I have largely chosen to avoid talking about my pregnancy on this blog. I have another space where I write about that, and it seems more appropriate to keep the two separate and to keep the other one somewhat private. However, as my pregnancy progresses and I have more interaction with the medical and cultural aspects of pregnancy in Japan, I am starting to think that it might be fun to share some of what I am learning. I don’t intend to start showing ultrasound photos or anything like that here, but I do think that most of our readers that are interested about our life in Japan might also be interested to hear about the huge cultural divides that we are encountering now as future parents.
The reason I named this post as I did, is because I have been noticing a lot of the ways that culture leaks into medicine and vice versa. Sometimes this leaking and blending can make it difficult for people to separate the two, almost impossible. One very concrete example of this happens in the 5th month of pregnancy, the month I am just completing now.
During the fifth month, pregnant women in Japan start wearing a hara-obi. The hara-obi is a piece of white cloth that is about 32 feet in length and about a half a foot wide. The long cloth is used to wrap the abdomen of the woman. It is often translated as a maternity belt or corset.
When I was initially offered the hara-obi, I had no idea what it was that they were trying to get me to do. Having no experience with such a thing, it was difficult for me to understand why it was used and what the benefit was. The doctor, nurse, and my translator tried their best to explain, but it remained difficult to understand.
However, yesterday, at my first new mothers class, I was given a little more insight into the reasons why women wear the hara-obi in Japan. The class was presented by the clinics nurse midwife. She is a qualified, trained individual and she offered four reasons why the hara-obi is important.
To protect the baby in the event of a fall or accident.
To support the back of the mother.
To keep the baby warm.
Now, looking over this list I find at least two reasons that are blatantly false. The hara-obi will neither protect the baby in the event of a fall or accident, nor will it keep the baby warm. Let me explain why.
In terms of protecting the baby, the hara-obi is simply a thin piece of cotton wrapped around the mothers midsection like a mummy. It is nothing more than that. Perhaps if the hara-obi was cast from steel it might protect the baby, but this extra cotton layer will do no more than wearing an undershirt. The baby is protected by the amniotic fluid. To illustrate this point, put a raw egg inside a large jar of water. Shake vigorously. You will notice the egg, much like the baby, remains whole, safe and intact even in the most violent of situations. Wrap the jar in cotton and the same will remain true. The baby is no more or less protected by this extra layer.
In terms of keeping the baby warm, again, this is simply not true. The baby is housed inside its mothers womb. The mothers body temperature remains at a fairly constant temperature of 98.6 degrees (37 celsius) regardless of choice of clothing and anything but the most extreme external temperatures. The hara-obi certainly might keep the mother warmer, it is nearly 30 feet of extra insulation after all, but it is quite unlikely that it will do anything for the temperature of the baby.
The other reasons I can grant might have some basis in fact and truth, even if I disagree about their usefulness or necessity. Certainly the baby will be smaller if the mother tightly wraps 30 feet of cotton around her midsection and restricts the ability of the uterus and baby to expand and grow. Yes, this may make the delivery easier for the mother, but I am unsure that it is a good practice for the baby.
Lastly, it may in fact provide some back support. As time goes on I may find that I need such support, but for now I am doing fine and have no back discomfort.
For these reasons, I find it absolutely unnecessary for me to wear the hara-obi. And this has been met with some resistance and crooked looks from those around me. I did a little research about the hara-obi to try to find out more about why it is used so frequently here in Japan. Many sources point to the fact that it is more of a cultural tradition than a medical tool.
Historically, women would receive the hara-obi and take it along with their mother and mother-in-law to a shinto shrine where it could be prayed upon and blessed by the monks to ensure a healthy baby and a safe delivery. Then, wanting to protect their baby, mothers would wrap their midsection in the hara-obi to surround themselves and their baby with prayers and good wishes.
Additionally, women would usually begin wearing the hara-obi on a “Dog Day.” Each month has a dog day and since dogs generally have large litters and easy deliveries it was said that beginning to wear the hara-obi on this day would bring similar luck to the mother.
Despite the fact that the roots of the hara-obi lie within the culture, it is such an ingrained tool that many have come to firmly believe that there is a medical reason to do so. The lines between cultural tradition and medical necessity have been blurred and no one seems to be entirely aware of it. Including my midwife.
Navigating this, along with the other cultural differences associated with pregnancy, childbirth and childrearing, is going to be difficult. These ideas are so ingrained, that it is difficult to see through them, to question them. Since it is only me here, dealing with a clinic staff filled with a lifetime of experience doing things the way they do, it is difficult for them to understand that it could be done any possible other way.
I know that this offers me the chance to learn, the chance to also question why we in American culture do certain things the way we do, it offers me the chance to see if maybe they do things better here sometimes. But it is difficult to do when those that I am working with seem so resistant to accepting the fact that their commonly held assumptions are based in culture and not medicine. I believe the same would be true in America if the roles were reversed.
I have tried my best to think of what exists in American or Western culture that is so deeply ingrained that we forget its basis is in culture and not medicine. Perhaps it is because I view the world through my past experiences that I am not able to see the difference, much like the Japanese are not able to see that the hara-obi is not medically necessary. But I wish that I could. The only example I can even come up with is that chicken noodle soup is good for you when you are sick. Yes, I know that there have been some medical studies that perhaps link these two. But, I believe the majority of the reason why we eat chicken soup when we are sick is because this is a tradition that has been passed down over many generations. If a Japanese person were living in America and someone expected them to eat chicken noodle soup when they had a cold, I would imagine they would think the whole thing was ridiculous and crazy. And I am sure there must be other examples out there like this one that are escaping my mind at the moment.
How about this, if you have another example, can you share it with me in the comments? I am really interested to find out what you think and to remind myself that the Japanese are not just naive and crazy, and that we Americans (or other westerners) do the same exact same things.