Select Page

Birth Control in China and Japan

October 30, 1922 — Carnegie Hall, New York


Your generous greeting delights me. . . . It gives me hope that we need no longer fight this battle alone. I want to believe that your being here tonight means that you share with me the vision of a new world, which may become, through the instrument of birth control, a beautiful reality.

In the first place, I want you to know that I did not go to the Far East as a self-appointed prophet to reform the habits of the yellow race. I have never tried to shout the message of Birth Control into unwilling ears. We have advocated this doctrine only to those who have expressed a willingness to bear interest in it. We do not believe in imposing upon anyone the principle or the practice of Birth Control. For a year previous to my departure, repeated invitations had come to me from Japan. On the part of Young Japan there has arisen a great desire to awaken their countrymen to the menace of overpopulation. A group of young Japanese intellectuals, called the Kaizo, or “Reconstruction,” formulated the plan of inviting to Japan representatives of the most challenging ideas of our Western civilization. They invited Bertrand Russell to lecture on Reconstruction, Professor Einstein on the theory of Relativity, H.G. Wells on International Peace, and myself on Population and War. I was invited to follow Mr. Russell. You see, they put me in good company.

I agreed to visit Japan to deliver five addresses, under the auspices of the Kaizo group. With great joy I set forth last February to carry the message of birth control into the Orient. I booked passage on the Taiyo Maru, and escorted by my thirteen-year-old son, Grant, crossed the continent to San Francisco. Two days before my sailing, the Japanese Consul refused to visa my passport. With many apologies and great regret, he informed me that the Imperial Government had cabled directions that, if she applied for permission to visit Japan to lecture on Birth Control, Mrs. Sanger should be refused. Would I be permitted to enter as an individual, if I promised silence? The word came back ¾ “No.”

I was surprised, but not dismayed, for this official opposition was not new to me. As a matter of fact, the Imperial Japanese Government was only imitating the attitude of my own democratic government. And I knew, from past experience, that whenever this autocratic opposition to Birth Control is expressed by the official mind, there is always a tremendous popular interest not far away. I knew the new generation of Japan was interested and I resolved to overcome this obstacle, not merely for my own satisfaction, but for the international good of the movement.

Because I could not obtain that visa, the steamship company cancelled my booking. For a time, defeat stared me in the face. The voyage seemed impossible; I would have to turn back. But then I remembered that I had overcome greater obstacles than this one. My Irish blood was up. I would not take this autocratic “no” as the final answer.

Sometimes diplomacy is a better weapon than defiance. I decided to fight this battle behind the barricades of diplomacy. If the Imperial Japanese Government would not tolerate me, perhaps China would. There was no trouble in obtaining a Chinese visa. I returned to the office of the steamship company, secured passage for Shanghai, obtained the same stateroom on the Taiyo Maru I had previously booked and sailed from San Francisco on the day I had originally planned.

Aboard the Taiyo, I discovered, as fellow passengers, more than one hundred and fifty Japanese returning from the Washington Peace Conference, including the two delegates Admiral Baron Kato, now Prime Minister of Japan, and Mr. Hanihara, who at that time was vice-minister of Foreign Affairs. Besides these distinguished Japanese, there was another party of delegates, under the leadership of Mr. John Mott, on their way to Peking to attend the conference of the World Christian Student Federation. A meeting had been arranged for me in Honolulu, and although our boat arrived at one in the afternoon and sailed at five, I was able to speak to an audience, which filled the hall to its capacity. I was received with no less enthusiasm by the Japanese than by the American residents there. The Japanese press had even arranged a dinner for that evening, in the event the Taiyo Maru remained. This I could not accept, but during my few bours stay, the nucleus of a Hawaiian Birth Control League was organized.

The demonstration in Honolulu reacted upon my fellow passengers aboard the Taiyo Maru. During the next two weeks everyone aboard seemed to be discussing the pros and cons of Birth Control. They began to crowd into my cabin to ask questions. Finally, I was invited to address the Japanese delegation from the Peace Conference. This I did and Admiral Kato and Mr. Hanihara attended. The feelings of my own countrymen were hurt because they were not invited. So finally, I had to speak to the missionaries as well. Then the passengers of the second cabin besieged me with requests, and I spoke to them also.

After I had addressed the Japanese delegates, radio messages began to fly between our ship and Japan. In particular, Mr. Hanihara was especially kind. He sent a radio message to his government stating that, in his opinion, the subject of Birth Control, as he had heard it expounded, was in no way offensive to public morals. He recommended his government to lift the ban, to permit me to enter Japan and to allow the free discussion of this problem.

Meanwhile, as I later learned, discussion and protest were rising in Japan. Every newspaper was expressing its opinion on the exclusion of America’s undesirable citizen. Not all of them thought that I should be admitted. But the great majority of them were of the opinion that the Home Office made a mistake in taking such drastic action, before I had at least made some remarks in Japan upon which an opinion could be passed.

Then I began to receive radio messages from Japan:

One reading: “Thousands disciples welcome you.”
The next: “Possible both land Yokohama, welcome discourse.”
The next day: “Possible land Yokohama, Impossible discourse.”

Radio messages from all sorts of organizations asking me to lecture: a radio message from the medical association of Kyoto; a radio message from the “Cultural Society of Kobe”; a radio message from the New Women’s Organization of Nagoya; a message from a commercial group in Tokyo; another from an industrial group of Yokohama; a greeting from the doctors of Nagoya; one, even, from the Young Men’s Christian Association. And still I did not know whether I would be permitted to land. But it was some satisfaction, at any rate, to know that the opposition of the government had aroused the Japanese press and public to a discussion of Birth Control. For once people began seriously to discuss Birth Control, our battle is more than half won.

Such was the situation when we arrived at Yokohama harbor on the tenth of March. As the Taiyo Maru entered the bay, she was surrounded by a fleet of small craft. Government officials, health officials, representatives of the police department, and a mob of newspaper men and camera men flocked on board. I learned later that no less than seventy permits to board the Taiyo Maru had been issued to the representatives of the press. Then I had to submit to the severest test and strain of my journey.

First with a government official, an interpreter, and a stenographer I was closeted for an hour. At the end of that time, the official had committed himself to the effect that, providing the American Consulate General in Japan would make a formal and official request to permit me to land, the ban might be raised. Now, I had already, by radio, sent a message to the American Consul asking him, as an American citizen, to use his power in this direction, stating that I wished at any rate, to visit Japan, if not as a propagandist, at least as a private citizen. And so, after this conference, I hurried off another cable telling him I was awaiting his assistance. During this time, I was besieged by reporters and photographers. I waited for the reply of our American Consul. It did not come. Not only did the representative of my government refuse to make a formal request for my admittance, he did not even condescend to the courtesy of a reply to either of my messages. He did not explain the reasons for his indifference to the rights of an American citizen.

At seven-thirty that evening, due to great popular pressure and protest, it was as an individual that the Imperial Japanese Government opened its gates to me.

I must thank intelligent wide-awake young Japan, expressing itself in agitation and protest that showed the power of organized public opinion over official autocracy. Yet I could not help wondering, if the case had been reversed and I was seeking to enter this country, would there have been the same help, the same agitation and demand on the part of our citizens?

The final order was to undergo the inspection of the customs officials. They must have thought that I possessed some magic wand to depopulate Japan. After confiscating most of my books, I was allowed to go.

Just as I finished this inspection and was at last free, I was approached by several rickshaw men who came as representatives of the Rickshaw Men’s Union to welcome me to Japan. One spoke a little English and courteously apologized for the unwarranted action of the Home Office. “You do not mind,” he said. “Sometime Japanese Government, be little autocratic.” I did not mind. I felt almost at home.



Source: Margaret Sanger: Her Life in Her Own Words, by Miriam Reed (Fort Lee, NJ: Barricade Books) 2003, pp. 140-144.