How Did Margaret Sanger's 1922 Tour of Japan Help Spread the Idea of Birth Control
and Inspire the Formation of a Japanese Birth Control Movement?


Cover of the Birth Control Review for June 1922, where Sanger's trip was covered.
Source: Birth Control Review (June 1922): cover.
Courtesy of Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton, Mass.

Documents selected and interpreted by
Esther Katz, Peter C. Engelman, Cathy Moran Hajo
Margaret Sanger Papers Project, New York University,
and Rui Kohiyama, Tokyo Woman's Christian University,
Translations by Kazuhiro Oharazeki, Independent Scholar
March 2011


   From 10 March to 4 April 1922, American birth control leader, Margaret Sanger (1879-1966), toured Japan, giving a dozen public lectures and meeting with women's groups, medical professionals, industrial leaders, members of the House of Peers and scores of newspaper reporters in one of the most publicized visits by a westerner up to that time. Her presence in Japan and that government's efforts to monitor and control her speech, resulted in a heated and very public discussion of birth control and population problems in the Japanese press and helped to strengthen support for a viable Japanese birth control movement. While the few American historians who have focused on early birth control advocates in Japan have acknowledged Sanger's contribution to the incipient Japanese reproductive rights movement,[1] Sanger biographers and scholars of the birth control movement have generally treated her 1922 trip as an interesting diversion from her contentious battle to win legal and public acceptance for birth control in the United States.[2] Moreover, few historians of Japan have closely analyzed the articles, letters, and diary entries that document Sanger's trip.

   The documents included in this document project, drawn from both English- and Japanese-language sources, demonstrate that the threat of suppression created a public relations triumph for Sanger and the cause of birth control in Japan. They also reflect the socioeconomic arguments for family planning, particularly Sanger's focus on birth control as the key to resolve Japan's pressing population issues. Ultimately, her historic visit inspired a small group of Japanese feminists, labor leaders and doctors to continue a birth control movement that Sanger helped to usher into the global community, inviting Japanese birth control leaders to international conferences and offering various kinds of assistance. This document project also offers a unique opportunity to document how Sanger viewed Japanese culture and society and how the Japanese interpreted her message.

   Born Margaret Higgins in 1879 to working-class parents in Corning, New York, Sanger had emerged in the mid-1910s as America's leading birth control activist. She married architect William Sanger in 1902 and they had three children in a span of seven years. Both became active in radical circles, befriending the socialists, anarchists, feminists and artists gathered in New York's Greenwich Village. Margaret Sanger merged her interests in health, women and social equality into the modern birth control movement, publishing a monthly journal, The Woman Rebel, in 1914. In the eight years that intervened between that publication and her visit to Japan, she established herself as the leader of the American birth control movement and a savvy manipulator of the press and public opinion. After opening the first birth control clinic in the United States in 1916 and spending thirty days in prison for violating obscenity laws, Sanger embarked on a nationwide speaking tour during which she challenged local laws, launched the monthly Birth Control Review in 1917, and founded the American Birth Control League in November 1921. By 1922, she had become a highly controversial figure in the United States--promoting a cause that many still believed was immoral, confronting opponents and challenging the government and the Catholic Church in harsh terms, and remaining associated with a radicalism that the United States had tried to suppress during and immediately after World War I. Despite her prominence in the United States, Sanger was not yet world famous for her work, and though she knew many of the leaders of the small international birth control community, she was still a newcomer among international neo-Malthusian leaders and population experts.

   Her journey to Japan was not Sanger's first trip abroad, but it was the first time she had been formally invited to speak outside the United States as an expert on contraception and population control. It was also her first visit to Asia. Sanger was invited to Japan not long after meeting Baroness Shidzue Ishimoto, a young Japanese feminist and reformer of high social standing, and her husband, Baron Keikichi Ishimoto, during their stay in New York in 1920. A woman's rights advocate, Baroness Ishimoto had returned to Japan, excited about the possibilities of creating a woman-focused birth control movement to which she had been introduced by Sanger (see Document 1). The actual invitation sent to Sanger was issued by the Kaizo-sha, the liberal publishing firm that put out Kaizo (Reconstruction), a socialist journal that had previously invited Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein to Japan as part of a five-year lecture series featuring important world figures.[3] Baroness Ishimoto had helped spark interest in Sanger in Japan, where Sanger's more recent arguments for birth control appealed to activists outside the feminist community. Sanger had added an emphasis on the link between overpopulation and war to her socio-economic argument for birth control. Sanger believed that Asia's rapid population growth was, at the time, the greatest threat to world peace. She had codified her feminist rationale in her "heart book," Woman and the New Race (1920), which argued for birth control as a woman's problem and responsibility; while her "head book," Pivot of Civilization (1922), used scientific arguments for birth control as the antidote for social malaise and war.[4] Sanger, now ready to advance birth control beyond its socialist and feminist roots, eagerly accepted the Kaizo invitation. She prepared for the trip by speaking in American cities as she headed West, accompanied by her son, Grant Sanger, and businessman J. Noah Slee, whom she would marry in London later that year.

   The Japan that Sanger visited was a nation in transition. Many changes had taken place in the few years since the end of World War I, and, more appreciably, since the accession of the Taishō emperor in 1912. A pure oligarchy had given way to a political party system and the military's dominance had lessened, allowing for the gradual emergence of more liberal trends. Rapid industrialization and modernization, and significant population increase, from about forty million people in the 1890s to nearly fifty-seven million in 1922, led to the growth of cities and suburbs, a new professional class and urban culture, more mobility, better education, and a growing interest in Western ideas. New social groups and proletarian parties emerged on the fringe and looked to benefit from economic progress and to assert greater autonomy for individuals. They stimulated public discussion and debate through a quickly expanding mass media. Labor and socialist movements were revitalized in the immediate post-World War I years, and a middle-class women's movement expanded, actively campaigned for the right to vote, and advocated birth control to improve women's lives and the health of the family. At the same time, conservatives and militants, in and out of government, reacted against many of the social and cultural changes taking place. They fought to hold on to the traditional values and regain political dominance. And although the Japanese government had opened the door to more democratic principles at home and to Wilsonian democratic ideas abroad, it remained wedded to nationalism and the preservation of traditional Japanese ways of life. This push and pull between new social and cultural thinking that celebrated individualism on the one hand, and a state that held fast to orthodoxy on the other, created what historian Elise Tipton has characterized as "an atmosphere of tension and dynamism" in early 1920s Japan.[5]

   In the midst of these social changes, challenges to Japan's longstanding pronatalist policies began to be heard more frequently in the 1910s and in postwar Japan. They came from eugenicists focused on improving the quality of the race mainly through marriage selection; from liberal groups interested in socioeconomic reform; and from feminists who began to articulate a series of arguments for reproductive rights in the 1910s. There were a few early birth control advocates, such as the gynecologist Sadao Oguri, who published an article on birth control and translated an English book on the subject before the war, outlining Western rationales and emphasizing social improvements (see Document 36). After the war, Christian socialist Isoo Abe, feminist Kikue Yamakawa, and a number of other reformers published articles on birth control in popular women's magazines, such as Shufu no tomo (The Housewife's Friend), and liberal and socialist journals which reached a growing middle-class audience. Yamakawa also published the first piece in the Japanese press on Western ideas about birth control in 1921. Translations of some of Sanger's writings appeared in journals later that year, and Japan's press began to cover her provocative activism in the United States, as well as Marie Stopes's birth control work in England. Opposition arguments also began appearing with greater frequency, including articles by members of Japan's nobility who encouraged childbearing and building the Japanese race, and others that condemned birth control as decadent and immoral. Baroness Ishimoto further prepared Japan for Sanger's visit by publishing pamphlets on neo-Malthusianism and several articles on birth control. Public interest in Ishimoto's life and nobility brought her coverage in the press and helped publicize birth control activism. However, it is doubtful that very much of this explanation and agitation reached beyond a small, urban, middle-class, and largely educated female audience.[6]

   On the eve of her trip, Sanger faced some unexpected obstacles. In February 1922 Japan's Home and Justice Ministries were in the midst of drafting a "Law to Control Radical Social Movements," better known as the "Dangerous Thoughts Bill," an effort to control the spread of socialism, anarchism and Bolshevism in Japan (see Document 7). This new law, introduced into the House of Peers on 21 February, the same day Sanger was to sail, was intended to give officials more power in silencing propaganda and keeping out foreigners they believed threatened the moral order and polity of Japan. Although the bill did not specifically include birth control, its vague language and broad scope allowed authorities to crack down on many ideas they found repugnant, inflammatory or subversive. And while the Taishō-era Takahashi government was more progressive than its predecessors, birth control threatened a long-standing policy that linked population growth with military and political expansion. However, while abortion was illegal in Japan, there were as yet no laws that specifically outlawed birth control.[7]

   Nevertheless, officials in both the United States and abroad viewed Margaret Sanger as a potentially dangerous provocateur. She had been arrested multiple times, most recently in November 1921 when police in New York raided the final session of the First American Birth Control Conference; moreover, her earlier ties to World War I-era anarchists and socialists kept her under close scrutiny (see Documents 5 and 27). At a time of social and political turmoil in Japan, following labor unrest and recession, the Japanese government wanted to avoid any form of agitation from an outsider. Sanger's presence not only threatened social disruption, but to many Japanese political and military leaders--having just signed a treaty at the Washington Naval Conference agreeing to reduce the size of Japan's fleet--her visit could be seen as yet another effort by the West to emasculate Japan. There were fears that a contracting population would limit Japan's military and industrial strength, fears of race suicide, fears that women's empowerment through birth control would threaten the patriarchy (see Document 6). Just days before Sanger was to sail, the Japanese Home Minister directed Japan's Consul-General in San Francisco to deny Sanger an entrance visa (see Document 3). This unexpected news, picked up by American and Japanese wire services, soon put Sanger in the headlines over discussions of the morality and legality of birth control (see Documents 4 and 10).[8] Always seeking to maximize her press coverage, Sanger took advantage of the swarm of reporters circling her in San Francisco to discuss the link she wished to highlight in Japan between aggression and overpopulation.[9]

   The documents that follow cover Sanger's decision to proceed with her planned tour by securing a Chinese visa, extending her ticket on the Japanese ship to Shanghai and sailing without assurance that she would be able to disembark in Japan (see Documents 3, 4, 11, 12, 15 and 16). In the end, Sanger was allowed to enter Japan, but she was compelled to sign an agreement that she would not speak publicly on birth control (see Documents 12 and 18). Once on land, customs officials promptly confiscated copies of Sanger's contraceptive guide, Family Limitation (see Document 15). Over the next month Sanger gave a dozen public lectures in which she spoke quite freely about birth control and population, though not about specific methods, managing to get around her ban on public speaking by addressing crowds that the police had been told were "invited" by various private organizations.[10]

   It also quickly became apparent that the Japanese government's approach to Sanger's visit and the question of birth control was notably inconsistent, reflecting real concerns about Japan's ability to cope with a rapidly increasing population and the pressure it put on food supplies and limited natural resources; not everyone in the government was convinced that the country could depend on territorial expansion to absorb the increasing numbers. And, as Sanger learned from her interactions with Japanese dignitaries aboard ship, and with police, government officials and the nobility on land, the political elite had an individual interest in family planning even if they stood behind the official policy of umeyo fuyaseyo (have children and increase the population) (see Documents 10, 11, and 16). The more central concern to the ruling class in Japan was the same one expressed by many elites and officials in the United States at the time: that birth control chiefly appealed to the educated classes and therefore would limit the fertility of precisely those groups that the state most desired to reproduce (see Document 6). And while there were a number of voices opposed to birth control for moral reasons (see Documents 6, 13, 14, 21, and 30), the government did not explicitly ban the public discussion of sexuality and did not crack down on a burgeoning sex reform and education movement until later in the decade. Nor is there any reference to sexual morality in the "dangerous thoughts" legislation that preceded the initial decision to ban Sanger. Birth control, especially as advocated by Sanger, Ishimoto and other feminists, posed a threat to the social order because it promised women and the working-class greater freedom. This, the state reasoned, could lead to new demands for social and political rights and greater potential for class conflict and socialist ferment.[11]

   Sanger quickly figured out that the Japanese government feared both her feminist discourse and the anti-establishment sentiments that had marked her earliest activism in the United States. However, she had learned how to moderate and temper her argument. Japanese officials offered little resistance to her intention to discuss the population problem in Japan, and Sanger reported, after she had sketched out for the police her plans for the first lecture, ". . . we all laughed and agreed that the Empire of Japan would not fall after that speech" (see Document 18). She followed the example of Japanese birth control advocates, particularly Shidzue Ishimoto, who was almost always at Sanger's side, and Baron Ishimoto; both emphasized the necessity of birth control to relieve population pressures, rejecting other solutions--emigration, massive food imports and war--as impossible or impractical (see Documents 2, 8, 10, and 34). Baroness Ishimoto included a strong feminist argument in her rationale for birth control but respected the traditional dictates of the roles of wives and mothers in Japanese society. Sanger referred to women's emancipation through birth control in an international context, the next step toward international brotherhood and human rights that were goals all advanced countries shared. She was careful not to denigrate the ruling class over the status of women in Japan, but spoke of motherhood being glorified when it was given the dignity of being planned (see Document 20). Though she featured the population problem in her public lectures, she quickly eased into social issues and the question of morality, arguing that birth control empowered women and society as a whole to confront poverty and disease, and eased suffering (see Documents 12 and 20). There was no mention in public from Sanger or any of the Japanese birth control advocates of providing contraceptives to unmarried women, and little talk of women's sexual fulfillment. Sanger's public speeches in Japan did not differ dramatically from her public statements at home, where she was used to confronting censorship and suppression under the Comstock laws.[12]

   Sanger's language was remarkably consistent with that of Isoo Abe and Shidzue Ishimoto, who both emphasized a similar Christian humanism underlying a belief in human freedom (see Documents 2, 33, 34, and 36). Like Sanger, the Tokyo-based group of birth control activists, including Abe, Ishimoto, Tokijiro Kaji and Raicho Hiratsuka, centered their advocacy on family health and happiness, and incorporated eugenic ideals about creating stronger children that would benefit the future race. This was in contrast to the explicitly socialist advocates of birth control, such as Senji Yamamoto and Kikue Yamakawa, who believed in fundamental social change through economic and labor reforms, and viewed birth control as an important part of a social revolution, but not the key to it (see Document 39). Nor did birth control activists accept birth control as a panacea for social ills to the extent that Sanger did. None of the Japanese activists followed Sanger's determined effort to so closely link overpopulation and war, though they argued that population control would lead to national strength and help preserve peace.[13]

   Japanese-language documents confirm that there was considerable opposition in Japan to birth control on moral grounds--the belief it would lead to promiscuity and an overemphasis on sexual pleasure-- as well as confusion about the meaning of birth control and how it was practiced, and enormous shame associated with asking for contraceptive advice (see Documents 21, 30 and 33). Japanese birth control advocates generally echoed Sanger in confronting the question of morality. Shirô Kawata focused on economic arguments and emphasized Sanger's stated scientific approach to using birth control for social welfare (see Documents 13 and 17). Others, Isoo Abe in particular, expressed humanitarian motivations to respond to accusations that birth control undermined traditional values and morals (see Documents 33 and 36). Sanger's influence here is evident in the way in which Japanese birth control advocates emphasized the benefits of birth control for the nation, rather than highlighting the individual. However, they were careful in how they depicted the changes that would occur if birth control was widely adopted, envisioning an improved economy with stronger and healthier people, but not the sharp reduction in population that the militarists feared (see Document 13).

   Sanger's outsider status granted her preferential treatment, the respect of men, and entry into traditionally male bastions, such as the Peer's Club, that were generally off limits to Japanese women (see Document 22).[14] The dissemination of Sanger's message through the press was impressive and reached a much more diverse audience than the predominantly educated classes that came to hear her speak. Newspapers reported daily on Sanger's activities and magazines ran profiles and articles about her ideas. Shidzue Ishimoto estimated that 81 of 101 monthly publications carried articles on birth control during the month of March.[15] The public discussion, as demonstrated especially in the Japanese-language sources, extended well beyond the free-speech concerns related to Sanger's tour, and considered population issues and economic, eugenic and feminist rationales for birth control (see Documents 2, 13, 14, 17, 21, 29, 30, and 33).[16] Although Sanger traveled further afield than most American visitors to Japan, her perception of Japan's acceptance of her was skewed by the fact that she mostly met with an educated and cultured middle-class in major Japanese cities.

   Baroness Ishimoto claimed that those few weeks in March and early April transformed Sanger's name into a household word for many years after. She later wrote: "Not since Commodore Perry had forced Japan to open its doors to foreign commerce, in 1852, had an American created such a sensation." She added, "if the government had deliberately tried to focus interest on birth control, it could not have done a better job." More significantly, perhaps, Sanger's trip gave Ishimoto herself new standing as the "Margaret Sanger of Japan," and she made birth control the cornerstone of her fight for women's liberation.[17]

   In the months following Sanger's tour, more of her writings were translated and published, along with many more journal and women's magazine articles on birth control. Sanger had clearly inspired Japanese birth control activists to take a more aggressive and public stance, knowing that there was international support for the Japanese movement. Activists in the Tokyo area formed the Birth Control Study Group, the precursor to an eventual birth control league (see Documents 24, 36, and 39). While in Kansai, the region comprising Kyoto, Osaka and Kobe, biologist Senji Yamamoto, inspired by meeting Sanger, translated her Family Limitation pamphlet and set in motion the Osaka Birth Limitation Research Society, formed in early 1923 (see Document 39).

   However, many obstacles remained for advocates to overcome, not the least of which was a Japanese preference for abortion as the birth prevention method of choice, despite its illegality. And even though the government tolerated discussion of birth control theory, it censored contraceptive information, making it difficult to reach the masses with practical advice. Overall, the Japanese government's approach to the issue was erratic, but by the late 1920s, it showed signs of hardening its opposition. Despite the growing number of birth control clinics in Japan and increasing public acceptance, a renewed militancy heading into the 1930s invigorated pronatalist policies and increased government crackdowns on leftist groups. The birth control movement began to feel more pressure, and in 1938, with Japan at war with China, the birth control movement was wholly suppressed and forced to lay dormant until after World War II. Despite these later setbacks, Sanger's historic trip had forced an entire nation to confront issues related to population, family size and women's roles in society. And if birth control had not yet become an acceptable option for most couples, at the very least, it had become a respectable subject of debate.[18]

   The letters, journal entries, articles and speeches that follow, including several translations of articles that appeared in Japanese newspapers and journals, document Sanger's difficulties in reaching Japan and the highlights of her tour. More importantly, they offer insights into the tensions between Japan's insular nature and fierce conservatism and a growing desire for democracy and modernization. They also demonstrate the West's perception of Japanese culture and society in the 1920s. Finally, they document a too little known, but growing, vibrant, and vocal activist community in Japan willing to challenge tradition, and the transformative power of Sanger's singular message of liberation.

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