Tag Archives: Japan

Home birth in Japan

A friend of mine – a French woman whose son is in the same class as B. – just had her third baby here in Tokyo. She had a home birth. My third baby, M., was also born at home.

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M. with one of our midwives soon after her birth

My first two births were very good experiences, although the labors were very long. I had those babies at a birth center in the U.S. The first birth felt particularly special because I had been hospitalized with a complication for nearly a month from 33-38 weeks. To have been able to birth my baby as I'd hoped to was unexpected and very sweet. I think it's likely that had I birthed in a hospital back home, the births would have been hurried along in some way, since the pushing stage in the first labor was four hours and not much shorter in my second. 

The day before we moved to Japan, I found out I was pregnant with our third child. So one of the first things I did when I got settled in was look for a midwife. 

There are many options for birth here. Usually women birth in a hospital, clinic, or birth house. I think the culture here probably supports natural birth better than back home, regardless of where you choose to birth. (I birthed my fourth baby in a Japanese hospital – and someday I will tell you that story, too – it was quite similar to my birth center births). The vast majority of my Japanese friends have had unmedicated births (in hospitals), so much so that it's utterly unremarkable. That I've had four babies naturally is taken for granted here; even the discomfort of labor is not spoken of that much. Among my friends here, birth isn't not spoken of with particular pride either – it just is what it is. Women give birth – their bodies were made to give birth – that's the message I hear, here.

I've also met quite a few women who have given birth at home. Here's the cover of a book written by one of them, my friend Ito Emiko, who blogs here. Her husband took photos of their fourth child's home birth for this wonderful photo essay:

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I had no real reason to fear unnecessary interventions or a high c-section rate if I chose a hospital here for my third baby, but I decided to look for a home birth midwife. 

Having a home birth here was such a wonderful experience on so many levels. It was, of course, amazing to be able to labor and birth in my own home. I felt extremely relaxed, and it was good to know my boys were nearby, with all of us in a familiar environment. I'd woken up in the middle of the night in labor, called our midwife, and even baked a cake (inspired by a friend of mine who had baked a pineapple upside down cake in early labor). I loved being able to putter around in my own home during labor. Labor moved so quickly that I forgot to put eggs in the cake!

It was really interesting to compare midwifery care between the U.S. and Japan. There were many more similarities – the focus on emotional, not just physical, care for a pregnant and laboring mother; the way pregnancy and birth are regarded as natural processes; the midwives' quiet, unobtrusive presence once active labor begins. One of the main differences I noticed had to do with diet. My Japanese midwife focused a lot more on what I ate than my midwives back home had – not weight gain, but what I was eating. I was advised not to eat anything that would chill my body, particularly my midsection. There's a tremendous emphasis on keeping your midsection adequately warm when you're pregnant, based, I'm guessing, on traditional medicinal beliefs about keeping your core warm. Many women wear belly warmers, even in summer. The other area I was advised to keep warm were my feet and ankles. Almost all the Japanese pregnant women I saw were wearing leggings and socks, even in the heat of summer. I was advised to do moxibustion on my inner ankles every day. I was a total skeptic at first, I'll admit. I've heard of moxibustion being performed to help breech babies turn, but it was hard for me to find information about it really helping promote a smoother labor (although the inner ankle points are the same ones used to help induce labor naturally via acupressure). But I figured it couldn't hurt so I tried it for the last few months. And I did start to tune in and notice which areas of my body were feeling cold . 

In any case, my girl was born within five hours. What a happy morning that was!

My friend Jennifer reports on homebirth under fire in the U.S. It makes me sad – especially given my perspective and experience about how normal and unremarkable it seems to be to give birth naturally here – that birth is such a fraught, contested issue back home. 

I'm fascinated by how birth is regarded around the world. What sort of birth options are there where you live? What's the dominant cultural message you hear about birth? 

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Free-range kids

A few days ago, the school held a safety class for the children, followed by an information session for parents. At this class, they were given this pamphlet:

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and taught a few moves and tips for being vigilant as they walk to and from school. They were reminded to do things like stay aware, look behind them, and look alert, not daydreamy; keep a certain amount of distance between themselves and the next person; use their very loud safety buzzer (each child keeps one on his or her backpack) in short frequent bursts if they feel someone suspicious is nearby. They did a lot of role playing of various scenarios and were taught how to use all of their senses to empower themselves. Parents were given tips too, all of which were new to me and very, very interesting.
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Here, children begin walking to school by themselves in first grade, which means ages 6-7, usually in little groups of kids walking together. They are also taking public transportation such as trains or buses by themselves. Kids also commute to lessons and to meet friends in the park. They have regular safety classes at school where they learn about traffic safety.  They do this whether they live in the city and have to navigate traffic lights, or in the countryside walking on isolated roads or through rice paddies.

There are parents who don't start quite this young, depending on how far the school is, but after being here for so long I've gotten quite used to the common sight of little ones walking around on their own in their little school hats and backpacks. There's even a well-known children's book called "My First Errand," about a little girl who walks to the neighborhood store to buy a carton of milk for her mother. "I can do it," she tells her mom, "because after all, I'm five!" She has all sorts of little adventures – running into a friend, tripping and losing hold of her coins, getting to the store and finding it hard to speak loudly enough to get the owner's attention, forgetting her change – but she is proud of herself at the end.

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Mission accomplished!

This is one of the things that I feel makes life feel easier for parents here, when kids can go around on their own. Imagine, no carpools, no traffic and stress. No trying to juggle schedules for siblings with different activities (made worse by the fact that schools often don't get out on time and classes end at a different time each day).  Of course, I have seen parents who go to meet their children at school to pick them up, or walk them part way till they get to an intersection with a cross guard. But the overwhelming majority of kids go about on their own. 

It probably takes a certain amount of faith in the universe to say goodbye to little ones in the morning and trust they'll be home later on.  But I think the little kids here doing this every day are becoming savvy about things like traffic and finding their way around, and know what to do about minor problems like getting caught in the rain. I remember when feeling conflicted about this (and in many ways, as a bicultural parent, I still do), talking with a friend from the U.S. about this. She said that when parents are overprotective, they only think about the theoretical dangers they are protecting their children from, and not the sense of adventure, of competence, and the survival instinct that young children who do this are able to develop and hone. A Japanese friend tells me that Japanese returnees – Japanese kids who spent time in the US – are known to have trouble finding their way around when they first come back, because they didn't learn how to develop a sense of direction. 

It's a controversial topic, I know. And I know there are many differences between U.S. and Japanese society that come into play, too many for me to attempt to make any generalizations about the way things should be anywhere. But I see this same sort of letting go in smaller ways too here – in the way that, from a very young age, parents encourage their children to work things out on their own rather than having an adult intervene, hover, advise in their interactions and problems. For better or for worse, these are some salient differences that have really jumped out at me as a parent in two very different countries.

What's it like where you live? At what age do you see children walking around on their own?