Welcome back to the International Birth Stories series! I’m loving reading what these women have to say…and I hope you are too! If you’re just joining us, make sure to check out the previous weeks’ testimonies from England, Djibouti, Northern Ireland and Brazil. This week, I am featuring Melissa, with a birth story from Japan.
Melissa gave birth in a private birth house and describes it as “the best of both worlds…(personal, intimate care in a relaxed, gorgeous setting as well as the medical care and technology to assist, if needed)”
Intro – What brought you to Japan?
My husband is Japanese, but spent the entirety of his life (minus being born) in the US. What gets me excited is having our world expand and raising children who will know both places, both languages, and belong to both, and all of it.
1.) What surprised you about prenatal care in Japan?
First of all, women generally do not take any prenatal vitamins, but gather all the needed nutrients from their food. They’ll eat lots of leafy greens like spinach, teeny tiny fish (with teeny tiny bones), and tofu, all for calcium. They’ll just pay more mind to their diet, since it is filling the gap of not having that prenatal vitamin. I mailed-away for expensive food-based vitamins.
I was surprised, perhaps, by the very moderate eating pregnant women do here. There is no “I’m eating for two” attitude and many women even use the word “diet”. There is concern that women will gain too much and will then experience complications. Also, many foreign women feel pressure to be as thin or gain only a little in their overall pregnancy, often chided by doctors or nurses. I experienced no such thing and was encouraged to eat well and simply feel healthy.
One cultural issue that came-up: My midwives (at the very au natural, no technology birth house I was first at, wanted me to cover my ankles and stomach with leg-warmers, thick socks, a cotton belly band. Problem? This was the height of Tokyo’s humid, sweltering summers and I would already show up dripping with sweat (Ugh) from my walking and riding trains and walking some more to the birth-house where they promptly advised me to cover these areas of my body, everyday, all the time.
Why? Good question. It is part of Chinese medicine/Asian wisdom that every point on the body, or meridian, controls a specific part of the body. The ankle points correspond with the uterus, so creating warmth helps the uterine muscles to be soft and flexible, not tense and contracted.
2) What surprised you about giving birth in in Japan?
Japan has a much lower medical intervention rate and thus, a much lower Caesarian Section rate. Vaginal, unmedicated birth is the norm. I believe all nurses are also midwives and lactation specialists.
Pain blockers and/or epidurals are not widely-used here, by any means. Women wanting at least the option or promise of an epidural will go to a very expensive doctor. He is a kind of king for many international expat ladies. I didn’t go that route, but strengthened myself in the belief that I could do what my mother, grandmother, and women before me did—go into labor without any drugs.
My postpartum stay was incredible. Every woman’s stay is a customary six days, or more following a C-section. My birth house was such a positive experience that I could easily be persuaded to carry a child a third time. I experienced a restful, quiet stay, receiving support in breastfeeding.
Wait–don’t go yet! You have a gift: After giving birth, you will be given a protective box that will house a very unique parting gift — your baby’s preserved umbilical cord, which they will have dried and wrapped up tiny, tiny. An umbilical cord is called, heso-no-o, or point of connection (literally “tail of the belly). This connection between mother and baby is celebrated. I have two wooden eggs, for each of my babies, containing their/our point of connection.
Some caregivers will ask if you would like to consume your placenta, either in capsule-form, or even cooked as part of a post-natal meal. We did not go that route, let’s just say, though my husband did joke.
3) What surprised you about post-natal care in in Japan?
Women generally leave their home with their partner/husband nearing the end of their pregnancy, give birth in a hospital or center near her parent’s home, and then stay under the care of their mother for one month or more. During this post-natal recovery month, they do not leave the home. Their only job is to rest, nurse, and establish a bond with their child. This generally means that the new mother is away from her husband as he is working and will visit weekends or maybe hardly at all. His bonding with baby will have to wait until later, I suppose.
Because women generally do not leave the home with their baby until a month, my normal American venturing outside of the house with a young infant was met with equal parts wonder and general concern. Some older women were concerned that my baby’s neck was weak at their stage and could possibly break. Some women squealed with absolute surprise. Many had never seen a child so young.
4) Overall impression of pregnancy/birth culture
It is celebrated. Pregnancy and birth culture are not treated as maladies, so life continues just fine.Women understand the value of being in community, and cultivate mama-tomo relationships (mama-tomodachi, which means mother-friends, other women who have children the same age as theirs).
I loved being pregnant and would have anywhere, but Japan felt so right. There is a poetic quiet even in the midst of crowds. I wandered through lush gardens and parks, eating food that was so gorgeous and nourishing. (I also frequented a great ice cream shop). It took time and energy for me to run to my appointments using the train, but in the end, I was able to enjoy such quality care, for me and my babies. Overall, we’ve been treated very very well.
You can read more about Melissa’s life in Japan at her blog, Melibelle In Tokyo. You can also follow her on Instagram and Twitter.
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Iulia is a former educator turned stay-at-home mama of a spunky toddler and a squishy infant. With a touch of sass and a good dose of self-deprecating humor, she has an ever-expanding repertoire of bloopers, insights, stories, and impassioned opinions to share. Iulia likes to think she has this parenting gig figured out, but her littles remind her daily just how far from the truth that is.