Pregnancy and childbirth can be very daunting experiences in Japan. Not because of any dangers with the healthcare system—it has one of the best in the world. The lack of readily available resources in English can cause soon-to-be mothers to feel isolated and worried during a time when they’re most vulnerable and in need of support.
Those were the feelings I was grappling with while sitting at home for a month with my newborn baby. My husband hadn’t started his paternity leave yet, and I was feeling very alone and overwhelmed. I wondered how other foreign mothers in Japan were handling the experience, and what insight they might give for transitioning into parenthood easier.
That was when I came across Tiny Tot in Tokyo, a blog created by a mother, public relations officer, and translator named Kay. She hails from a city in Canada that she says is famous for its hockey team, a giant shopping mall, and freezing winters.
Kay studied Psychology and Sociology for her bachelor’s degree, and Social and Cultural Psychology for her master’s. She has lived in Japan for a total of 8 years now—broken up by a two-year stint to complete her master’s degree in Canada.
Kay met her husband when she first lived in Japan while on the JET Program, and they have been together for 7 years now and married for 5. Earlier this year they welcomed a baby girl into their family, and Kay has chronicled her experience having a baby in Japan on her blog.
I reached out to her and asked if she would be willing to do an interview, because I found Tiny Tot in Tokyo to be so informative and useful. Here is what she had to say.
Q. Can you tell us a bit about when and why you started your blog Tiny Tot in Tokyo?
A. I started it in the beginning of the year (2019) because there was a serious lack of firsthand information about pregnancy in Japan. Pregnancy is universal but navigating it in another country and another language is quite challenging, so I wanted to help other women in Japan who are going through the same thing.
Q. What kind of information can readers expect to find on your blog?
A. Posts on my blog include basic information related to pregnancy in Japan—pregnancy tests, baby stores, prenatal vitamins, steps to take when you find out you’re pregnant, English speaking clinics in Tokyo—and my personal experiences, such as my babymoon, reflections on each trimester, and my birth story.
Upcoming posts will be on what happens after the baby is born (maternity and childcare leave, costs, daycare). I’m also hoping to introduce research on cultural differences in child-rearing.
Q. When did you first find out that you were pregnant?
A. I found out at the end of October in 2018 although it wasn’t confirmed by the clinic until the beginning of November.
Q. On your blog you mentioned shopping around for the right maternity clinic. What advice can you give for finding the right clinic, and did you have any bad experiences at the ones you went to?
A. Pregnancy is wonderful but it’s also scary, especially for first time moms, which is why I think the most important thing is to feel comfortable and supported by your doctor. I’ve heard stories about doctors in Japan being dismissive or never wanting to be questioned but I never experienced that with my clinic.
I could ask questions about anything (and I did, I usually had a list of questions at each appointment) and the doctor would gladly answer.
I visited one other clinic near my home, which is very popular and I know a few Japanese women who gave birth there. I wouldn’t say my experience was bad but it wasn’t the best. The clinic is old, I didn’t really like the indifference of the doctors, it doesn’t offer epidurals, and the clinic also doesn’t take reservations so women waited for hours to be seen.
If anyone is interested in knowing more about my decision-making process when it came to choosing a clinic, please check out my blog post on the first trimester.
Q. Can you tell a bit about your experience with priority seating? Did people notice your maternity badge and did anyone ever ignore it? Also, did you ever feel guilty for sitting there due to the number of older people in Japan?
A. Ah, priority seating. This was my biggest source of stress while I was pregnant. I genuinely felt like the priority badge was only good for showing you’re not a jerk for sitting in a priority seat or for when you have to ask someone to let you sit down because you’re going to faint or feel nauseous.
Otherwise, if you’re standing, able-bodied people sitting down tend to ignore you. I can count on one hand the number of times I was offered a seat.
However, people did readily gave up their seat if I asked and were quite nice about it, although once when my husband asked a young couple in the priority section if one of them would let me sit down, the girlfriend gave him the dirtiest look as her boyfriend stood up.
At the beginning of my pregnancy I gave up my priority seat a few times for elderly women (who usually protested) but soon I felt too sick to really notice who was around me. My husband also got mad at me for giving up my seat because if you stand, you may get crushed by other people or fall if the train suddenly stops, which puts the baby at risk.
Thankfully elderly people didn’t usually get on the train during the morning rush hour and I went out of my way to take a less crowded train when I went home after work and sat in the normal seats.
Q. How did your diet change throughout your pregnancy? Were there any Japanese foods you tried that helped with nausea? Or were there any that you craved?
A. The first trimester was horrible, as it is with most women, and I had lots of vegetable soup and plain bread because everything else made me feel sick. I wanted nothing to do with Japanese food.
In the second trimester I wanted Western comfort food (like mac and cheese) as well as lots of strawberries, sweets (which I never cared about before I was pregnant), and ice. Later on I found out that craving ice during pregnancy was a sign of anemia and I had to take iron supplements prescribed by my doctor.
Q. You mentioned in another article that sushi and onsens were approved by your Japanese doctor—which is usually the opposite of what is recommended in the west. Did you receive any other advice while pregnant in Japan that you wouldn’t have back in Canada?
A. The doctor said that medium rare meat would be fine but in moderation. She also advised that I shouldn’t travel domestically in the third trimester despite that I wasn’t at risk for pre-term delivery.
I think North American doctors are a bit more relaxed about that (maybe because you don’t have to give birth at a specific hospital or clinic) but don’t take my word for it!
Q. Did you experience any pressure from Japanese doctors to watch your weight?
A. A little bit. At the beginning of my pregnancy I was told that I should only gain 10 kg, which surprised me because my BMI was 18.5 at the time. My weight gain was gradual and there was never an issue until my third trimester when I suddenly gained 1 kg in a week (I blame Costco).
The nurse was more shocked than the doctor but I was still told to watch my weight despite that I was underweight according to various pregnancy calculators online. That was the only incident but it was enough to make me dread stepping on the scale at every appointment.
Q. What was your company’s reaction to your pregnancy? How did you feel about telling them?
A. My coworkers are all women and knew about a miscarriage I had a year prior (I had to take time off because of it) so they were excited for me. I was really nervous to tell them, though, as I’m the only native English speaker in the office and no one could cover my work.
I also wasn’t sure what would happen with maternity and childcare leave but everything worked out.
Q. What was it like working while pregnant, and how much time are you taking off?
A. It was exhausting! Commuting was the worst part, of course, but the pregnancy itself was draining. I had hardly any energy but had to try my best to communicate in two languages while my baby was jamming whatever limb into my rib cage.
It was even worse when my feet started swelling in my third trimester. I stopped caring about what people would think and put my mammoth bare feet on a stool I had under my desk. But I guess I was lucky that I had a job where I could sit for most of the day.
I’m planning on going back to work in April 2020 (if the baby can get into daycare), so I’ll be away from work for 10 months in total.
Q. What approach did you take to prepare your home for the baby?
A. Buy everything on sale, haha. We also got a Japanese magazine on pregnancy and it contained a checklist for things to buy. We started buying things after 12 weeks so that we wouldn’t be panicking last minute and it worked out really well.
We also rearranged furniture and our pet rabbit’s location after the baby was born to make more space. I imagine once the baby starts crawling we will need to rearrange things again.
Q. Where did you go shopping for maternity goods? Was there anything you wanted but were unable to find in Japanese stores? How about the pricing?
A. I bought my maternity goods from Babies R Us and clothing from Babies R Us, H&M, Muji, and Gap. I wrote a brief overview about maternity clothes in Japan on my blog. I wanted to get sleep sacks (like Halo) but those were only available online and I didn’t trust the sellers so I didn’t end up buying anything.
I ended up swaddling the baby with swaddles we got from Costco and it worked out quite well. I also wanted to get gas drops for the baby because she seemed colicky, and probably would have bought it if I was in Canada, but looking back I don’t think she needed it and I feel better about not giving her something that wasn’t prescribed by a doctor.
I was really shocked about the prices of baby goods in Japan. In particular, strollers and car seats seem like they cost twice as much compared to back home.
Q. How helpful did you find the parenting classes once your baby was born? Is there any information you wish was included?
A. The parenting classes helped when it came to things like how to give the baby a bath and dressing the baby, although to be honest other than that I don’t remember if there was anything else in particular that we actively remembered. I feel like my husband and I were on auto-pilot that first month.
I wish we had learned about what to do when your baby refuses to nap or won’t stop crying for hours. (We asked the doctor last week about the constant crying and he said there’s nothing we can do other than hold her, which wasn’t that helpful but maybe that really is the only thing you can do.)
Q. How involved were the fathers encouraged to be during the parenting classes and hospital visits? Did you or your husband experience any pressure to conform to strict gender roles?
A. The fathers were encouraged to participate in everything during the parenting class and sometimes only the father did certain activities, such as wash a baby doll. In the hospital, the nurse showed my husband how to change the baby’s diaper, which he did numerous times before me as I had a C-section and couldn’t move much.
There was no expectation that the mom should handle everything and the nurses readily gave my husband the bottle for the baby or communicated with him about her.
We never experienced any pressure to conform to gender roles, but I suppose the nurses were surprised my husband was at the hospital every day, all day. One of them said that not many husbands are able to do that because of their work.
Q. How was communication during the labor and delivery? Did you feel like the doctor gave you a thorough explanation and answered all of your questions?
A. The doctors and nurses announced everything they were doing to the entire room (“We’re making the incision,” etc) during the C-section so I didn’t feel like I was in the dark about anything (except for the catheter, I had no idea when that was put in and didn’t realize it until hours later).
The procedure was also explained in detail to my husband and I beforehand by a nurse and then by the anesthesiologist so we didn’t have any questions.
Q. Can you explain a little bit about why you needed to have a c-section? How long did the procedure take and were there follow-up appointments?
A. I had a low platelet count (gestational thrombocytopenia), which meant I could bleed to death when giving birth, and in the last week of my pregnancy it was getting lower each day.
Two days after my due date, the clinic I had been going to sent me to a major hospital that specializes in high-risk pregnancies as they didn’t have the resources to handle my case. The doctors tried to induce labor but my daughter had no plans to come out so the safest and quickest option was for me to have a C-section.
I was taken to the operating room at 3:00 PM and my daughter was born 3:17 PM. I was taken back to my room sometime before 4:00 PM. I had three follow-up appointments afterwards, one to check the incision scar (2 weeks postpartum), the next to check how the incision healed (6 weeks) and then the last to check if there were any problems with the blood transfusion (3 months).
For those who are interested, you can read more about my birth story.
Q. What are your thoughts on the nursery system at the hospital after the baby was born? What were the pros and cons to having the nurses look after the baby throughout the week?
A. It was great because it really helped me to recover. I felt guilty about leaving the baby with the nurses a lot though, and I had trouble getting her to latch during breastfeeding, so I pushed myself to keep her in the room with me as much as possible.
Sometimes it was annoying because I was never supposed to leave the baby unsupervised, which meant calling a nurse to watch her when I had to go to the washroom. I think keeping the baby with you is important for bonding and helps you feel more confident when you leave the hospital, but at the same time letting nurses look after the baby allows you to heal and get much-needed rest.
Q. How often does your baby sleep in a crib? Do you feel it’s worth the cost and amount of space it takes up? (I ask because we got one and our baby REFUSES to sleep in it!)
A. My daughter has been sleeping in the crib every night since we brought her home, so it’s definitely worth it for us. She won’t nap in it though and takes naps during the day while being held by either me or my husband, although she surprised us the other day by falling asleep on the couch during a diaper change!
Q. How do you handle baby baths? Do you use the sink, bathtub, or baby tub? How about in winter when homes tend to get really cold in Japan?
A. We bathed the baby in an inflatable baby tub in the kitchen for around two months. She hated it and screamed her head off. After that, I followed the suggestion of a nurse and began to wash her in my lap in the shower while sitting on a shower chair. She loves it. She’ll be fussy and crying but the moment she’s in the shower she’ll stop. I think the sound of the shower is soothing for her.
My husband and I work as a team so he hands me the baby, I clean her and then hand her back to him and he dries her off while I take a shower. Sometimes I bathe her in the tub with me but not too often because I’m scared of slipping while holding her.
In the winter we’re planning on putting a space heater in the washroom (shower room?). I also turn on the shower a few minutes ahead of time so it’s nice and warm.
Q. You mentioned using a ninshin ryokou service for a babymoon in Japan. How far in advance should someone book through one of these services, and is there a particular one you could recommend?
A. I would say book something at least a month in advance but the sooner the better. If you use travel websites like Jalan, you can get discounts for booking a month or more in advance so a lot of nice ryokan and hotel packages tend to sell out because of this.
Also, hotels or ryokan that don’t offer “pregnancy packages” online can surprise you with something special if you let them know about your pregnancy. The ryokan I stayed at didn’t actually offer any ninshin ryokou package.
My husband called them in advance and asked whether they could change the food for me and when I arrived, the fridge was stocked with non-alcoholic drinks and they gave me an adorable little flag that read, loosely translated, “We hope you have a healthy baby.” Of course, with a ninshin ryokou package you get a bit more, like a rental pregnancy pillow and baby clothes as a gift.
Q. You also talked about a nursery teacher who told your friend’s daughter that she could only be a teacher or nurse in the future. Are you concerned about sexism your daughter may experience while growing up in Japan?
A. Gender roles in Japan have started changing but it’s an uphill battle, one that’s not unique to Japan but considerably more ingrained given its much longer history. Movements like #KuToo give me hope that things will be better for my daughter once she’s in the workforce but my husband believes she should be educated in Canada.
Sometimes I do agree with him, especially when I see how sexual assault is not taken seriously enough here and young girls are sexualized in various media forms, but I think no matter which country she grows up in, she’s going to experience barriers, not only because of her gender but also due to her being half Japanese and half Indo-Canadian.
As her parent, I can only support her and empower her in everything she does and raise her to understand that she is equal to everyone else and can do anything she puts her mind to.
Q. Did your husband take paternity leave? Some men feel pressured to continue working. Was this the case for him?
A. I’m quite lucky as my husband works for a large European company and was able to work from home during the last month of my pregnancy. He then took six weeks of paternity leave starting from a week before my due date. There were no issues whatsoever, especially as he let his company know early on that he would be taking paternity leave.
Q. What was the response like from both of your families throughout the pregnancy and childbirth?
A. Both sides wanted us to have a child pretty much right after we got married, so they were thrilled when it finally happened. My family members were sad we weren’t in Canada and they had some concerns about me being pregnant in Japan (especially after hearing my stories about public transportation). My husband’s family also lives quite far away in Hiroshima so both sides lamented not being able to help out more or be there when the baby was born.
Q. What’s the best part about being a mom in Japan? Do you wish you had given birth in another country?
A. I don’t feel too pressured to go out and socialize with other moms, haha. Jokes aside, I really like being able to learn about and take part in Japanese traditions related to pregnancy and child-rearing. Sometimes I wish I had given birth in Canada so my family could have been there and seen the baby but overall, my experience having a baby in Japan was very positive.