Like many foreign women living in Japan, when I became pregnant I was faced with the decision of where to have my baby. Did I want to return to my home country, Canada, or have the baby in Japan? The decision was based not only on nationality (Canada allows dual citizenship, whereas in Japan the individual must decide whether they want to be Canadian or Japanese when they reach twenty years of age) but also on the cultural differences regarding pregnancy and delivery. My personal decision was easy to make, as I did not want to be separated from my husband, who is Japanese. I wanted to have the baby with him.
Living in Hamada the choices are further limited, but I insisted on having a doctor who was not only female but who could also speak English. I found two obstetricians who fulfilled these requirements, but they both worked at Seikyo Hospital in Matsue, a three-hour journey from Hamada. Despite the long journey and the horror stories from the well-meaning Hamada residents — a woman who had to have her baby in a car en route to the hospital and a sister who delivered in an hour — I had made up my mind: I was going to have my baby in Matsue.
Having been brought up in the late 60s, early 70s, I was part of the ‘free generation’ and wanted a natural pregnancy and delivery. I soon found out that this dream would be impossible to realize because I was Rh- blood type — a condition in which a child inherits a blood type from the father that is incompatible with the mother’s blood type. The antibodies in the blood can sometimes attack the baby’s blood and must be closely monitored. (In Canada 15% of the population is Rh-, but in Japan only 1 in 300 is Rh-.) Another factor was my age; at 37 I was deemed to have a higher risk of complications than younger women and this also meant that I should be kept under observation.
The months passed and I truly began to see the differences between Japanese culture and my own Canadian culture. I had traveled and lived in many countries but in times of stress, and pregnancy is stressful (although a joyous type of stress), we all revert back to what we are familiar with as a child, what we grew up with. I found myself being very rigid in my views. Dualism crept in; the differences were extreme.
To learn more about the mystery of childbirth I relied on self-education and ordered two American books, The Well Pregnancy Book and What to Expect When You’re Expecting. I thought I was prepared for pregnancy but as time passed that illusion faded. The advice given by the books was the exact opposite of that which I received from my doctors. My doctors said I was eating for one, my books said I was eating for two. My doctors said no vitamin supplements, the books said to take my vitamin supplements every day. My doctors said natural childbirth, the books said don’t be a martyr, take medicine if you need it, and listed all the kinds. My childbirth delivery classes in Hamada and Matsue both taught breathing exercises only for natural birth; the books said be prepared for a caesarean section and spent chapters in explanation. The differences were endless. I started to get major anxiety attacks, something I had not experienced since I was living in New York.
When in Rome, do as the Romans. I closed my pregnancy books and opened my Zen training text and put my faith in my doctor and the kamisama (gods). I went to my local shrine, Izumo Taisha Bunshi, and made certain that the baby’s name would bring it good fortune. The number of strokes in each character is carefully calculated so that they add up to a lucky number. If the number of strokes equals an unlucky number then it is best not to use those particular characters. In my case the baby’s name is ‘Sasha’, short for the Russian Alexander (helper of mankind). The priest at the shrine chose the kanji meaning ‘thin silk’ and ‘forgive’. With this stroke tally my baby will grow up to become talented, wise and brave. Many foreigners may laugh at me but based on my life experience I believe this. Laugh if you want to but I can say that I heard the sound of pure water and like a frog I jumped into the ocean and swam to Japan.
Back to the delivery room…my water broke in Hamada at 3:00 pm. I called my husband, who works in Kanagi. He rushed home, I jumped in the car and we drove to Matsue. On the way, sitting on a stack of towels and timing contractions with the car clock, I wondered what I was doing. I saw the road to Matsue so beautiful and while driving along the coast of the Japan Sea I felt as if the sea were holding my hand, telling me to be brave. The setting sun was colouring the sky purple, red and gold. Who could have a worried thought amidst such beauty?
In the hospital the story changed. The contractions came faster and harder. No pain medicine. My doctor introduced me to the midwife, the woman who would stay with me for the next ten hours rubbing my back, massaging my legs, coaching my breathing. It was a Godsend having her beside me. But as the contractions increased, my pain threshold broke. I was screaming for help, screaming for painkillers. All of my yoga training, zazen lessons at Eiheiji Temple, taikyokuken [Editor: otherwise known as T'ai-chi Ch'uan] lessons — all of it went out the window. I was my old weak self — truly a scared Canadian rabbit. I wanted to go home, I wanted to be my old unpregnant self, but most of all I wanted the contractions to stop.
My doctor arrived even though it was her day off. When I saw her I burst into tears. I still don’t know why — relief, or maybe only seeing her kind face, sympathy in her eyes. She suggested a caesarean. I put my finger on the red ink pad and gave my fingerprint to consent to the operation. I could no longer hold a pen. I was doubled up with pain, held in my husband’s arms, my only lung exercises were screaming.
I was whisked away on a hospital trolley. I was out of ‘natural’ Japan, and suddenly eight people, an anaesthetist, nurses and both my doctors were surrounding me, preparing me for a caesarean. I was in modern, hi-tech Japan and it was wonderful. An hour later I was lying in a private hospital room, my husband beside me still holding my hand, and my baby, healthy and strong, waiting for me in the nursery. I was filled with happiness.
As the next few days passed, my baby and I were given such tender gentle care by the many nurses. It was like being surrounded by colourful butterflies. They flew in and out bringing me anything I wanted or needed. There was no formal hospital feeling. Rather I felt like I was in someone’s home — a guest. I was given a celebration dinner in my room: red bean mochi rice with a whole sea bream fish, an orange origami bird and a note of congratulation.
Now too, I am in my hospital room three days post partum. My baby sleeps beside me, and my green tea and Zen book are at the side of the bed. Incense burns, filling the air with a sacred scent. There is a small cot beside my bed for my husband, who will arrive at 10 pm and leave again at four in the morning for his work in Kanagi. I am in Japan with my new family. It is my new home.
Thank you to Seikyo Hospital and Doctors Kohno-san and Toda-san.
Editor's note: I was handed this captivating story by one of the author's chosen obstetricians, Dr. Yoshie Kohno, whom I had the honor of tutoring in English for ten years between 1993 and 2003. The article was originally published in a local government periodical for foreign residents of Shimane Prefecture and I thank them for making it available.