Women’s rights activist Kato dies at 104

Shizue Kato, one of the first Japanese women to become a Diet member and a pioneer of women’s rights in Japan — particularly known for her advocacy of birth control — died Saturday from respiratory failure at a relative’s house in Tokyo’s Bunkyo Ward, her family said. She was 104.

In 1998, at the age of 91, Kato became the first Japanese to win the United Nations Population Award for her contribution to the family planning movement.

Even after reaching 100 years old, Kato actively served as president of the Family Planning Federation of Japan.

“A person who once committed themselves to politics has a responsibility for the rest of his or her life. That’s why I am still an active politician,” said Kato, who was also noted for her sharp tongue.

Kato was born into a wealthy family in Tokyo in March 1897 and married Baron Keikichi Ishimoto after graduating from Women’s Gakushuin School at the age of 17.

When she joined her husband in Omuta, Fukuoka Prefecture, where he worked at a coal mine as an engineer, she was shocked at the grim situation women faced. Many had numerous children and lived in appalling poverty.

While studying in the United States, Kato met the famous feminist and pioneer of family planning, Margaret Sanger (1883-1966), around 1920 and was impressed by her thoughts.

When she returned to Japan, she promoted the use of contraceptives, which was a taboo subject under Japan’s militaristic government. She also took part in a movement calling for women’s suffrage.

But the prewar government cracked down on her activities and arrested her.

After her husband left her, Shizue supported herself and two sons through writing and other work promoting social reform. This brought her in contact with labor leader Kanju Kato (1892-1978) and they were married in 1944.

In the first postwar election in 1946, Kato stood for the now-defunct Japan Socialist Party and was elected as one of the first 39 female members of the House of Representatives. Her husband was also elected.

Kato served two terms in the Lower House and four terms in the House of Councilors until 1974.

Kato also made efforts to enact the Prostitution Prevention Law and the pollution control law. She retired from the political arena aged 77, but her enthusiasm for new challenges never faded.

Participating in the establishment of the International Planned Parenthood Federation, Kato continued to be involved in the population problem in the developing world.

Commentator Moeko Tawara said the women’s liberation movement owes much to Kato and other feminist activists. “Accumulated efforts have led to the enactment of various laws for gender equality and the law concerning the prevention of domestic violence,” Tawara said.

“Kato must be happy now she is in heaven to see the seeds she sowed sprout and flourish,” Tawara said, adding that she had been very impressed by a forceful speech Kato made from her wheelchair a few years ago.

Mutsuko Miki, widow of late Prime Minister Takeo Miki, said, “She was a very gentle person. She never criticized people, always found the best in every person and complimented them on it.

“Whenever someone did a good deed, she would send a ‘Pink Letter,’ a letter of encouragement in a pink envelope,” she added. “Even in her later years, she always dressed beautifully. I always remembered it when she made compliments on my outfit. Her care for other people was incredible.”

Writer Keiko Ochiai said Kato was someone who lived the very history of Japanese women. “Her spirit of treating issues such as birth control, the right of women to make their own decisions and take responsibility for themselves has really encouraged younger generations. She lived her life exactly according to her own philosophy — your life belongs to you.”

Kato wrote two biographies “Facing two wars” (1935) and “Straight road” (1956).