Tomorrow I turn 27, and one thing I enjoy around my birthday is looking up my “birthday twins.” Dr. Seuss is the coolest, Daniel Craig the most ladymag-friendly, but I want to share a little bit about a birthday twin you might not know as much about. 115 years ago this Friday, Katō Shidzue was born. Katō, who died just a little over ten years ago at the age of 104, was a pioneering Japanese feminist who worked with Margaret Sanger on birth control and was one of the first women in the Diet of Japan, where she served from 1946 to 1974. And let me tell you, she’s a pretty impressive birthday twin.
Katō became interested in family planning when she and her then-husband lived at a coalfield in Kyushu for several years. Katō, who had been raised in an elite, ex-samauri family, for the first time witnessed the horrible working conditions Japanese laborers had to deal with and the frequent deaths of unwanted infants and children. In 1919, the couple moved to New York for a brief period, where Katō met American birth-control advocate Margaret Sanger and first became interested in bringing birth control to Japan.
When she returned to Japan, Katō helped Sanger to visit the country and do public speaking there on birth control. She also became a pioneer for birth control herself, starting the movement in Japan despite the challenges of a hostile militaristic government. Speaking in America in the 1930s, she expressed cautious opposition to Japanese imperialism, even as her estranged husband was working for the empire in Japan. Katō was arrested in 1937, after opening a birth control clinic in Tokyo, because her support for birth control opposed the government policy on childbirth, which was geared towards women having many children to support the military empire. Though she had to close her clinic, she continued to quietly provide family planning services out of her home for three years.
After the war, thanks to Katō and other women working for suffrage, women were able to vote in Japan and Katō became a representative in the Diet. She quickly moved up into the upper house of councillors, representing the socialist party. Shortly after she began serving in the Diet, Katō co-founded the Family Planning Federation in Japan where she served as President until her death, and continued to support women’s rights throughout her time in government. She also worked for environmental and conservation laws, international humanitarianism, and reconciliation with former colonies.
As late as the 1990s, Katō continued to work on human rights causes and encourage young women to pursue social activism. She was the first Japanese national to win the UN Population Award, in 1988. And for ten years, the Katō Shidzue Award continued her legacy by supporting women and groups that work for sexual and reproductive rights or women’s empowerment.
So, in conclusion, happy birthday to us!