Daniel Robson solves Japan’s population problem, slowly…
In June, my wife and I did something that very few Japanese people are bothering to do these days: We had a baby.
Japan’s birth rate is in freefall. There are now more pets in Japan than children under 15; the nation is steadily greying, and it’s threatening to throw the whole economy off balance. Perhaps part of the reason is that having kids in Japan is unbelievably expensive. Oh sure, you’d have to worry about school fees and food bills and piano lessons and replacing vomit-stained upholstery in most countries in the world. But the actual having of a child, the bit where it is plucked shrieking from the womb – that bit is proper pricey in Japan.
There’s no NHS here, and with the exception of an emergency caesarean delivery (which counts as an operation), you can’t use your company health insurance to cover it. The government gives you around 420,000 yen (£3,400), but that only covers about two-thirds or half of it (prices vary by hospital).
The rest comes out of your wallet. Mine still hurts. The cost is probably also part of the reason why epidurals are so rare in Japan. Natural birth is the norm here – and when I say natural, I don’t mean just gas and air, which is the very least you’d get in Britain. No, natural means natural. No pain relief whatsoever. Drugs, after all, are expensive.
The Japanese believe that the process of natural labour is important as it helps form a bond between mother and baby – a bond forged in extreme agony. In fact, very few hospitals even offer an epidural at all, and the ones that do will tack an extra 100,000 yen (£800) onto your bill.
Still, excruciating though labour may be, the most painful part of creating a little life in Japan is deciding on a name – including how to spell it. The same string of syllables can be written in any number of different kanji combinations, each with their own meanings, requiring some serious pondering.
As if that weren’t enough to contend with, superstition dictates that you also count the number of strokes used to write the family name and proposed given name, tally them up and research the fortune that corresponds with the total number. If the kanji you’d been considering turns out to add up to the wrong number of strokes, damning your baby to a life of misfortune, it’s back to the drawing board.
We had the added hurdles of wanting our daughter to have a name that could be pronounced in both English and Japanese accents (there aren’t many), and wanting to give her middle names, a concept that doesn't exist in Japan. “What are middle names for?” my in-laws asked, to which I replied that you use them to sound stern when telling your child off.
Anyway, in Japan the only legal way to register middle names is to have them run on from the given name, with no spaces, so you end up with one mega-long name. Suffice to say, we didn’t bother.
Once the baby is born, you'll be given a small section of the umbilical cord in an unassuming wooden presentation box - which you can hand unopened to family members as an excellent practical joke.
After giving birth, tradition says that the mother is not allowed to even touch any water for the first few weeks (which is largely ignored these days) and that the baby should not be allowed outside for the first month or two (which my wife takes as gospel and which I cheerfully ignore).
After 31 days for a boy and 32 days for a girl, it is customary to take the child to a local Shinto shrine for omiyamairi, a rite of passage vaguely similar to a baptism.
And then at 100 days comes okuizome, or the “first meal”: A feast of fish, beans, boiled vegetables, soup, rice and, uh, a stone are presented to the baby to ensure he or she will never go hungry. The baby doesn’t actually eat any of this stuff, mind you; at 100 days old, it’s still very much a milk-only diet.
So far, having a baby around is a wondrous, magical and utterly hilarious experience. My daughter is a constant source of surprise. And so to my Japanese neighbours, I say: don’t fear the diaper. Start getting jiggy again – it’s certainly more rewarding than keeping a pet...