I’ve been blessed to be able to share the diverse experiences of women from around the world who have given birth in Japan, and this newest interview, the first from a new mother in Kyoto, is no exception.
Lisa is half-Irish and half-British but never felt like she belonged in Ireland or England. So, five years ago, she made the move from London in the United Kingdom all the way to Japan to work and study Japanese. A year after her move, Lisa felt like her Japanese was worse than when she had first arrived, so the next year she signed up for a language school in Kyoto. Soon after she met her now-husband and they welcomed their first child, a son, at the beginning of 2021.
Lisa and I began chatting on Instagram a few months ago and when I heard her birth story, I knew that it was something that I wanted to share. It reminded me of why it’s important to know that pregnancy and birth in Japan (and any other country, for that matter) is not a “one-experience-fits-all” situation. No matter how many people you ask, “What’s it like being pregnant and having a baby in Japan?”, the answer will always be different.
I hope you enjoy reading this interview as much as I did.
Thank you again for contributing, Lisa!
Pregnancy in Japan
How did you find out you were pregnant? Do you remember which pregnancy test you used and how many times? What did you do afterward?
One day I started feeling really tired and fell asleep after lunch. I hadn’t taken a nap during the day since I was a child, so I excitedly realised that I was probably pregnant. I went out to buy a pregnancy test that night. It was the do test/ドゥーテスト・ｈＣＧ 1本 ウェルパーク.
What, if anything, worried you the most about the prospect of giving birth in Japan? Were there any major differences between your home country and Japan in terms of pregnancy and childbirth?
I wasn’t concerned about giving birth in Japan. I was surprised at how many times the doctors and nurses asked me when I would return home though. I’m not entirely sure of the procedures in the UK, but from what I heard, mothers stay in the hospital for 1 day. Whereas in Japan I had to stay for 6 days. I think this is wonderful as I could learn a lot from the nurses, and I had more time to recover. The other main difference was the weight gain. I’m 50kg, and gained 9kg during my pregnancy which was regarded as a lot. They closely monitored my weight and told me to exercise more. I felt quite stressed about this as I believed my weight gain was perfectly normal compared to the standards in the UK. I was pressured to lose the 9kg soon after too.
How did you feel knowing that you would have to give birth during a pandemic? What concerned you the most?
I was worried that my husband wouldn’t be allowed with me during the birth.
What clinic/hospital did you go to and why did you choose it? How was your overall experience with that particular clinic/hospital?
I chose Matsumoto Clinic in Kyoto. I wanted to go to a hospital I knew, but due to the pandemic, I decided to go to a small maternity clinic for safety reasons. What I loved is that from the start they treated me like any other patient, but explained any medical word that I didn’t know in simple Japanese. The staff were incredibly friendly and kind. I was very happy with my choice.
Did you have a birth plan? If so, could you share a bit about it?
I didn’t really have a birth plan. I just wanted everything natural and my husband to be with me.
Did you take any prenatal vitamins? If so, which ones?
I took Dear nature and DHC at first, but soon switched to an overseas one and was given strong iron supplements from my clinic to treat my anaemia.
Did you continue to work throughout your pregnancy? How did your coworkers take the news of your pregnancy? If you continued to work, were you able to get childcare leave in addition to maternity leave? Were there any challenges when working while pregnant?
I continued to work throughout my pregnancy but unfortunately I was not working for a good company. After informing them of my pregnancy, I was told that the company doesn’t offer maternity leave. They then slowly increased my workload until I was forced to quit earlier than planned.
How was your experience with taking public transportation? Do you have any tips?
I wore the Maternity badge which I believed really helped. I was often brought to tears with how kind people were. Once an old man was waiting by me at the bus stop. His bus arrived first, but before getting on, he asked me if I was ok to wait alone for my bus. Just little acts of kindness like this made my pregnancy magical.
What additional precautions did you take when it came to being pregnant during a pandemic?
I followed the usual precautions and tried to avoid crowds and public transport as much as possible.
What was the most challenging or frustrating thing about being pregnant in Japan? What did you find the most positive?
The most challenging was the マタハラ/maternity harassment at work.
The most positive was the kindness of strangers.
How did you decide what to buy initially for the baby in terms of everyday necessities (such as diapers, wipes, formula, soap, etc)? Did you get any free baby goods/samples from sites, stores, or events?
I read many articles, watched many YouTube videos, asked my friends, and read all of your articles which really helped me.
I received the free sample box from Amazon that you recommended (thank you!). I think it’s quite popular as I had to wait for a month or two before it was in stock again.
Where did you go for maternity clothing?
I bought most of my clothes from Uniqlo, including work clothes, which were incredibly comfortable.
Where did you go to find information about pregnancy? Did you do anything to prepare for the birth, such as attend any birth-preparation or parenting classes? If so, was it helpful?
Unfortunately everything was cancelled due to the pandemic, so I watched many YouTube videos and read articles online. I also bought some pregnancy books from BookOff and Maruzen.
Did your clinic give you any health advice about being pregnant during a pandemic and the conditions under which you would give birth?
They informed me that I would not be allowed any visitors after the birth, and that my husband might not be allowed with me while giving birth either.
Giving Birth in Japan
When did you realize the baby was coming and what did you do? How did you feel? Was your baby early, on time, or overdue?
I was 38 weeks pregnant when I went into labor.
The morning I had contractions, I went out to buy Valentine’s doughnuts for my husband, I think that walk really helped me. It got my mind off things and maybe the exercise helped speed up dilation. We went to the hospital later that day, but I was only 4cm dilated. The nurse told me to go home if I wanted as I may only give birth the next day. I said no way am I gonna survive that long, he will be out by 10pm. She laughed and said ok I’ll book you in for the night, but an hour later I became almost 10cm dilated and my body was ready! But my baby was not… His head wasn’t quite in the right position so it took a few more hours. I think walking or rocking on an exercise ball helps the baby move into the right position. I could barely open my eyes so trying to do anything else seemed impossible. The nurse monitored my baby to check that he wasn’t in distress. All was good so we decided to wait until he moved with the contractions. When he fell asleep halfway, I asked my husband to play his favourite song (we always played it during the pregnancy as he seemed to like it) and when the song started playing, my baby immediately woke up and slowly moved down and I gave birth shortly after!
Were you tested for COVID-19 before delivery?
I wasn’t but the ward office offered a free testing if I wanted to check.
One concern mothers-to-be giving birth during a pandemic is whether their partners will be allowed in the delivery room (or even the hospital/clinic they give birth at). Was your partner allowed in the delivery room with you?
Luckily my husband was allowed with me during my birth. I was extremely thankful for this as I couldn’t imagine doing it alone.
What was your experience giving birth during a pandemic? Did the medical staff wear protective gear? Did you have to wear a mask? Did you feel safe?
The staff always wore masks and sometimes wore gloves. I didn’t have to wear a face mask if I didn’t want to. I felt very safe as the clinic followed all the safety precautions
Did you have any pain relief? What was your experience with/without it? How many hours were you in labor for?
I didn’t get pain relief as I wanted to keep things as natural as possible. It was painful and tiring but I didn’t regret my decision. I was given a kind of numbing cream for my episiotomy though. It wasn’t what I wanted but apparently my son’s head was quite big and I was becoming exhausted and dehydrated.
Could you briefly describe the moment your child was born?
It was magical holding him in my arms for the first time.
How was your hospital stay and recovery? Were you allowed to have any visitors?
I stayed for about 6 days. The food was delicious, I learned a lot from the nurses, and I had time to rest and recover. No visitors were allowed but I was having difficulty breastfeeding and became very sick. I needed to be on a drip for an hour 3 times a day. I felt like I was losing precious time with my newborn, I felt very lonely and couldn’t understand why I couldn’t do something as natural as breastfeeding, why my body was so weak. I embarrassingly burst into tears and couldn’t stop crying. The nurse immediately called my husband to come visit me. She also went out to buy a dessert and Twinnings earl grey tea (my favourite!) and brought it to me on a beautiful tray with an elegant cup and saucer. Of course I cried all over again from her amazing kindness to me.
How did you bring your child home from the hospital or clinic?
We called a taxi to take us home.
When looking back at things you were worried about when it came to giving birth during a pandemic, how would you describe your birth experience overall? Was it what you imagined it to be?
It was a good experience despite the pandemic.
How would you describe your overall birth experience in Japan?
It was a great experience overall.
What advice would you give to women who have to give birth during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Check if your hospital will allow your husband to be with you during the birth if it’s what you want. I think some hospitals are stricter than others.
Child-rearing in Japan
How did you feel those first couple of days home from the hospital with a newborn?
I felt exhausted and I was still very sick.
Given the pandemic, did you have any help from anyone other than your partner after the baby was born? What has it been like so far having a newborn during a pandemic?
My husband’s parents live far away so it was just us two. Due to the pandemic I felt quite lonely as I couldn’t see many friends, and many activities like mama and baby yoga were cancelled. So I feel like I missed out on a lot.
Where does your newborn sleep? Do you swaddle them, use a sleepsack, or put a blanket over them?
I was prepared to swaddle our baby as that’s what is recommended overseas. I was quite surprised to see my baby covered just with a blanket at the hospital as I read a blanket was unsafe. However my son absolutely hated being swaddled. He preferred the freedom to move so I just used the futon set we bought for his cot. He sleeps in the same room as us but always in the cot. Once it became warmer and he started moving more, we removed the blanket.
What is one product you found to be especially useful for a new mom?
The exercise ball that I bought for my pregnancy. I often sat on it to soothe my newborn. We still use it every day so for me it was the best buy.
What are your experiences with making local mom friends?
As all the activities were cancelled and places closed until recently, I could not make any new mom friends yet.
Do you find Kyoto to be baby or child-friendly? What are your experiences with going out alone with your child?
I find it very child-friendly. The ward office nurse said to me once, Kyoto is raising your child with you, you are never alone. I really believe this as people will help wherever they can.
What languages do you and your partner speak with your child? Do you have any concerns or plans when it comes to raising him in a bilingual or multilingual household?
My husband speaks Japanese and I speak English. I don’t have any concerns or plans. I think it will be beneficial to him if he is bilingual.
Do you find anything daunting and/or challenging when it comes to raising a child in Japan?
I’m finding that my Japanese is not good enough yet. I’m learning medical terms and child-raising words along the way so reading all the paperwork and words in kanji that I’ve never seen or heard of before can be quite challenging at times.
What is something specific to Japan that you’re most looking forward to doing with your child?
I’m looking forward to experiencing all the customs and traditions with my son.