The changing surrogacy market in Japan – Yoshie Yanagihara

Reconstructing feminist perspectives of women’s bodies using a globalized view: The changing surrogacy market in Japan

Yoshie Yanagihara

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This paper aims to evoke an alternative viewpoint on surrogacy, moving beyond popular Western feminist beliefs on the practice, by introducing the history and current context of East Asian surrogacy. To elaborate a different cultural perspective on surrogacy, this paper first introduces the East Asian history of contract pregnancy systems, prior to the emergence of the American invention of ‘modern’ surrogacy practice. Then, it examines Japanese mass media portrayals of cross-border surrogacy in which white women have become ‘convenient’ entities. The results of the analysis show how Japanese culture has adopted a rhetoric about the use of white women as convenient surrogate mothers in the global commercial surrogacy market. An essential aspect of surrogacy is the premise that a woman’s reproductive function should be accessible to others. Past discussions among feminists have neglected this important point. Moreover, they share the assumption that white surrogacy clients are exploiters, who take advantage of women of colour as surrogate mothers. The current situation in Asia flips this perspective—with white women regarded as easier targets for exploitation by wealthy people of colour. For Asian clients, Westerners can be easily regarded as ‘others’ whom they can use for their reproductive needs. In today’s globalized era, the surrogacy industry is no longer for affluent Westerners only. Considering this change, it is crucial to discuss surrogacy issues by reconstructing feminist perspectives with a globalized view, to help protect women’s bodies, regardless of nationality, ethnicity, skin colour, or religion.


On March 19, 2016, a major Japanese newspaper reported that Chinese clients had conducted surrogacy in Tokyo using three Japanese women who were in debt[1], representing perhaps the first time that the Japanese found themselves being surrogate mothers for
foreigners. However, the case did not provoke a heated debate on surrogacy. Mass media continued to highlight the Japanese as surrogacy clients, that is, intended parents, not as surrogate mothers.

Since the emergence of the practice of surrogacy, many East Asians have engaged in commercial surrogacy as clients. For example, since the 1990s, Japanese and Korean clients have engaged in commercial surrogacy in the United States[2]. Recently, mass media report many Chinese have begun to engage in commercial surrogacy in the United States[3].

What’s notable is that many East Asian countries ban or discourage domestic surrogacy. China bans medical personnel from conducting surrogacy;[4] Korea and Japan discourage surrogacy.[5] However, the cross-border commercial surrogacy market for East Asians continues to thrive. What has led to the increasing use of surrogacy?

In this paper, I elaborate an answer to this question by revealing the shifts in the Japanese discussion on surrogacy. First, I trace the historical transitions in surrogacy in East Asia and analyse Japanese cultural representations of surrogacy and related issues (such as egg donation) in popular mass media. In Japanese culture, egg donation is an inseparable issue from surrogacy because of its historical back- ground;[6] it is thus crucial to encompass discussions about egg donation to better grasp the holistic context of surrogacy in Japan. I then analyse the current Japanese rhetoric in support of surrogacy, focusing on commercial surrogacy. In the analysis, I focus on supportive discourse regarding the personal features of surrogate mothers and egg donors. The results of this research point to the need for reconstructing feminist perspectives using a globalized view, to protect women’s bodies, regardless of attributes such as nationality, ethnicity, skin colour, or religion.



This research employs discourse analysis to examine the Japanese debate on surrogacy by examining magazine articles and books written by the various opinion leaders featured in the articles. To collect the articles, I used a sorting system in the Oya-Soichi Library,[7] using the Japanese keywords dairishussan (surrogacy), dairibo (surrogate mother), and ranshiteikyou (egg donation). A total of 416 magazine articles were analysed, covering the period starting from the first entry in the database in 1981 through February, 2020.

My analysis revealed that the opinions published in magazine articles dovetailed with the content of the books written by opinion leaders. I also collected data from a TV programme live broadcasting from Russia about a Japanese TV celebrity that conducted surrogacy there in 2018, aired on the same day as a magazine article revealing her surrogacy was published. I found the content of the TV programme also overlapped with the magazine articles I collected.



While surrogacy is often seen as a novelty, the practice of obtaining a child outside of marital relations has historically been common in some East Asian countries, including China, Korea, and Japan. These early surrogacy systems had the goal of obtaining heirs, a moral imperative rooted in Confucianism. Contract pregnancy systems existed in these countries until they were banned as a result of modernization influenced by Western culture.[8]

For example, ancient Korea had a well-known surrogacy system using surrogate mothers called ssi-baji. According to Fuchigami,[9] this system was employed during the Choson Era (1392–1897), so that infertile couples from the governing yang-ban class could have a baby boy, who then carried on the paternal family line. Continuing the family line was regarded as the most important obligation according to Confucian morals. In this system, the yang-ban hired a ssi-baji to have sexual relations with the husband (on behalf of his infertile wife), in order to conceive a baby. If the ssi-baji gave birth to a baby boy, she handed him over to the ‘client’, the yang-ban couple, and was paid a large reward. In contrast, if the ssi-baji gave birth to a baby girl, she received a small reward, and was required to bring the girl back to her own home. The daughter then became a ssi-baji like her mother. The social position and occupation of ssi-baji were hereditary. This practice existed until liberation from Japanese colonial rule, in 1945.

China and Japan also had similar surrogacy contract systems, in which women were hired solely to give birth for their employers. In ancient China, a man might ‘borrow a woman’s belly to produce off-spring’.[10] Even much later, there was a practice in which a man ‘rented’ another man’s wife to have her give birth, conducted from the Ming Dynasty period (1368–1644) through the Qing Dynasty period (1644–1911). Research by Kishimoto[11]
reveals that this practice was conducted using a written contract. However, since this practice resulted in many problems, such as fraud (the husband and the surrogacy agency cheating the client), and slave trade (the wife being sold into slavery by the husband), the Qing government declared such conduct immoral, and prohibited the practice by law. On the other hand, people thought it was a viable way for those in the lower-income strata to make a living. Likewise, it was a practical way to have babies for those in the upper strata. Therefore, even after the prohibition, the practice continued in secret, and the government turned a blind eye.[12]

In Japan, the most popular form of surrogacy was called meka-ke-bouko (mekake means ‘concubine’ and bouko, which is the modified form of houko, means ‘servant’). In this system, a single woman took up living with a ‘master’ in a domestic service role in order to give birth. According to Hayakawa, this system became prevalent with the spread of Confucianism, which tends to affirm monogamy.[13] After the change in government from the Edo Shogunate (1603–1868) to the Western-influenced Meiji Government (1868– 1912), this system was replaced by modern civil law. Under the new law, the mekake became an official family member who was given legal status.[14] Kato has characterized this system as a way to ‘efficiently use a woman as a reproductive machine’.[15] This system continued until the Japanese government restructured the country’s civil law in 1898, after critics expressed the view that Japan should foster monogamy to build a strong nation in which men and women have equal relationships, as in Western countries.[16]

However, because securing an heir was important to the Japanese, the new civil law also established a system for acknowledging a child born from a woman who is not the father’s wife as the legal child of him and his wife. At the same time, mekake-bouko continued as a social custom. The journalist Tomoko Yamazaki found a living victim of this system in 1985,[17] showing that it existed at least until the first half of the 20th century.



In 1976, Noel Keane, an American lawyer, formulated a ‘surrogacy contract’ that would allow women to utilize reproductive technology to become pregnant for the purpose of passing the baby on to intended parents. At the beginning, surrogacy used artificial insemination with donor sperm. After in vitro fertilization (IVF) was invented in 1978, children were conceived using the eggs of the client or a third party, which led to the flourishing of commercial surrogacy in the United States.[18]

The initial reports in Japan on this form of ‘modern surrogacy’ came in 1981, in a Japanese popular magazine. The data collected in the Oya-Soichi Library further show that American surrogacy agencies who had expanded their market to Japan were featured in the early 1990s. However, the Japanese were hesitant to support the method until the 2000s, not least because it recalled the collective memory of the mekake. For example, gynaecologist Yuriko Marumoto explained, ‘[Traditional surrogacy is] the same as the mekake that has existed in Japan for long time’.[19] A feminist journalist stated the American surrogacy contract constituted ‘scientific adultery’,[20]with the surrogate mother ‘a substitute for me- kake.[21] Moreover, the rationale brought forth by the American surrogacy industry was not persuasive in Japanese culture. Some magazine articles emphasized that surrogacy was basically a commercial business targeting Japan as a new market. When a Tokyo branch of a US surrogacy agency opened, it was introduced with a negative title: ‘[D]o you want to have children costing 10,000,000 yen?—The US born “surrogacy business” has finally landed in Japan’.[22] In short, modern surrogacy was not construed as an altruistic practice but rather an explicitly commercial business representing a revival of mekake.

The prevailing sense of hesitation began to lessen in the middle of the 2000s, after media coverage of a cross-border surrogacy case conducted by the TV celebrity couple Aki Mukai and Nobuhiko Takada. In 2001, Mukai announced the plan to conduct cross-border surrogacy after cervical cancer had resulted in a hysterectomy, and a year later, she travelled to the United States to engage white American women as potential surrogates.[23] One of the surrogate mothers gave birth to twins in 2003.[24] After taking the twins back to Japan, Mukai made a plea to register herself as the birth mother, which went against Japanese civil law. Although the Supreme Court finally rejected Mukai’s plea in 2007, her surrogacy and court case had, by then, a strong impact on Japanese sentiments about surrogacy. For instance, Japanese public sentiment shifted toward a positive attitude after Mukai’s plea was reported by mass media. A survey conducted by the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare revealed that supportive opinions about surrogacy increased from 42.5% in 2003 to 54.0% in 2007.[25]

During this period, Mukai’s every action in relation to surrogacy was featured by special TV programmes and TV news, as well as by magazine articles. Especially since she had obtained children via a successful surrogacy agreement, her actions created ‘media events’ that provoked public discussion[26] and moved the Japanese government. Responding to the shift in public sentiment, the Minister of Health, Labour and Welfare stated that the government would consider legislating surrogacy. The government then requested the Science Council of Japan to deliberate on the issue of surrogacy. Although the Science Council released a report that recommended banning surrogacy in March 2008,[27] mass media continued to feature Mukai’s opinion, until ‘Manji’s case’[28] emerged in August of the same year.

‘Japanese television personality Aki Mukai, left, and her husband Nobuhiko Takada speak to media at a Tokyo hotel in October 2006 after a Tokyo ward office rejected a lower court ruling to accept on its registry twins born to them.’ – AP (AP Photo/Kyodo News)


Amidst these events, one TV programme followed Mukai to produce a documentary about her surrogacy experience, which overlapped with her two books published in 2002[29] and 2004.[30] Later, the experiences in the books were featured in a TV drama series and in comics, and also repeated in many magazine articles. Japanese recognition of surrogate mothers in the cross-border surrogacy market was moulded by these depictions; other information casting American surrogate mothers in a positive light was limited at that time.

The books told the tale of two white American surrogate mothers hired by Mukai, ‘Sandra’ and ‘Cindy’. Mukai emphasized their behaviour, personality, and circumstances, to show that her surrogacy was not harmful to society, highlighting their race, nationality, and religion. These depictions nurtured a Japanese stereotype of American surrogate mothers, creating a ‘fairy tale like reality’[31] of surrogacy.


5.1 | Denying the commercial aspects of surrogacy

Mukai’s books, along with supportive magazine articles about her case, emphasized that Sandra and Cindy had applied to become surrogates for reasons other than monetary gain. Mukai elaborated their motives, encouraging the Japanese public to recognize a surrogate mother in different ways than previous understandings. In one of her books, Mukai depicted her surrogate mother as follows:

[Before Mukai’s surrogate mother made contact with an agency for Japanese clients,] [s]he hesitated to be a surrogate mother, as she felt a business-like mind permeated an agency in California featured on TV.[32]

A similar understanding was expressed by Hirai, a reporter who had conducted interviews in the United States, highlighting that American surrogate mothers were not in it for the money.

What surrogate mothers sought were neither money nor gifts. THANK YOU. They said these words rewarded all pain.[33]

In this context, the motivations of American surrogate mothers were depicted as distinctly not financial, but rather coming from a desire to be charitable and express mercy.[34] Ragoné explained such motives as ‘Giv[ing] the Gift of Life’, suggesting ‘the exchange of a child’ is a relationship of kinship instead of money.[35] The surrogate mothers offered children for free (because they are priceless), expecting to have a sense of kinship with intended parents. Mukai and Hirai echoed this explanation. When it came to explaining the large amount of money Mukai paid her surrogates, for example, she emphasized the expensive US healthcare system. She stressed ‘[A]fter all, the difference is the cost of medical expenses’.[36]

This characterization led readers to believe that her payment was not a transaction concerning a woman’s reproductive labour or a broker’s fee for selling children. Likewise, supportive magazine articles did not focus on the cost of her cross-border surrogacy. Through the disregard for the commercial aspect of surrogacy, the US practice was reconstructed as a solely altruistic and voluntary activity with no associated financial profit.


5.2 | Highlighting Western motherhood

Even though Mukai’s case conveyed the surrogacy ‘fairy tale’[37] as rooted in an American (altruistic) culture, this aspect alone was not enough to persuade the Japanese public. The tipping point came from a focus on the surrogate’s specific traits and personality. Mukai’s two books and at least one magazine article featured colour pictures of her surrogate mothers, conveying their ‘whiteness’ and the associated culture and personality. Mukai depicted
her surrogate mother Cindy as ‘filled with motherhood’. ‘We hugged, wrapping our arms around each other’s shoulders. […] I cried like a baby. […] That was our first hug, without any negative feelings; even though I am older than she is, she was like a mother.’[38]

Moreover, her motherhood was deified: ‘Cindy, you are our Virgin Mary’.[39] Indeed, Cindy’s sense of motherhood embodied a sacredness that superseded the difficulties of pregnancy regular people might have: ‘Yes. The woman taking fruit out of the refrigerator in front of me does not think pregnancy is a hardship …… Cindy, why are you such a wonderful person?’[40]


5.3 | Highlighting Westerners

To posit their sacredness as more distinctive than the ordinary motherhood of Japanese women, Mukai stressed that surrogate mothers were stereotypically white American women, pointing to not only their whiteness but also to their religion: Christianity. Because the Christian population in Japan is very small, generally, being Christian is primarily associated with being a Westerner: ‘Light brown eyes, blond hair, […] British-Irish-American. She and her family are Christians.’[41] Using a dichotomy between Japanese/Easterners and Americans/Westerners, the surrogate mothers’ sacredness was interpreted as characteristically Western, seen positively in Japanese/Eastern culture. The same discourse was applied to the parents of the surrogate mother; indeed, the whole family was depicted as superlatively sacred:

[Watching Mukai receive gifts of a bib and handmade presents from the parents of her surrogate mother after her delivery:] ‘Mrs. Aki [Mukai’s first name], I was so moved, ’cause it is such a thing truly realized……. Even living here [in the US], I have not been able to believe somewhere in my heart… No matter how vast the U.S. is, there are no warmer people than them.’[42]

In fact, Cindy reported her challenge [of being a surrogate mother] to her dad after her pregnancy was established. He gazed at his daughter, who tells him the fact nervously and expecting that he may get angry; however, in the end, the dad said with a smile, ‘Cindy, that is wonderful. You do a pretty good deed.’ (By knowing the fact,) I cannot stop crying, too.[43]

In contrast to magazine articles on Japanese surrogacy cases that featured the tensions among family members in creating kinship for fulfilling the altruistic model of surrogacy, there is no mention of tensions among family members of American surrogate mothers. Rather, they convey the surrogate mother and her family as having sacred personalities, solely motivated by the desire to shower affection upon others. Behind such interpretations, there is a conventional cultural code that posits American culture as superior to Japanese culture. The following is what Mukai’s friend wrote in an e-mail about Japan’s ‘less organized’ system of adoption.

[Concerning international adoption,] Japan still lags behind in adopting and raising troubled children from other countries, even though Japan is a major economic power and the envy of all of the world. If Angelina Jolie knew this, she would be so irritated. She adopts a Cambodian orphan and loves him SOOOOOO much.[44]

After defeat by the United States in World War II, the Japanese projected an ‘ideal situation’ onto ‘America’, constructing the American ‘mentality’ as imbued with ‘rationalism’ and ‘truth’, in comparison with Japanese culture, which needed ‘reform’.[45] Mukai’s depiction of surrogate mothers and the American culture surrounding them applied this code. The American surrogate mother knows ‘truth’ and the American system of surrogacy is ‘rationalized’; hence, it represented an ‘ideal’ that Japan could learn from. Accompanied by the images of American surrogate mothers portrayed by Mukai, the idea that because of their sacredness they are happy to carry children for others spread in Japan.



Depictions of Mukai’s surrogate mothers constructed the typical personality of white American surrogate mothers. In particular, after Mukai’s case, ‘Christianity’ was taken up by mass media to explain the surrogate mother’s altruism.[46] The rhetoric that white Christian women craved sacrifice was also applied to egg donation. For example, a member of the Japanese congress, Seiko Noda, purchased eggs from a woman in the United States in 2010 to become pregnant.

She stated the egg donor was a ‘white, Irish-Mexican’ who ‘believes in Catholicism’.[47] Even though Japanese generally do not know the nuances of Christian denominations or Catholic doctrine, this statement nevertheless implied that the egg donor shared a ‘typical’ personality with Mukai’s surrogate mothers, as a ‘white Christian’. The egg donor being Mexican, rather than a US citizen, was not a controversial issue in Japan, because she was, in their eyes, a white Christian.

The Japanese cultural understanding that surrogacy clients are not subject to criticism if the surrogate mother is a white Christian woman became more remarkable in 2018. Izumi Maruoka, a TV celebrity, revealed that she had conducted surrogacy in Russia, after originally attempting to use an American surrogate mother. In choosing her surrogate mother, Maruoka stated: ‘It is important that she is a Christian, having the experience of delivery, as well as not suffering from financial poverty’.[48] On January 23, Maruoka and her husband appeared on a live Japanese TV show[49] from Moscow, after they had received a child 20 days prior. On the show, Maruoka asserted that the motivation of the Russian surrogate mother was based on her Christianity. Maruoka’s explanation reflected the shared Japanese myth that the most important motivation for many white, Western women to become surrogate mothers is their Christianity.[50]

On the live TV talk show, the host emphasized that surrogate mothers ‘become happy’. Accordingly, because surrogacy provides psychological happiness, to ask Western women to become surrogate mothers was construed as a charitable act performed by consumers, instead of exploitation or infringement of human rights, as in the case of the historical Japanese surrogates known as mekake. In their coverage of Maruoka’s surrogacy case, most media outlets celebrated only the birth. There was little criticism or mention of the surrogate mother’s human rights. In fact, Maruoka had not met the surrogate mother until the delivery and did not know about the surrogate mother’s personal situation. She did not have kinship, the premise for justifying American surrogacy practice. However, no media coverage highlighted this fact.

Such media coverage thus implies that having intimate human relationships between surrogate mothers and intended parents is not crucial for the Japanese to accept cross-border commercial surrogacy. The essential factor making surrogacy acceptable is the fact that the surrogate mother is white and, presumably, Christian.

Lately, cross-border surrogacy markets have moved into Russia, Ukraine, and Georgia, as well as some regions of the United States.[51] There is no public criticism in Japan about the infringement of surrogate mothers’ rights in these countries. In contemporary Japanese culture, transactions concerning a woman’s body have not become a social issue, if the provider of the body is a white Westerner.

Regarding Eastern European surrogate mothers, the Japanese mass media do not regard them as culturally forward-thinking in terms of (Western) feminism. Therefore, they emphasize their Christianity to provide a plausible motivation for surrogacy. For example, the website of a Japanese agency for cross-border surrogacy in Ukraine explains that the country has faith in the ‘Ukrainian Orthodox Church and The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church’, promoting the notion that Ukrainian surrogate mothers may be Christian. In addition, the website presents a photograph of a Ukrainian woman and children whose appearance is typically ‘white’ to the Japanese.[52] Such information encourages Japanese viewers to believe that Ukrainian surrogate mothers are representative of the Japanese image of a typical white individual.

In Japanese mass media, South/Southeast Asian surrogacy has provoked negative feelings due to its obvious exploitation. In contrast, as regards Russian and East European surrogate mothers, their financial need is less noticeable because they are generally viewed as Westerners. Hiring them as surrogate mothers can thus be regarded as a mutually beneficial contract entered by individuals in an equal relationship. However, it seems difficult to have a sense of kinship without the cultural setting that the American surrogacy industry provides. Here, the ‘philanthropic’ motivation emerges in the Japanese context. Japanese culture highlights that these surrogate mothers’ motivation comes solely from a spontaneous desire to become psychologically happy, brought about through their mysterious Western religion or culture. Accordingly, what Japanese clients do is help women to achieve their psychological desire. This recognition mitigates guilty feelings over hiring women for childbearing.



7.1 | A discriminatory system beneath the surface

Feminist supporters of surrogacy take two approaches. One regards surrogacy as a matter of women’s liberation. The other sees surrogacy as the development of collaborative reproduction and collaborative parenting.[53] Past research has endeavoured to analyse the motivation for becoming a surrogate mother, highlighting the struggles associated with the practice. Some researchers have empowered surrogacy as a form of socialization,[54] a process to reconstruct new selves,[55] or as paid labour.[56]

Choosing to become a surrogate mother, becoming a part of the client’s family, and collaborative reproduction/parenting had already been practiced in early forms of surrogacy in East Asia. Efforts have been made by women—both surrogate mothers and clients—to adjust themselves to their status. The Korean ssi-baji was proud of herself, since she was a sibling of the yang-ban class.[57] The client wife created kinship by staying in proximity while her husband and surrogate mother had sexual intercourse. Some Chinese surrogates voluntarily entered the situation to provide for their husbands.[58] The Japanese mekake was not always necessarily abhorred; a newspaper article in 1876 stated that some parents were pleased to have a baby girl in that era.[59] These histories show the mundane fact that a woman whose body is used and her family members make efforts to adjust themselves to the circumstances.

Feminist opponents of surrogacy sometimes criticize surrogacy as including Dworkin,[60] Corea,[61] another form of prostitution, and Ekman.[62] However, the East Asian history of surrogacy with sexual relations shows this criticism is not essential for opposing/supporting surrogacy. Even if surrogacy is regarded as another form of prostitution, the surrogate mothers can adjust themselves and empower themselves.

Spallone[63] asserts that the early forms of surrogacy represented by folklore and anthropology, in which ‘women have carried children for other women in the past […] in other societies and cultures’ is not equivalent to the contemporary practice of surrogacy that emerged alongside new reproductive technologies. As this paper has demonstrated, this statement cannot be applied to East Asia, which is now seeing a revival of surrogacy involving sexual intercourse. The current concerns over the medicalization of a woman’s body are also mitigated by such forms of surrogacy, which have little or no medical intervention.

In the end, the most essential point concerning the surrogacy issue among feminists, who embody a mission to address gender or sex-based discrimination, is not about using medical technologies or sexual intercourse. These methods are simply different ways to access women’s bodies. Previous approaches have missed or turned a blind eye to an invalid but widely shared modern premise, namely, that a woman’s reproductive function should be accessible to others.

Merchant[64] asserts that modern society developed with the rise of scientific knowledge trivializing women as reproductive resources to conquer and manipulate. Duden[65] explains that women’s reproductive bodies became public entities through scientific knowledge and intervention. Modern surrogacy practice is predicated on this modern, male-centric premise that a woman’s reproductive body is public.

When modern surrogacy arrived in Japan, Japanese feminists were against the idea of making women’s bodies accessible to others. Their criticism rallied against the revival of the form of patriarchy that was a foundation for early forms of surrogacy. This sense was later enhanced by outsourced surrogacy cases like ‘Manji’s case’ and the ‘baby factory’ case, conducted by single males.

Additionally, the East Asian sense of bodily unity makes modern surrogacy unacceptable, as Yamaori points out in his criticism of surrogacy from the perspective of religious studies.[66] When Mukai introduced modern surrogacy, the Japanese sense of bodily unity resisted the segmentation of pregnancy through reproductive technologies. Then, Mukai and Maruoka, who used surrogacy, and Noda, who used egg donation, applied the widely shared common knowledge that the Western sense of bodies and minds are different from the Asian understanding. By emphasizing their attribution of Westerners, supportive opinions of surrogacy became accessible in Japanese culture.


7.2 | The fragile position of the Global North

Current supportive opinions on surrogacy are a house of cards relying on specific cultural assumptions. For example, the American surrogacy myth has already waned in the global surrogacy market,comprised of many non-Westerners. A woman from a Japanese surrogacy agency who had engaged in the business from 1990 once believed the myth in which surrogacy was practiced through the surrogate mother’s ‘mercy’. However, later she grew to deplore her Japanese clients, who used American surrogate mothers as if they were merely tools, and stopped accepting new clients.[67]

Surrogacy has long been considered a transaction between white women and women of colour or Westerners and ‘Others’. However, the power structure of the current Global North-Global South divide is dramatically changing. Economists predict China will become the world’s largest economy and maintain that position over the next decade.[68] The surging number of East Asian clients engaging in cross-border surrogacy in Western countries will likely continue to rise.[69] Therefore, the growing East Asian surrogacy market will create (or, in the case of Japan, has already created) a rhetoric about Western surrogates. Once the triumph of persuasive rhetoric makes Western women ‘convenient’ surrogates, it exposes them to become a target of supply for the market.

Inside the growing Chinese cross-border surrogacy industry, there exists increasing dehumanization of surrogate mothers. One surrogacy agency for Chinese clients depicts surrogacy as ‘creating jobs for Americans’, pointing out the merit of using American surro-
gate mothers as follows: ‘American bodies are big and strong, better suited for childbirth’.[70] Ragoné states black and Mexican women prefer to carry Japanese children due to the ‘racial’ distance from the child. But my research shows that Japanese culture finds it more acceptable to use white surrogate mothers, because using women of colour provokes guilty feelings. Harrison explains how the racial difference between intended parents and surrogate mothers situates the surrogate mother as the ‘Other’.[71] With many clients coming from outside of Western countries, women who are a of different race are easily objectified in the surrogacy market. White women are no exception.

Saravanan criticizes rescue narratives woven by postcolonial theories to use vulnerable Indian women as surrogates.[72] On the other hand, the Japanese discourse of surrogacy shows there are post-postcolonial narratives that marginalize Westerners. The reality of surrogacy shows that no woman, including a white Western woman, is immune to becoming objectified.



This paper has articulated the necessity of reconstructing current Western feminism perspectives on surrogacy, especially regarding the popular optimistic belief that Western feminism has a purely positive impact on women and asserts their right to trade in their own reproductive functions. The early East Asian history of surrogacy, before the emergence of modern American surrogacy, as well as contemporary Japanese discussions on commercial surrogacy, reflect different viewpoints than Western culture.

In the future surrogacy market, mainly composed of clients coming from outside Western contexts, current Western rhetoric is used to justify a ‘convenient’ source of surrogate mothers.

It is thus necessary to build strong language denouncing the global market for women’s bodies. The essential challenge of surrogacy lies in the premise that all women’s bodies can become part of the market. Feminists must realize that the previous political power imbalance between whites vs. people of colour and the West vs. the ‘rest’, no longer holds. Nobody can escape being used, unless we protect all women’s bodies, regardless of skin colour, ethnicity, or religion.


Yoshie Yanagihara is Assistant Professor at Tokyo Denki University. She is engaged in research regarding the comprehension of women’s bodies in the framework of sociology. Her most recent research project examines discourses concerning assisted reproductive technology in television programmes and traces the recognition of public sentiments. She is the author of ‘What constitutes “autonomy” in the Japanese civil sphere?’ In A. Jeffrey, D. A. Palmer, S. Park & A. S.-M. Ku (Eds.), The civil sphere in East Asia, Cambridge University Press (2019).


The author declares no conflict of interest.

Yoshie Yanagihara

How to cite this article: Yanagihara Y. Reconstructing feminist perspectives of women’s bodies using a globalized view: The changing surrogacy market in Japan. Bioethics.2020;34:570–577.


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[2] Hibino, Y. (2016). Gestational surrogacy in Japan. In E. S. Sills (Ed.), Handbook of
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[3] For example, a CNN news piece reported that 40% of the consumers at a surrogacy
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[4] Ding, C. (2015). Surrogacy litigation in China and beyond. Journal of Law and the
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[5] Jung-Ok, H. (2016). Gestational surrogacy in Korea. In E. S. Sills (Ed.), Handbook of
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Surrogacy was imported into Japan during the 1990s, when IVF surrogacy and egg
donation were already widespread in the United States. Hence, discussion about these
two practices have often been connected

[7] See a description of the ‘Oya soichi library.’​/tabid​/479/Defau​lt.asp

[8] Yanagihara, Y. (2011). Dairishussan-ni-okeru-rinri-teki-mondai-no-arika: Sono-rekishi- to-tenkai-no-bunseki-kara. Seimeirinri, 22, 12–21.

Fuchigami, K. (2008). ‘Ssi-baji’ kou—kankokuchousen-ni-okeru-dairiboshussan-no-
minzokugakutekikenkyuu. Tetsugaku: Tokushu Bunkajinruigaku-no-gendaitekikadai II, 119,

[10] Ding, op. cit. note 4.

[11] Kishimoto explains there were two ways of renting a woman; using a ‘leasing wife (租
妻)’, or a ‘pawning wife (典妻)’; Kishimoto, M. (1998). Tsuma-wo-utte-ha-ikenai-
ka:minshinjidai-no-baisai・tensaikankou. Chugokushigaku, 8, 177–210.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Sakiguchi, S. (2007). Kokumindoutoku-to-jenda—fukuzawayukichi. Inouetetsujiro,watsujitetsuro. Tokyo, Japan: Tokyodaigakushuppankai, p. 9.

[14] Under this law, the mekake was in a second degree of consanguinity from her husband. Even though she was not a ‘wife’ per se, the mekake had legal protections as a legitimate member of the family. Hayakawa, N. (2005). Kindaitennousei-to-kokuminkokka: ryouseikankei-wo-jiku-to-shite. Tokyo, Japan: Aokishoten.

[15] Kato, S. (2004). -ha-naniwo-motarashita-ka—-Seidoutoku-to-yuuseishisou-no-hyakunenkan. Tokyo, Japan: Chikuma-shinsho. p. 64.

[16] Hayakawa, op. cit. note 14.

Yamazaki, T. & Im, K. (1991, January). Kankoku’dairibo’-no-hiai. Fujin-kouron, 336–343.

Spar, D. (2006). The baby business: How money, science, and politics drive the commerce of
conception. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

[19] Gendai (1991, April 29). ‘Dairibo’-no-wasuremono—Seishokugijyutsujidai-to-onna-no-
karada. 170.

[20] Yanson, Y. LEE. Kurone, jinkoushikyu, dairibo, shiranuma-ni-susumu-seishokugijyutu
(1990, April). 125.

[21] Yanson, Y. (1989). Dairibo-ga-tou-mono. In Gurupu-onnnano-jinken-to-sei,
A・Bu・Na・I-seisyoku-kakumei (pp. 96-111). Tokyo, Japan: Yuuhikaku.

[22] Shukan-asahi (1991, November 8). 50–53.

[23] Mukai, A. (2002). Puropozu: Watashitachi-no-kodomo-wo-unde-kudasai. Tokyo, Japan:

[24] Mukai, A. (2004). Aitakatta: Dairiboshussan-toiu-sentaku. Tokyo, Japan: Gentosha.

The Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare. (2007). Heisei18nendo-seishokuhojyoiryout
oukinkyuutaisakujigyou-houkokusho. Tokyo, Japan: The Ministry of Health, Labour and
Welfare of Japan.

[26] Dayan and Katz explain how ‘media events’ occur through the festive viewing of TV programmes about historic occasions, which can transfix a nation and precipitate epic political contests [Dayan, D. & Katz, E. (1994). Media events: The live broadcasting of history. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press].

Assisted Reproductive Technologies Review: Committee of the Science Council of
Japan. (2008). Issues related to the assisted reproductive technologies centered on surrogate
pregnancy: Toward a social consensus. Retrieved from​/

[28] A single Japanese man using an Indian surrogate mother resulted in creating a stateless
baby in 2008. BBC News (2008). India-Japan baby in legal wrangle. (6 August, 2008)
Retrieved from​30.stm

[29] Mukai, op. cit. note 23.

[30] Mukai, op. cit. note 24.

[31] STORY. (2007, August). Mukaiaki-san・42sai Kazokuyonin ‘Shiawase-no-shomei.’

[32] Mukai, op. cit. note 24, p. 324.

[33] Hirai, M. (2006). Anata-no-sikyuu-wo-kashite-kudasai. Tokyo, Japan: Kodansha, p. 118.

[34] Generally, this motive is understood as equivalent to ‘altruism’ in Western culture. However, because the Japanese language is not based on a Christian-oriented culture, the motive may be translated into Buddhist-oriented concepts. Based on this cultural difference, this paper uses the concept of ‘charity’ derived from ‘mercy’.

[35] Ragoné, H. (1994). Surrogate motherhood: Conception in the heart. Boulder, CO:
Westview Press, pp. 59–60.

[36] Mukai, op. cit. note 24, p. 170.

[37] STORY. op. cit. note 31.

[38] Ibid: 130.

[39] Usually, Japanese do not use ‘Virgin Mary’ to express a sacred entity. Mukai’s use of a sacred entity from a different religion makes the deification more palatable for the Japanese audience; Mukai, op. cit. note 24, p. 163.

[40] Ibid: 222.

[41] Mukai, op. cit. note 24, p. 79.

[42] Ibid: 344.

[43] Ibid: 344–345.

[44] Ibid: 147

Iwamoto, S. (2002). Sengo-amerikanizeshon-no-genhuukei: ‘burondi’to-toueisareta-
amerika-zou. Tokyo, Japan: Harvest.

The reporter Hirai concluded from her interviews that the motivation was not derived from Christianity but rather from a sense of motherhood (Hirai, op. cit. note 33). However, this finding was not reflected in my analysis of the mass media recognition of surrogacy.

[47] Noda, S. (2011). Umareta-inochi-ni-arigatou. Tokyo, Japan: Shinchosha.

[48] Maruoka, I. (2018, February 16). 46sai, ‘Dairiboshussan’-de-kodomo-wo-
sazukarimashita. Fujin-kouron. p. 60.

[49] Joho-raibu:Miyaneya. Aired by Yomiuri Telecasting Corporation on Jan 23, 2018.

[50] In fact, there are no data that Russian surrogacy motivation is based on Christianity.

[51] Richards, S. E. (2017, July 25). Locked out of Asia, Americans are turning to Eastern Europe to hire gestational surrogates. HuffPost. Retrieved from https://www.huffp​​/surro​gacy-ukrai​ne-russi​a-georg​ia-czech​-repub​lic_n_595fa​776e4​b02e9​bdb0c​2b47.

[52] The website of the agency ‘Baby 4 you’ has uploaded the photograph. Retrieved from

[53] Tong, R. (1997). Feminist approaches to bioethics: Theoretical reflections and practical
applications. Boulder, CO: Westview Press. pp. 201–204.

[54] Ragoné, op. cit. note 35.

[55] Teman, E. (2010). Birthing a mother: The surrogate body and the pregnant self. Berkeley:
University of California Press

[56] Pande, A. (2014). Wombs in labor: Transnational commercial surrogacy in India. New York, NY: Columbia University Press

[57] Fuchigami, op. cit. note 9.

[58] Kishimoto, op. cit. note 11.

[59] Hayakawa, op. cit. note 14, p. 48.

[60] Dworkin, A. (1983). Right-wing women. New York, NY: Perigee Book.

[61] Corea, G. (1985). The mother machine. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

[62] Ekman, K. (2014). Being and being bought. North Melbourne, Australia: Spinifex Press.

[63] Spallone, P. (1989). Beyond conception: The new policies of reproduction. Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan, pp. 81–82.

[64] Merchant, C. (1989). The death of nature: Women, ecology, and the scientific revolution.
San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row.

[65] Duden, B. (1991). Der Frauenleib als öffentlicher ort: Vom Missbrauch des Begriffs Leben. Hamburg, Germany: Luchterhand. (Taiji-he-no-manazashi: seimei-ideologi-wo-yomitoku, translated by Tamura, U. (1993). Kyoto, Japan: Aunsha.)

[66] Yamaori, T. (1994, June). ‘Dairi-bo’-ni-tsuite.: kagaku-no-shinpo-to-ningen-no-kouhukukan. Ushio, 98–106.

[67] Sumi, Y. (2003). Ranshiteikyo, dairiboshoukai-wo-tegakete12nen 60sai-no-shussanwo,
dare-ni-tomeru-kenri-ga-arunoka, Fujin-kouron, 40–43.

[68] The prediction comes from a report by Standard Chartered Bank. Scipioni, J. (2019, January 9). This could be the world’s biggest economy in 2030. Fox Business. Retrieved from https://www.foxbu​​my/this-could​-be-the-world​s-bigge​st-econo​my-in-2030.

[69] The strong demand is already visible. As of 2012, there were 400–500 commercial surrogacy agencies across China (Ding, op. cit. note 4). As for cross-border surrogacy in Western countries, see Kuo, L. (2014, April 22). Wealthy Chinese are turning to American surrogates to birth their children. Quartz. Retrieved from​7/wealt​hy-chine​se-are-turni​ng-to-ameri​can-surro​gates​-to-birth​-their​-child​ren/ as well as New Life Georgia. (n.d.) New Life has a flow of Chinese parents for surrogacy especially after second child is allowed. Retrieved from https://www.newli​fegeo​​se-paren​ts-for-surro​gacy-espec​ially​-after​-secon​d-child​-is-allowed/

[70] Tai, L. (2019, September 24). My American surrogate. New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytim​​on/china​-ameri​ca-surro​gacy.html. The end of the article explains: ‘And if you choose a dark-skinned surrogate, don’t worry — your baby’s skin will still be white as snow’. Such a statement highlights the fact that their clients regard Westerners as ‘Others’, whether they are white or black.

[71] Harrison, L. (2016). Brown bodies, white babies: The politics of cross-racial surrogacy. New
York University Press, p. 181.

[72] Saravanan, S. (2018). A transnational feminist view of surrogacy biomarkets in India.
Singapore: Springer, p. 154.

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