"Sanger, MacArthur and Birth Control in Japan," #7, Summer 1994

Welcomed as an educator, nurse, and benevolent sage, Margaret Sanger was warmly embraced by the Japanese people on each of her seven trips to Japan, and she, in turn, grew very fond of Japan, its people, and its customs. Although the Japanese Government attempted to deny her entry in 1922 citing her dangerous views on birth control, Sanger was able to talk her way into the country by promising to refrain from publicly discussing the issue. But her attempt to return to Japan in 1949 were foiled by a far more unyielding government – her own. General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander of the Allied Occupation Forces refused Sanger permission to enter the country, despite the fact that Sanger had been asked to visit postwar Japan by that nation's most prominent birth control advocate, Baroness Shidzue Ishimoto (Kato).

Sanger's advocacy of birth control was well-known in Japan. In the 1920s and early 1930s, as the country's burgeoning population, combined with an accelerating industrial revolution and an unusually high literacy rate, interest had deepened in Sanger and her efforts to disseminate contraceptive information. As early as 1925 Professor Iso Abe wrote: "It is not [an] exaggeration at all if I say that [Sanger's] name is better known in Japan than that of any American or English woman." (Birth Control Review, August 1925, p. 102). Her biographer, Ellen Chesler, suggests that Sanger's association with birth control in Japan may have been strengthened by the coincidence that her name, transliterated in Japanese as "Sangai-san," means "destructive of production" (Woman of Valor). It was even reported that a diaphragm-and-jelly kit was sold under that label in Japanese pharmacies.

As right-wing extremists took control of the government of Japan in the 1930s, the liberal social policies of the prior decade, including tolerance of contraception, were turned back. Birth control activity remained suppressed until after World War II. In the postwar years, however, Japan began experiencing a baby boom similar in proportion to that of the U.S. and Europe. Not only was Japan's deepening population density becoming burdensome to its social and economic recovery, but Japan's women were increasingly reluctant to sacrifice the expanding economic and political opportunities available to them in order to raise large families. With little access to reliable contraceptives, Japanese women increasingly resorted to abortion. It was this high abortion rate that so alarmed Sanger's friend, the Baroness Ishimoto (Kato), and led her to press for Sanger's visit to Japan to promote the use of reliable contraceptives.

Japan, however, was still under allied military control in 1949. On August 30, Sanger was informed by the U.S. High Command that she would not be granted military clearance to enter occupied Japan. Unlike Germany, occupied Japan was not divided into zones and the Supreme Commander ran that nation. The U.S. government was anxious to revitalize a strong anti-Communist Japan by discouraging the rise of radical or even reformist notions. MacArthur, who viewed Sanger as a radical rabble-rouser who would foster social and political disorder, justified his action on the grounds that he did not want to give the impression that the Americans were actively promoting Japanese population control. Instead, he piously claimed he would not take sides in what he claimed was an internal debate:

I have yielded to pressure from neither the group in advocacy nor that in opposition to birth control, but have consistently and publicly taken the position that the subject matter is a social problem for solution by the Japanese people themselves without interference, directly or indirectly, by the Allied Powers. In support of this position, I have refused to authorize the protagonists of either viewpoint to make of Japan a battleground upon which to inject and then to fight an issue as to which Americans themselves have by no means found uniformity of opinion." (Douglas MacArthur to Wilford I. King, Feb. 23, 1950, King Papers University of Oregon).

Colonel Herbert Wheeler, one of MacArthur's personal advisors, further explained that the "approval of [Sanger's] application...would necessarily carry the connotation that she was here to serve an Occupation objective, [and] the General could thereafter scarcely take the neutral position on the issue of birth control, which he has taken heretofore." (William R. Mathews to Florence Mahoney, 1/13/1950, Mahoney Papers, National Library of Medicine).

Sanger's supporters claimed that MacArthur was ignoring the fact that she had been invited to discuss the issue by the Japanese themselves. MacArthur denied this asserting: "Contrary to what has been publicly intimated, no agency of the Japanese Government has requested Mrs. Sanger to come to Japan for consultation. As far as I know the only question of her admissibility is based upon the application by an editor of a Tokyo newspaper last July to be permitted as a publicity move to bring her to Japan for a lecture tour." Resisting claims that Sanger's large Japanese following and charismatic impact posed a threat to his authority, MacArthur remarked "There is no question of personality involved as none will fail to recognize the distinguished ability of Mrs. Sanger to counsel, support, and defend the cause she has so long espoused." (MacArthur to Charles E. Scribner, Feb. 24, 1950, Marie Stopes Papers, The British Library)

While it remains unclear whether he was being guided as much by concerns over U.S.-Japan relations as by his own political ambitions (specifically his desire not to antagonize Catholic constituencies in the U.S.), MacArthur held firm. Sanger, for her part, bided her time. She told a friend, "while I would have welcomed the right to go to Japan I am not going to try to buck the occupation authorities, inasmuch as the Japanese people are doing a splendid job on their own." (MS to Rosika Schwimmer, 04/15/1949, Schwimmer-Lloyd Papers, NY Public Library). But she did not remain idle. Instead, she began raising funds to be sent to Japan to help open more birth control clinics there. When American occupation forces left Japan in 1951, Sanger again applied for entry. After enduring yet another extensive U.S. security check, she was granted a visa, and in 1952 some 30 years after her first controversial visit there returned to Japan. Sanger's trip was a great success and her popularity in Japan grew. By 1954, Douglas MacArthur, fired by President Truman three years earlier, was out of the military, while Margaret Sanger once again traveled to Japan, this time as the first foreigner ever invited to address the Japanese Diet (parliament).