Research Projects

Breastfeeding Wars: Gender, Health, and Milk Formula in Japan and China, 1917 – 2012

(Funded under Hang Seng Bank Golden Jubilee Education Fund for Research, Hong Kong Institute for the Humanities & Social Sciences)

Principal Investigator

Izumi Nakayama, Honorary Assistant Professor, Hong Kong Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences

Total Fund Awarded

HKD 20,000

Project Duration

April 2014 – October 2015

Project Description

This project aims to highlight the differing gendered constructions of motherhood through an analysis of the modern medical, nutritional, and socio-cultural debates surrounding breast milk and milk powder in modern Japan and China. The objective is to historicize the ongoing controversy between breastfeeding and the use of milk formula (the so-called “breastfeeding wars” of recent years, as the debate is called in North America) for newborns by exploring the use of milk formula in Japan and China from the 1920s. The “breastfeeding wars” refer to the medical, socio-cultural, and political debates surrounding the nutritional-health and presumed moral superiority of breast milk to that of formula; women who are unable to produce breast milk are criticized and denounced as “bad mothers,” and even accused of child abuse for deliberately undermining the health of their newborn. Continuing, and competing and contradicting, medical research largely informs such criticisms, and the medical findings have identified health benefits and risks, all of which are fiercely debated and used in competing constructions of gender and motherhood.

While the 3.11 Fukushima Earthquake and its nuclear disaster has raised safety concerns about both breast milk and formula, with the Japan Society of Obstetrics and Gynecology issuing statements on radiation in both types later in 2011, the debates over the nutritious value and later health implications for newborns has not subsided in 21st century Japan. The gendered socio-cultural and medical expectation of the mothering body led to viewing those who were, for whatever reason, unable to produce breast milk as “failures,” and somehow inadequate and unfit. The pressures toward new mothers were such that reports of resulting depression and emotional instability have become common in recent years.

In mainland China, the safety and availability of milk powder has had massive social, economic, and health impacts, especially in the first decade of the 21st century. In 2008, there was widespread concern with milk powder, which, contaminated with melamine and other poisonous materials, caused numerous deaths and severe illness in a large number of newborns in China. Since then, residents from the mainland travel in great numbers to Hong Kong to purchase what is perceived as “safer” milk powders, produced in Hong Kong, Japan, Australia, and elsewhere. Such shopping excursions have caused high levels of tensions, as Hong Kong residents have complained about lower supplies and the resulting higher costs, facilitated by “cross-border” traders. The political and cultural context for these tensions include Hong Kong’s political reforms, economic dependence yet ambivalence with the massive number of tourists, and the influx of children who live across the border, but were given residency in Hong Kong by virtue of birth on the territory. Yet nowhere in the debates are criticisms of mothers who choose to feed their babies formula instead of breastfeeding them.

The difference between Japan and China cannot be more striking. Why are the gendered expectations of mothering bodies so extreme in Japan, while seemingly less intense in the mainland today, as seen by the tremendous demand and consumption of milk powder? This project aims to address this question by exploring the historical formation of differing social, cultural, and medical significances and interpretations of milk formula and breast milk to the gendered construction of motherhood in these two countries.