#AsiaNow Speaks with Aiko Takeuchi-Demirci

Aiko Takeuchi-Demirci is Assistant Professor at Koç University and author of Contraceptive Diplomacy: Reproductive Politics and Imperial Ambitions in the United States and Japan, published by Stanford University Press and winner of the 2020 AAS John Whitney Hall Book Prize.

To begin with, please tell us what your book is about.

My book follows the development of birth control ideas and technologies in the context of imperial struggles between the United States and Japan during the mid-twentieth century. It focuses on the transnational birth control activism by two feminist leaders, Margaret Sanger and Ishimoto Shizue. In the aftermath of World War I, these activists advocated birth control for working women as a tool to resist capitalist oppression. The birth control movement soon became heavily influenced by the eugenics movement, which was endorsed by progressive social reformers, physicians, and scientists. Many American intellectuals came to see Japan’s growing population problem—often linked to its imperial expansionism as well as overseas migration—as a threat to world peace. A number of Japanese intellectuals and activists also endorsed birth control as a practice of modernity and a eugenic measure to strengthen and revive the Japanese race—fit to complete with other (white) imperial nations and to lead other Asian nations. Birth control thus became a national and imperial cause, which facilitated the development of its methods and technologies, but also made it removed from the needs and interests of actual women.

What inspired you to research this topic?

I’ve been interested in intellectual exchange—how people learn from, inspire, or challenge each other across national borders. Social ideas and scientific theories rarely form within a single domestic context. So, I was immediately captivated when I read (a brief mention) about a Japanese baroness (Ishimoto) who became friends with Sanger in New York and decided to spread the idea and practice of birth control in Japan. I soon learned that this friendship led to Sanger’s first visit to Japan in 1922—which marked the beginning of Sanger’s global-scale mission to spread birth control to all women. This transnational birth control campaign was able to gain broader attention and support as it became closely linked to other intellectual trends or social movements, such as eugenics, public health initiatives, feminism, socialism, and anti-communism. Tying these seemingly personal and anecdotal events to broader intellectual currents and historical narratives that have had impacts on present societies (such as current fertility trends, immigration policies, and reproductive rights issues) is what makes historical research fascinating, at least for me.

What obstacles did you face in this project? What turned out better and/or easier than you expected it would?

Archival research is probably one of the challenging parts of doing historical research, as most researchers would have to travel for some extended time—and budget and personal situations could greatly affect your mobility. I had to travel to multiple places for my research in the U.S., which was exciting, yet quite stressful. I tried to finish all my necessary trips while I was pregnant with my first child—because I knew I would have less mobility once the child was born. My research in Japan turned out a lot less stressful (that is to say, once I was able to find the time and money to go to Japan). Most of the libraries and archives I used were concentrated in Tokyo, a city I am very familiar with. I used the libraries of the University of Tokyo, which is just five-minutes’ walk from where I stayed (my parents’ house). The place is also close to the National Diet Library, where I also spent a lot of time doing research. And the best part, free, reliable daycare (by my own mother) for my children while I was working at those libraries!

What is the most interesting story or scrap of research you encountered in the course of working on this book?

I was searching for some writings by Koya Yoshio, a Japanese public health official active in the postwar birth control campaigns. I quickly found out that he was quite a prolific writer, writing not just about public health topics, but also history and historical fiction (mainly related to racial genealogy). I also found that he had written a personal memoir about his life work and his passion (in history). I happened to find a copy of this published memoir at an old bookstore near where I stayed in Tokyo. As I opened the book, I noticed, inside the front cover, there was a hand-written letter—in traditional brushstrokes on a Japanese paper (washi). The letter was addressed to Koya’s acquaintance, it seemed, to whom he gifted this particular copy. In my own research, I am quite critical about Koya’s role in the birth control movement, but regardless, I felt very warm and special to “receive” this letter—as if it was a time-capsule letter to me. Probably Koya would not have anticipated his personal copy to be reused by a future researcher and thoroughly dissected! We often hear stories of historians unexpectedly discovering “hidden gems” in archives, but sometimes such encounter could happen outside the archives, at a local used bookstore.

What are the works that inspired you as you worked on this book, and/or what are some other titles that you recommend be read in tandem with your own?

Akira Iriye’s works have inspired me in many ways; first, the special attention he gives to individual actors in diplomatic history; his bi-national (or global) approach to U.S.-Japan relations, looking at the history from both perspectives; and finally his idea that the interwar period represented multiple “roads to peace,” rather than a singular and inevitable “road to war.” When I examined the discourses of transnational intellectuals and activists supporting birth control from both sides of the Pacific, I saw a lot of common languages and mutual influences between them. Having formed cooperatives relationships and personal friendships, they lamented the exacerbation of international relations that jeopardized their work. Although still constrained by nationalist frameworks and imperial ambitions, we can see their attempts at finding a common ground and continuing dialogues in order to avoid war between the two countries. The birth control movement was essentially a peace movement—albeit an unsuccessful one. I have also modeled my work on other historical studies, such as those by Eiichiro Azuma, Izumi Hirobe, and Naoko Shibusawa, that take a truly bi-national approach to U.S.-Japan relations.

Women’s part in diplomatic history have received relatively little attention, and the history of women tends to be narrated mostly within a domestic context. But this is starting to change, I believe, with more and more new studies exploring women’s issues and gender relations from transnational perspectives. Mari Yoshihara’s work inspired me to think how women took part in Orientalist discourses; Fiona Paisley illuminates the roles of female activists in the Pan-Pacific Women’s Association during the interwar period. Recently, there is growing attention to Margaret Sanger’s roles abroad—in Asia, Latin America, and Europe. My book could be read along with other exciting studies on Sanger in other parts of Asia, such as those by Mirela David (China); Michelle King (China); Barbara Ramusack (India); and Sanjam Ahluwalia (India).

What are you working on now?

I am actually going back to some of the topics that I started to investigate but ended up not including in the book. As I explored further into the issue of reproductive control, I encountered a lot of interesting material related to the matters of racial boundaries and racial mixing. Going back to these materials that I have found and expanding the topic further, I am starting a new project exploring how the ideas of the (“pure”) Japanese race developed in the twentieth century by looking at how the Japanese constructed their self-images through the use of theories about race from abroad and how, simultaneously, the world (mostly Americans) theorized the Asian (or Mongolian) race by examining the Japanese body.