In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Differing Conceptions of "Voluntary Motherhood":Yamakawa Kikue's Birth Strike and Ishimoto Shizue's Eugenic Feminism
  • Sujin Lee (bio)

The Multiple Definitions of "Voluntary Motherhood" in Interwar Japan

In March and April 1922, American birth control activist Margaret Sanger (1879-1966) visited Japan to promote the concept and techniques of birth control. In her first lecture, held at the Tokyo Y.M.C.A. on March 14, Sanger addressed an audience of over five hundred people on the subject of "War and Population" (Japan Times 1922). Sanger attributed colonization and militarism to an overflowing population, as typified in Germany before the outbreak of World War I, and urged Japanese audiences to address similar issues facing Japan. Sanger's accounts of overpopulation were anchored in Neo-Malthusianism—the advocacy of birth control to ensure the balance between population size and resource supply; she believed that Japan's rising population would lead to domestic problems as well as international conflicts.1 Thus the debate on birth control heralded by Sanger's visit to Japan went far beyond medical debates over the use of contraceptives: the introduction of birth control into interwar discussions about population growth provided a chance for Japanese intellectuals, activists, and bureaucrats to tackle a variety of pressing social issues, including poverty, employment, migration, and maternal and child health. As I will argue, despite their differing views on the primary purpose of birth control, Japanese birth control advocates reconfigured sexual reproduction and motherhood as central politico-economic problems. [End Page 3]

Yamakawa Kikue (1890-1980) and Ishimoto Shizue (1897-2001, later Katō Shizue after marrying labor activist Katō Kanju in 1944) were feminist pioneers of the birth control movement and established the first birth control organization in Japan, the Japan Birth Control Research Group (Nihon Sanji Chōsetsu Kenkyūkai), in May 1922, led by Ishimoto. Ishimoto observed Sanger's birth control movement firsthand during her stay in New York between 1919 and 1920. After returning to Japan in September 1920, Ishimoto worked to introduce birth control to Japanese society (Ishimoto 1935 and 1984; Hopper 2004). Organization members included physician Kaji Tokijirō (1858-1930), socialist and baron Ishimoto Keikichi (1887-1951), socialist and Waseda University professor Abe Isoo (1865-1949), and labor activist Suzuki Bunji (1885-1946). The group published the magazine Shōkazoku (Small Family) along with a series of pamphlets promoting birth control. Although the organization disbanded less than a year later, the birth control movement continued throughout the interwar period as different actors—social reformists, proletarian activists, and feminists—agreed on the need to control population size and improve the "quality" of the Japanese population on eugenic grounds.

I add to the growing body of scholarship in English, Japanese, and other world languages that has delved into the political dimensions of birth control to address questions of sexuality and reproduction within broader contexts of modern Japanese society. This article sheds new light on the history of birth control by arguing that the transnational discourse of problematizing populations was an integral part of Japanese feminists' advocacy for birth control. For example, Fujime Yuki (1997), in her comprehensive analysis of sex and gender systems in modern Japan, locates the prewar history of the birth control movement within long-term conflicts between state power and individual sexual freedom. Sabine Frühstück (2003), by focusing on social discourses and knowledge production about sexuality, broadens the notion of power to include the social control of sex and emphasizes intellectuals' roles in normalizing and regulating sexual behaviors such as artificial birth control. As opposed to these two researchers who address the question of control in the politics of birth control, Ogino Miho (2008) sheds light on Japanese citizens' responses to the political and social control of individuals' reproductive bodies. Ogino considers birth control as both a biopolitical technology and the sexual practice of individuals; she examines the often-overlooked fissures between discourse and practice in the politics of reproduction. Despite different understandings of power and agency in the politics of birth control, these scholars all agree with the underlying premise that social and scientific discourses on birth control exemplify the politics of women's bodies in modern Japan. While previous literature confines...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 3-22
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.