Get to Know a Researcher - Sujin Lee


Pacific and Asian Studies Assistant Professor Sujin Lee talks to Associate Dean Research Margaret Cameron about eugenic feminism, the politics of motherhood, and gender equality in Japan. 

Welcome, Sujin Lee, to the University of Victoria! We are delighted that you have taken the position as assistant professor in the Department of Pacific and Asian Studies (PAAS) at UVic. Your research interests are both broad and complex, and I’d love to hear more about them. Can you tell us something about the book you’ve just finished writing called Problematic Bodies: Politics of Population Discourses in the Japanese Empire (1918 – 1945)?

Thank you very much for your warm welcome. I am really enjoying working with great colleagues and engaged students at UVic. Despite the short time I spent at Uvic as a faculty member, I am greatly indebted to various academic communities within Humanities. The recent talk I gave at the PAAS Research Colloquium on the topic of the feminist birth control movement in interwar Japan made me realize how much my thoughts on the themes of gender, governmentality, and Japan’s colonial empire have evolved since I started teaching here.

As to my book manuscript titled Problematic Bodies, it grew out of my dissertation research project focusing on the discourses of the “population problem” in interwar Japan. My PhD dissertation examines three crucial pillars of population discourses, i.e. birth control movement, eugenics, and population studies, and discusses the different ways in which these discourses addressed a wide array of social ills.

During my research, what intrigued me most was the term “population problem,” which was a buzzword of the interwar period but surprisingly enough, a versatile term that encompassed multiple demographic issues related to population size, quality of population, population density and distribution, fertility and mortality rates, standard of living, employment and productivity. Using Foucault’s concept “problematization,” I shed new light on population as a site of political and scientific interventions.

In my book Problematic Bodies, I expanded my inquiry beyond interwar Japan by examining how the population discourse in mainland Japan influenced both Japanese imperial nationalism and rational fascism. The book consists of two parts. The first part explores the interwar period during which various discourses on the “population problem” continuously interwove sexual and biological issues with politico-economic ones. The major task of its chapters is to show how different discourses on population issues strove to reconstruct Japanese modernity through integrating scientific progressivism, social reformism, and imperial nationalism.

The second part turns to the population discourses under the total war regime and examines how wartime population policies for maximizing the quality of the workforce under the slogan of “healthy soldiers and healthy citizens” consummated the preceding population discourses. As opposed to the conventional understanding of fascism as an irrational deviation from modernity, I argue that Japan’s wartime regime attempted to consummate the interwar blueprints for optimizing the quantity and quality of the Japanese population. In other words, the fascist state was not only born within rational modernity, but also manifested itself as rationality.

What is it about the interwar period in Japan that captures your attention?

Japan in the interwar years has been a longstanding interest of mine. I do not see the history of interwar Japan simply as the period between the two world wars, but a watershed moment for the reconstruction of Japanese modernity. Whereas the Meiji period (1868–1912) went through so-called catch-up modernization by following the path of Western civilization, there was a growing call among Japanese intellectuals for overcoming Western modernity in response to economic depression and social conflicts.

The rise of the population discourse during the interwar years is a symptom of the transformation of modernity in Japanese society. A close reading of the arguments about tackling the “population problem” deployed by proponents of birth control, eugenics, and colonialism reveals two distinct natures of interwar Japan. One is the dialectics of modern experience and the other is the birth of governmentality. As to the dialectic dimension of interwar modernity, various efforts to overcome Western modernity were ironically derived from modern epistemology and practice such as scientific rationality, nationalism, and historicism. In addition, the interwar period witnessed the emergence of political-cum-scientific discourse on the administration of the Japanese population, which I call “interwar governmentality,” drawing on Foucault’s notion of governmentality. Both the dialectics of modernity and governmentality in the interwar period set the stage for the rise of rational fascism in the long run.

Your research has to do with political and scientific control over women’s bodies, which is a fascinating topic. Where will you go with your research projects from here?

My book project is the first step of a long-term research project that looks at the broader themes of motherhood, capitalism, and welfare programs in modern and contemporary Japan. This research project aims to explore how the concept of motherhood was structured as a women’s normative gender role (e.g. the myth of maternal instinct or a common belief in women as natural nurturers) and how the capitalist system and the state welfare programs both reinforced women’s maternal roles within families. The historical lens of motherhood allows us to revisit the complex intersection of the government institutions, socio-economic structure, and gender norms.

In my observation, the ongoing discourse of motherhood in Japan illustrates the politics of motherhood. In response to the well-known fertility and population crisis, the current Japanese government has been working out a solution under the slogan of “Womenomics.” The government campaign to promote economic empowerment for women has been a key component of Japan’s solution to a dual issue: population crisis and chronic deflation. The basic idea of “Womenomics” is as follows: Japan can increase the birth rate and fulfill economic growth at the same time by creating more jobs for women and supporting childbirth and childcare institutionally. Yet, I doubt the effectiveness of the solution and its contribution to gender equality. While the current Japanese government envisions gender equality as creating more “working moms” who manage both work and family, in fact, its policy has only exacerbated their precarity as low-wage workers. My research on the politics of motherhood ultimately reflects upon the current situation of gender “inequality” in Japan and beyond. I hope that I can have more opportunities to discuss with faculty members at UVic the politics of motherhood and gender in a transnational frame.