Shintoism and Buddhism, the two main religions practiced in Japan have shaped Japanese traditions and beliefs for centuries.
Shintoism is an animist religion endemic to the country, in which stones, rivers, and all other natural elements are seen as divinities. Buddhism, which originated in India, was introduced to Japan via China. The influences of these religions are quite apparent in practices related to pregnancy, childbirth, the post-partum period, and childhood.
Ninkatsu – Pregnancy
Getting pregnant in Japan is a big event. It even has a name: ninkatsu, which means “pregnancy hunting”. [perfectpullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Celebrities are known to share their ninkatsu journies on their blogs or in the media in order to show the realities of a pregnant life.[/perfectpullquote]
Given Japan’s low birth rate, couples are under a lot of pressure to procreate. Whether unfair or culturally relevant, women end up bearing the heavier load of this pressure. By sharing their ninkatsu, as well as their struggles with infertility or challenges conceiving, these celebrities take away the associated stigma. In so doing, celebrities de-dramatize a very sensitive issue.
Pregnancy: A Mother’s Sole Responsibility and Duty
Pregnancy in Japan is seen as a work in progress, an activity to which Japanese women should devote their time and energy. Japanese expectant mothers are expected to provide the fetus with an optimal environment in which it will develop healthily. The downside of this theory is that Japanese women thus carry the responsibility of miscarriage or birthing a baby free of birth defects [note]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Childbirth_in_Japan[/note].
There are several ways for Japanese women to“work” on their pregnancy. According to Chinese traditional medicine, the womb should be kept warm to optimize the development of the fetus. Japanese women wear anzan hara obi, a belly supporting belt blessed at the shrine, to comply with this principle [note]http://www.japantimes.co.jp/community/2015/06/03/issues/pregnancy-birth-japan-cultural-primer-foreign-mothers/#.WXtNAfVOK72[/note]. Other specific areas of the body, like the ankles, should also be covered to ensure a warm womb since the meridian (the energy carrying channel that flows through the entire body. Read more here) runs up to the womb.
Japanese women are also advised to avoid foods considered “cold”by Chinese medicine. These foods, like broccoli, asparagus, or apples, for example, are to be avoided even if they are served warm, because they are known to have a cooling effect on the body. Pregnant women have to avoid deep sea fish such as tuna, and in general eat a healthy traditional Japanese diet with more vegetables and less meat.
Japanese women are told to keep fit during pregnancy and not gain too much weight. The recommended amount of weight gain is between six and eight kilograms. To help with taijû kontorôru, or weight control, they attend pregnancy yoga or fitness classes, sometimes organized within the premises of the hospital itself.
Shinkiyo, or emotional wellbeing, is also considered important for pregnant women. Doctors in Japan recommend that pregnant women work on their inner life by cultivating tranquility and spirituality [note]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Childbirth_in_Japan[/note]. As a result, in order to avoid potential source of stress, many working women stop their activities [note]http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-9566.2007.00475.x/full[/note].
Women go to a shrine to pray when they wish to get pregnant and during pregnancy, where they get an omamori (amulet) that will provide anzan (protection of pregnant women and safe delivery). The omamori is carried by the person who buys it at the shrine, and either returned to the shrine or burnt after it has completed its mission, as a tribute to the god or goddess who helped
[perfectpullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Because dogs are believed to give birth without problems, pregnant women hoping for a similar experience visit a shrine on inu no hi, the Day of the Dog, when they are in their fifth month of pregnancy. [/perfectpullquote]
At the shrine, the women are given an anzan hara obi, a belly supporting belt blessed for an easy pregnancy and delivery.
According to Keiko Tsuboi Dey-Chao, a Japanese mother who graciously shared her own pregnancy pictures with theParentVoice, a Japanese pregnant woman is not allowed to attend a funeral. In case she absolutely must, she is to wear a mirror on her belly to repel evil spirits.
Childbirth – A Natural and Quiet Process
[perfectpullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Traditionally, Japanese women returned to their parents’ homes to be in their care until the child is born.[/perfectpullquote]
This is called satogaeri shussan, or “going back home”. These days, family members of the expectant mother tend to move in with the future parents to help them for practical reasons such as not having to switch doctors.
Japanese women can either give birth at the hospital or at a midwife’s home. Women are encouraged to give birth in a semi-sitting position, although some doctors still require women to lie down on their backs. The midwifes’ homes have rooms with a tatami and a futon, on which the mother gives birth. Home births are extremely rare, says Ms. Tsuboi.
Most births in Japan are “natural” and drug-free since birthing is seen as a natural process. A woman who would like an epidural would need to go to a private and expensive clinic to be able to have this option. Alternative pain relief methods such as breathing techniques or massage are thus widely used. C-sections are very rare, and occur only in life-threatening cases.
During delivery, it is recommended that women try to stay calm and focus on breathing. If a woman in labour panics or starts screaming, birth attendants will help her to calm down and go back to focusing on breathing techniques. The theory behind these actions are so that the mother can use her energy as efficiently as possible. Delivering in Japan is a far quieter experience than in western countries.
Ansei – Postpartum Period
After childbirth, the most important thing for the new mother to do is ansei, or peace, quiet, and pampering. [perfectpullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Traditionally, women were expected to rest and stay at home for 100 days following childbirth.[/perfectpullquote]
Nowadays, mothers leave their hospitals a week after delivery and stay home for 30 days, after which they celebrate.
When she leaves the hospital, the mother is given a special wooden box in which the umbilical cord is placed. The cord symbolizes the health of the child, so it should be treated with upmost care [note]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Childbirth_in_Japan[/note].
Once they are back home, mother and baby sleep together until the next child comes along. Children often sleep with their parents until they turn 10. Physical closeness is seen as bringing a sense of security and well-being to the child.
Special thanks to Keiko Tsuboi Dey-Chao for her help and for sharing her beautiful photographs.
Editor’s Note: Some of the views and traditions explained in the articles presented in Cultural Perspectives may not align with your own sensibilities. To that point, every culture is ethnocentric in their own way and it is easy to judge other cultures through the lenses of one’s own. We urge you to take a step back and consider the contents of these articles as a part of a broader culture, shaped by religions and beliefs that have evolved over many centuries to result in truly unique cultures.