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Gender and Family in Traditional Japan: Issue of Childbirth in Modern Era

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How and why the childbirth in Heian and Tokugawa period were so different than today’s childbirth?

In the words of Marco Gottardo, “Pregnancy and childbirth in early-modern Japan within a religious framework, as they were charged with religious meaning at the popular level”[footnoteRef:1] represents one of the best angles to analyze this phenomenon. By this quote, we can understand that women’s role in medieval Japan had several faces. Their positions were linked to religious assessments-Buddhism and Shinto, but other social spheres could interact. [1: GOTTARDO Marco, Pregnancy and infanticide in early-modern Japan: the role of the midwife as a medium, Bulletin of Tamagawa University Faculty of Letters, n°54, 2013, 214.]

The key ideas must first of all be defined. The context of the analysis goes through the medieval and classical periods mainly the Heian and Tokugawa periods, until the modern era which begins with the Meiji Period. The Heian Period (794-1185) corresponds to the formation of an independent Japanese State around the Emperor. One of its principal characteristics was its autonomy from the Asian continent by hybridization of norms. By a lack of record, we will show for this period the elite practice of childbirth, near the imperial power, thanks to aristocratic diaries. This social group had peculiar practices different from the countryside. The Tokugawa Period (1600-1868) was based on a shogunate and a strict separation between social classes. Hence, we some middle-class records, we could know some commons practice about childbirth that we will explain. In the end, the Meiji era corresponds to the return of the Emperor of the throne, which rises reforms in all areas at the end of the 19th century and had still consequences today.

Moreover, the pregnancy is the period when a woman carries a child for nine months and childbirth represents the moment of the delivery of the baby. These reflections fall in the context of the course “Gender and Family in Premodern Japan”. The term gender deals with how society and individuals define masculinity or femininity thanks to cultural traits, and not by biological ones (sex). About the word family, it represents the social connection between people who had blood and biological links.

We can see that the social and economic contexts were totally different through the centuries. Putting the light on one of the key moments of the life-childbirth by finding some anthropological aspects in premodern Japanese society could be another manner to watch the evolution of Japanese society. Consequently, this paper will focus on the meanings of childbirth and pregnancy in Heian and Tokugawa periods and of its posterity in modern times.

The main questions addressed in this paper are- How and why the childbirth in Heian and Tokugawa period were so different than today’s childbirth? Why we don’t have lots of records about it even if it represents the beginning of individual life? What were the rites and myths concerning Mother’s health? How can we define the role of midwives through the centuries? Could we see some Heian and Tokugawa heritage in today's practice? How can we explain the radical change about childbirth in societies awareness?

This essay has been divided into three parts, the first part deals with the explanation of childbirth and pregnancy in Early Modern Japan, from different points of view. The second part will put the light on modern childbirth practice and links which remain between past and present. To end, the last part will explain why I have chosen this topic.

In the first part, I will put the light on the meaning of childbirth and pregnancy in terms of Buddhism and describe the specificities in the Medieval-Classic Era. During Premodern Japan, the influence of Buddhism and its principles conducted human life. One of the best things that Buddhism promoted were “the impermanence of human existence that passed through the nature of transmigration”[footnoteRef:2], a passage from one state to other thanks to rebirth. Hence, childbirth constitutes a key moment for the realization of Buddhist ethics, but which appears to be contradictory. Thus, “it allows one to advance through the karmic cycle, but it is also negative, as it is seen as the origin of suffering”[footnoteRef:3]. It is in this permanent tension that we can understand the signification of pregnancy and childbirth. [2: ANDREEVA Anna, Childbirth in aristocratic households of Heian Japan, Dynamis, 34 (2), 2014, 358.] [3: LAFLEUR, William R. Liquid Life, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1992, 115.]

Moreover, Buddhism sees women inferior to men, be on earth just to distract the attention of men, and couldn’t access karma without rebirth in men. Thanks to the analysis of A. Andreeva of the Kitano Tenjin emaki (“The Picture Scroll of the Kitano Shrine Deity”) and Gaki zôshi (“The Scroll of Hungry Ghosts”)[footnoteRef:4], published in the 12th century, we can have some information about Heian childbirth and how it works? Above all, the title of the books revealed myths/deities’ presences, as a shadow lingers on. The act of delivery is a carrier of dirtiness, accompanied by Mother Evil. Bad spirits were described as an “emaciated hungry ghost, with its red hair standing on end, a distended stomach and a large tongue protruding from its open mouth, extending its bone-thin fingers and arms towards the infant and the pool of blood into which the baby has just descended”[footnoteRef:5]. This is a good illustration of the society’s fear about this phenomenon, lead women to exclusion by the rejection of kegare. This expression refers to the pollution that childbirth concentrated: “those of birth, of death, and of blood”[footnoteRef:6]. [4: ANDREEVA Anna, Ibid, 358.] [5: ANDREEVA Anna, Ibid, 359.] [6: GOTTARDO Marco, Ibid, 213. ]

In Heian period concerning the noble Court, childbirth took place in a separate room in the palace, which needs to be located “in the northernmost quarter of the mansion”[footnoteRef:7], in a matter to respect deities' volunteer and avoid all taboos. It was necessary that all things were white from the room decoration to women’s clothes. Rites happened through the use of incense, and oils. Nonetheless, the atmosphere was absolutely neither quiet nor silent and much more stressed and tenser. Furthermore, in the noble court, we could observe the presence of religious figures to sing sutras for the successful completion of the childbirth and to ward off the bad spirit. We can mention Miko, a women medium which had to catch evil ghosts. She was a “ritual receptacle” and “monks chanting the scriptures, usually the Lotus Sutra or The Five Great Wisdom Kings”, as A. Andreeva pointed out[footnoteRef:8]. These people did their work in a closer place to the delivery room because this one was reserved for women’s cohort. Again, there was the “strict absence of men”[footnoteRef:9], inside the room, as a phenomenon of “female pollution/male antidote”[footnoteRef:10]. On top of that, childbirth in aristocratic and royal sphere had a political dimension for the country, as protecting the state and the nation[footnoteRef:11]. [7: ANDREEVA Anna, Ibid, 362.] [8: ANDREEVA Anna, Ibid, 360-362-364.] [9: HARDACRE, Helen, Marketing the Menacing Fetus in Japan, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1997, 24.] [10: GOTTARDO Marco, Ibid, 217.] [11: ANDREEVA Anna, Ibid, 365.]

Accordingly, all was done to separate women from the community and especially from men. In the countryside, we can also find the procedure of isolation of pregnant by ubuya[footnoteRef:12]. The term ubuya refers to a little hut built outside the house, where pregnant were confined when childbirth arrived or at menstruation time. Moreover, Hitomi Tonomura analyzes this place as a “desire for privacy in the hours of contraction and pain” [footnoteRef:13] for women, nuanced the simple view of pollution. [12: TONOMURA Hitomi, Birth-giving and Avoidance Taboo: Women’s Body versus the Historiography of Ubuya, Japan Review, 19, 2007, 3.] [13: TONOMURA Hitomi, Ibid, 10.]

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Nonetheless, the withdrawal of the society was codified by norms and laws, as the Engishiki, 10th-century collection pointed out[footnoteRef:14]. A woman had to be recluse from the month of delivery to seven days after childbirth, sometimes even leading to thirty days. [14: GOTTARDO Marco, Ibid, 215.]

To avoid bad omen, rituals were the norm in a matter to protect and salve women and babies. These practices were mainly given by the midwives (toriagebaasan)[footnoteRef:15], which represent a shamanic and intercessor figure during pregnancy and delivery. Doing habits was a manner to drive away death, an end which was part of childbirth. As Hisako Kamata pointed out “the midwife was no less than a psychopomp, a conductor of souls, and master of their transition from the liminal state within the womb to a full-fledged member of the human community”[footnoteRef:16]. [15: HARDACRE Helen, The Role of the Japanese State in Ritual and Ritualization, 1868-1945, Bulletin de l'Ecole française d'Extrême-Orient, volume 84, 1997, 139.] [16: KAMATA Hisako, 'Sanba-sono fujoteki seikaku ni tsuite' Seijo bungei 42, 1966, 47-60, in HARDACRE Helen, The Role of the Japanese State in Ritual and Ritualization, 1868-1945, Bulletin de l'Ecole française d'Extrême-Orient, volume 84, 1997, 131.]

For instance, we can mention the use of Iwata obi, a little fabric strip that the midwife will put near the pregnant‘s tummy[footnoteRef:17]. This action will be accompanied by a party to integrate the community to the event and officialize woman's status, becoming “a source of social power”[footnoteRef:18]. Hence, be pregnant “constituted a rite of passage into the community of fully adult women”[footnoteRef:19]. It represents also the outset of social restrictions like going to shrines or food taboos. Consequently, we can observe that “pollution beliefs can provide grounds for solidarity among women” [footnoteRef:20] in the words of Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo. [17: HARDACRE Helen, Ibid, 131.] [18: GERHART Karen M, Women, Rites, and Ritual Objects in Premodern Japan, Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, the Netherlands, 2018.] [19: MATSUOKA Etsuko, Shussan no bunka jinruigaku, Tokyo, Kaimeisha 1985, 23. ] [20: ROSALDO ZIMBALIST Michelle, “Woman, Culture and Society: A Theoretical Overview”, Woman Culture and Society, eds. Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo and Louise Lamphere, Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1974, 38-39.]

Despite the huge place of religion, medical practice and physicians began to help the imperial court, by small steps. The publication of the Ishinpô (Essentials of Medicine), at the end of the 10th century, constituted the first Japanese medical book. And we can find inside a whole part dedicated to pregnancy and childbirth. We can find pictures about the development of the pregnancy and the acupuncture points. The physicians (Jp Kukushi) tried to imply medicine and trained to educate women physicians (nyoi) in obstetrics and gynecological fields[footnoteRef:21]. Hence, midwives had a key role in Japanese society, even if they were marginal. At the same time, they had an intellectual knowledge, practice competencies, and controlled kegare. They really “assumes the novel religious and social function of medium or mediating figure”[footnoteRef:22]. [21: ANDREEVA Anna, Ibid, 371.] [22: GOTTARDO Marco, Ibid, 214. ]

In the second part, we will emphasize the mutation of childbirth in modern era, from the notion of pollution to hygiene.

The first change marks could be seen at the end of the Tokugawa Period thanks to the diary of Watanabe Katsunosuke (1802–1864)[footnoteRef:23]. Moreover, with the intensification of the urbanization in the 19th century, pregnant mothers were in labor in their house, with their family. But why leads to this shift? [23: TONOMURA Hitomi, Ibid, 25.]

The framework and the social norms had changed, by a complexification of relations and the advent of scientism as a power rule. With the Meiji Restoration in 1868 and its volunteer to modernize the State, hospitals and clinics were promoted. Rely on science and medicine were more rational and could secure the issue of birth. However, births became a political tool for the new regime because it found a population, thus the nation. Incited families to give birth at the hospital had been a manner to control and registered the growth of the population through public hospitals which were created. The aim changed by the stranglehold of the Empire on birth control. This new organization allows the Tennō to “claim property of the life and health of each newborn as Japanese subjects”[footnoteRef:24]. Having children became a duty for families, who want to be great citizens. Widen the population “increased the number of potential workers and soldiers”[footnoteRef:25] and allows to solidify the State in front of other powers. Furthermore, midwives became more recognized by the creation of diplomas, licenses. Knowledge became a safety sign and individual rights ethic was implemented. Midwives gave pieces of advice and done medical examines throughout the pregnancy- “they conducted prenatal physical examinations, as well as using rolls of waxed paper, white cotton cloth, and disinfectant at the birth itself”.[footnoteRef:26] [24: GOTTARDO Marco, Ibid, 232.] [25: LAFLEUR, Ibid, 108-111.] [26: HARDACRE, Helen, Ibid, 140.]

From pollution rejected by all the society, especially male family members, we moved to the research of the absolute cleanliness. The aim is to avoid all corpse intrusions by pathogens. The idea has remained the same-the fear of contamination. It is more the terms used which changed in more intellectual one but not the concept. Moreover, the place where you give childbirth was replaced by the hospital. It is no longer in the family environment but in a dedicated place, sterilized and free of pollution. Could we not see a kind of modern ubuya? Maternity wards are places dedicated solely to this act, but which are more opened to the family, especially men. Childbirth today is a moment where men and women, father and mother are together, in communion and not a strict separation.

I would like to explain the reasons which led me to choose this topic. First, we do not speak a lot of this subject during the course and I find interesting to put the light on a particular moment that each woman could live. I was curious to understand the links of religion, especially Buddhism in childbirth because this event represents a key point in the life of a person. Furthermore, the term birth could have different meanings, depending on your socialization and the norms that prevail in society at one moment. By the study and the comparison of one mechanism through periods, I realize that some ancestral concepts are still available today, by an adaptation to today’s values. At last, the role of midwives has always drawn my attention and I wanted to make a career. Besides, I did an internship in a maternity hospital and examine in detail the origins of this function in another country than France makes sense.

What conclusions can be reached from this essay? First, we can say that Childbirth and Pregnancy in Japan are a great part of the social life by the respect of traditions, rites, and customs in early modern Japan, transformed by the arrival and progress of medicine in the 19th century. By a process of isolation of women by the fear of kegare for religious matter and physicians’ precautions, we moved to an individual system regulated by the State, doctors, and professional midwives. However, we can say that the role of midwives had always played a key role, being the cornerstone through eras. Magic or fear moment, childbirth constitutes the beginning of Humanity, transcending all the societies. It is the cultural interpretation of what is birth and gender which confers specificities to communities. Hence, the social, economic, and cultural context gives sense and depth to daily life practices.

Bibliography

  1. ANDREEVA Anna, COUTO-FERREIRA Erica, TÖPFER Susanne, Childbirth and women’s healthcare in pre-modern societies: an assessment, Dynamis, 34 (2), 2014, 279-287.
  2. ANDREEVA Anna, Childbirth in aristocratic households of Heian Japan, Dynamis,
  3. 34 (2), 2014, 357-376.
  4. ANDREEVA Anna, Devising the Esoteric Rituals for Women: Fertility and the Demon Mother in the Gushi nintai sanshō Himitsu hōshū, Rites, and Ritual Objects in Premodern Japan, Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, the Netherlands, 2018, 53-89.
  5. GERHART Karen M, Women, Rites, and Ritual Objects in Premodern Japan, Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, the Netherlands, 2018.
  6. GOTTARDO Marco, Pregnancy and infanticide in early-modern Japan: the role of the midwife as a medium, Bulletin of Tamagawa University Faculty of Letters, n°54, 2013, 213-239.
  7. HARDACRE, Helen, Marketing the Menacing Fetus in Japan, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1997, 24.
  8. HARDACRE Helen, The Role of the Japanese State in Ritual and Ritualization, 1868-1945, Bulletin de l'Ecole française d'Extrême-Orient, volume 84, 1997, 129-145.
  9. LAFLEUR, William R. Liquid Life, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1992, 115.
  10. ROSALDO ZIMBALIST Michelle, “Woman, Culture and Society: A Theoretical Overview”, Woman Culture and Society, eds. Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo and Louise Lamphere, Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1974, 38-39.
  11. TONOMURA Hitomi, Birth-giving and Avoidance Taboo: Women’s Body versus the Historiography of Ubuya, Japan Review, 19, 2007, 3–45.
  12. TRIPLETT Katja, For mothers and sisters: care of the reproductive female body in the medico-ritual world of early and medieval Japan, Dynamis, 34 (2), 2014, 337-356.
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