"The heart to go to Japan", Spring 1996, #12
"It is not an exaggeration if I say that her name [Margaret Sanger] is better known in Japan than that of any other American or English woman," wrote Iso Abe, a professor and Japanese birth control advocate, in a 1925 issue of the Birth Control Review. "Not since Commodore Perry had forced Japan to open its doors to foreign commerce, in 1852, had an American created such a sensation," remembered Japanese birth control pioneer Baroness Shidzue Ishimoto Kato in her history of the family planning movement in Japan (A Fight for Women's Happiness, p. 52). Accorded the respect and adoration usually reserved for a visiting sovereign, Sanger made seven trips to Japan between 1922 and 1959, grew enchanted with the people and customs of the country, and helped to cultivate a broad-based birth control movement that eventually won the support of the Japanese government. Her gratitude to the Japanese people – along with her quest for a measure of immortality – even prompted her to draft a note expressing her wish, upon her death, to have her heart sent to Japan.
Japan, wrote Sanger in a 1922 speech draft, is the "Pivot of future peace – pivot of international problem . . . War in 25 years or B. C. Today" (Farewell Address Before Leaving for Japan, Jan. 30, 1922, MSM S70:924). Alarmed by the rapid population explosion throughout Asia that received considerable worldwide attention following the first World War, Sanger welcomed the 1922 invitation from a liberal publishing concern known as the Kaizo Group to make her first tour of Asia and deliver a series of lectures in Japan. The Kaizo sponsored series included previous tours by Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein. Sanger planned a world trip around the Japan invitation, with stops in other Asian countries, the Middle East and Europe.
However, Sanger's reputation as a feminist, population controller and provocateur preceded her to Japan. The Japanese government did not want to host a foreigner bent on sabotaging a national policy that at the time was militantly pro-natalist, and refused to grant Sanger a visa. Without delay, Sanger secured a Chinese visa for a ship that sailed to Japan via China. The long voyage gave her many opportunities to discuss her work with several Japanese dignitaries on board, including a future prime minister and the Japanese ambassador to the U.S. She convinced them of the seriousness and potential benefit of her work, and they intervened on her behalf shortly before landing in Yokohama. Meanwhile the Japanese press published mostly approbatory profiles of Sanger, generating interest in her life and cause long before she set foot in Japan. After many hours of questioning, representatives of the Japanese government yielded to both internal and public pressure. They agreed to allow Sanger to enter, along with her thirteen year old son, Grant and her suitor, and soon-to-be-husband, J. Noah Slee, on condition that she keep the subject of birth control out of her public lectures.
Sanger found that she did not need to bring up birth control in her lectures. The stir created by the government's inhospitality and well-publicized gag order provoked widespread discussion of contraception and population growth in Japan. Sanger gave thirteen major lectures, each talk running approximately five hours due to a plodding, simultaneous translation. She exhorted her audiences to " . . . set your motherhood free! Make your women something more than breeding machines, such as the women of every nation have been during some period of that nation's development. The time has come for international emancipation, based upon free, conscious maternity" ("War and Population," Address given at Tokyo YMCA, Mar. 14, 1922, MSM S70:932).
Sanger spoke to such groups as the Tokyo Medical Association, the Industrial Organization,
and the Tokyo YMCA. The police, however, did not allow her to address any public
groups, thereby reserving her message for mostly upper class intellectuals. A columnist in
the Japan Chronicle commented:
Sanger may have been perplexed and no doubt disappointed that she could not reach larger audiences with her prepared speeches nor discuss birth control in frank terms. But with the assistance of Shidzue Kato, who organized Sanger's itinerary and even stood by the door on police watch at private meetings, Sanger took part in an astonishing 500 or more meetings or interviews in Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka, prompting press coverage at a level unseen before in Japan. Sanger wrote to her secretary, "I spend at least an hour each morning after breakfast being photographed for newspapers & magazines . . . My days are crowded with lectures & reception dates – Every evening, afternoon, dinner, lunch & morning is taken until I leave Tokyo. (Margaret Sanger to Anne Kennedy, Mar. 5, 1922, MSM S2:134-137).
In a thick travel journal Sanger recorded her daily activities and, in uncharacteristic fashion, wrote lengthy entries on her impressions of Japan. She grew fond of the Japanese people and found their "customs and manners . . . delightful and lovely." She characterized the men of Japan as ambitious, but prone to "treat the government and the women not in a serious manner." She found Japanese women to be "far behind the men in thinking and in aggressiveness" and was "not impressed with any quality in the Japanese women" that would lead her to believe they would "fight for their emancipation" anytime soon. She was overwhelmed by two observations in particular: the large number of children and the small, congested housing units. The "sky scraper," she suggested to herself, would relieve the claustrophobia – along of course with birth control (World Trip Journal, 1922, MSM S70:110-120).
Sanger's whirlwind tour ignited a small but vigorous grass roots movement for birth control in Japan and brought increased international attention to the problem of overpopulation in Asia. Shortly after Sanger's visit, Shidzue Kato and other reformers established the Japan Birth Control Study Group, which published a Japanese language version of Sanger's controversial pamphlet on contraception, Family Limitation. The government continued to forbid public meetings to discuss birth control, but made no attempt to curtail the distribution of contraceptive information. Unlike America, Japan had no specific laws or religious prohibitions to restrict the use of birth control.
Sanger kept in close touch with Shidzue Kato over the next 15 years, as Kato forged a birth control movement in Japan that echoed Sanger's American movement. At one point Kato made several speaking tours in the U.S and even served an apprenticeship at Sanger's Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau in New York. And although Sanger did not visit Japan in these years, her name and activities continued to influence the progress of birth control there. In fact Sanger's name was even illegally coopted by a Japanese manufacturer of an abortifacient who displayed the "Sanger" product on large billboards along the railway lines, until Kato promised to put a stop to "such abuse" (Kato to Sanger, Mar. 8, 1931, MSM S6:109).
When Sanger returned to Japan in 1937, the country was on the eve of the second Sino-Japanese war and operating under martial law. Shidzue Kato, now an international presence herself after publication of her popular autobiography, Facing Two Ways and her notoriety as the "Margaret Sanger of Japan," invited Sanger to dedicate the opening of the first modern contraceptive clinic in Japan, modeled after the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau. It gave Sanger an opportunity to publicly applaud Kato's efforts, placing her in historical company alongside Mary Wollestonecraft, Madame Curie and Susan B. Anthony (Japanese Clinic Reception, Aug. 1937, MSM S71:959).
The 1937 trip, originally planned around a tour of China, was cut short by both an accident (Sanger broke her arm aboard ship on the way over) and the Japanese bombing of Shanghai. Nevertheless, Sanger gave several lectures in Japan before the pain in her arm and the impending war forced her to return home. During her brief visit she also attended a series of receptions and meetings, once again raising awareness through the press of the need for safe and effective birth control. Sanger observed signs of rapid westernization: "the Western costumes . . . The use of knives and forks and spoons . . . Air-cooled systems . . . The rickshaw is fast disappearing." But she was disappointed to find that "the progress of the women of Japan has been retarded" (Sanger to Friends, Sept. 6, 1937, MSM S13:463-464). Several months after Sanger's visit, the right-wing government rounded up suspected anti-government subversives, including Shidzue Kato who was arrested for promoting "dangerous thoughts," and shut down the new clinic. The birth control movement in Japan ceased until after the war.
Kato spent a majority of the war in prison for opposing government policy. She also divorced her husband, Baron Keikechi Ishimoto and, tragically, lost her son in battle. However, she emerged from the war determined to take a greater leadership role in her nation. She had remarried in 1944 (to Kanju Kato), won election to the Japanese Parliament in 1946, and in 1947, at age 48, gave birth to a daughter.
Sanger received periodic updates on the fate of Shidzue Kato and other Japanese friends during the war. When the war ended, she was anxious to get news of renewed birth control activity in Japan. Following Sanger's well-chronicled sparring match with General Douglas MacArthur over his refusal to allow her entrance into Japan (see MSPP Newsletter Number 7, Spring/Summer 1994), Sanger made five trips to the islands in the 1950s. Postwar Japan experienced a baby boom of similar proportions to Europe and the U.S., but the war had not resolved the economic problems or poor living conditions that resulted from high population density. Many Japanese women did want to keep their families small in an effort to take advantage of expanding economic opportunities in a rebuilding country, but because of government suppression of birth control activity before the war, access to reliable contraception was limited in the years of post-war reconstruction. Increasingly, Japanese women resorted to abortion, a trend that so alarmed the Japanese government that it adopted a pro-family planning policy in 1951 and brought Sanger back to Japan for a return engagement in October of 1952.
Prior to the Third International Conference on Planned Parenthood, held in Bombay, Sanger spent a week in Japan immersed in interviews and meetings, visiting clinics, and consulting with Ministry of Health and Welfare workers about an official government family planning program. Kato later remembered a "fleet" of "sound trucks" circling the working class districts of Tokyo announcing "Sanger is here! Sanger says no abortions!" (A Fight for Women's Happiness, p. 100). The 1952 trip energized the converted and helped convince many traditionalists within the government to support a contraceptive program. "I firmly believe," wrote Sanger in The Nation, "history will record the fact that no people in the world today are making greater sacrifices in the effort to lower their birth rate than the Japanese" ("Japan Wants Birth Control," The Nation, Dec. 13, 1952, MSM S72:791).
In 1954 Sanger returned to Japan. The country that had imposed on her a gag order in 1922, invited her to speak on the subject "Population Problems and Family Planning" before the Diet, the highest government body in Japan. In doing so, Margaret Sanger became the first foreigner accorded that honor. 1954 also brought the formation of the nationwide Family Planning Federation of Japan. A year later, Sanger helped organize the Fifth International Conference on Planned Parenthood in Tokyo, an event which welcomed Japan into the international planned parenthood community. Sanger made two more trips to Japan, both in 1959, which were less official and more relaxed. She was honored at receptions and dinners for her achievements, and enjoyed a degree of fanfare and adoration she never experienced in the U.S. A year before her death in 1965, the Japanese government bestowed upon Sanger one of its greatest honors, the Third Class of the Order of the Precious Crown, in recognition of her enormous contributions to Japanese society.
Sanger did not leave her heart in Japan; it was buried with her in Fishkill, NY. Possibly no one saw or took seriously her scribbled note written in the mid-1950s. Yet the note serves as an appropriate epitaph for the international Margaret Sanger: the reformer who made Japan the crux of a campaign to bring health and humanity to women throughout the world.
Revised: Apeil 20, 2010