rights and those of others and grow up feeling secure

Now that "ponoel" is available, we asked Ms. Utsunomiya again about her thoughts behind the implementation of the comprehensive sex education project.

"In the course of interviewing many people, we found that although everyone feels the need for sex information, they are not getting enough information. Children are interested in sex-related information, but they are too embarrassed to look for it themselves. Parents and teachers find it difficult to communicate to adolescents, partly because of the lack of opportunity and information. That's why I think it makes sense for a company that is separate from a school or family to provide sex education directly to children. I hope to give shape to my thoughts about caring for children through dialogue with their parents and teachers.”

“We heard from children who actually tried out the service in advance that the articles about body image and how to perceive one's own body without being influenced by what is considered the ideal body shape or appearance made them feel good the way they are. They also said they were glad to have information on sex for the first time not only for themselves but also to avoid hurting anyone else, which was very rewarding to hear. When presented with a choice of products, many said they would like to actually use the products and choose the one that best suits their needs. The demonstrations will initially focus on junior high school girls, but I believe that sex education should be conducted in stages, starting in early childhood regardless of gender. I would like this to evolve in a way so that more children can learn as early as possible. I believe the knowledge from comprehensive sex education can help children realize their rights and want to take care of themselves. I also believe that it will deepen their understanding of others and lead to respect for others. “ponoel”, the name of the service, is a coined word that combines "pono", which means "harmonious state", and "aile", which means wings to evoke something like wings to enable one to fly to a place where one feels comfortable. We will continue to move forward one step at a time, following the children into adulthood and aiming for a society where more children feel confident that they can go anywhere and become anything they want.”
Scenes from meetings with partner companies.
We received messages from partner company representatives regarding the project, including the following.

Kumi Takahashi (CEO, Be-A Japan Co., Ltd.) said, "Our goal at femtech brand Bé-A is to create a society where people don't give up just because they are menstruating. I would be very happy if we can help spread comprehensive sex education together through this project.

Momoko Komatsu (in charge of marketing for Kao Corporation’s Laurier brand) said, "I strongly agree with the idea of creating a society where people can grow up with peace of mind by approaching the anxieties and worries caused by physical changes, starting from menstruation. I was happy to participate in the project. I myself have experienced being alone when I had worries, and I hope that "ponoel" will become a familiar and dependable presence for such children.”

It has been approximately one year since we submitted our project under the in-house proposal system. With the cooperation of partner companies and various stakeholders, we will continue to work toward implementing a comprehensive sex education service.

Article cooperation

Akiko Utsunomiya

Akiko Utsunomiya
Benesse Corporation
Business Strategy Headquarters
Ms. Utsunomiya has been in her current position since 2022. Previously, she worked on proposals for school projects and disseminated information about university entrance examinations and the new educational curriculum to teachers.