I have two very important things to share with you.

First, some of my writing appears in the above anthology, which is available now on Amazon and published by the very nice people at Camphor Press.

Second — and of far greater importance — after years of writing/typing under the pen/keyboard name of Muzuhashi, I can reveal for the first time on these pages that my real name is Tom Gibb.

Just to set the record straight, I am not, as far as I know, related to the Bee Gees, nor am I the Tom Gibb who works for the BBC and wrote a book about Fidel Castro (lovely fellow though I am sure he is).

Camphor contacted me out of the blue last autumn and asked if I would be interested in contributing to the anthology. They are also guiding me through the process of turning Gaijin on a Push Bike into a full-length travel book.

As some of you will remember, I posted GOAPB on Muzuhashi a few years ago and so as not to spoil the fun, have now un-posted it. The very tentative date for inflicting it on the world in its printed and Kindlified form is the summer of 2021, although the way things are currently progressing — steadily and successfully, but slowly — that deadline may prove over-optimistic.

If you do decide to buy Inaka (you are going to buy it, aren’t you? I thought so!), a glowing review on Amazon or Good Reads — or if you prefer, in a national newspaper or popular magazine — will be much appreciated.

Finally, thank you all for visiting and reading this blog over the years — particularly since I took a break from it for so long — and if anyone out there is an aspiring writer, my experience with Camphor proves that starting a blog is worth the effort. While it may feel as if you exist on the distant, unfrequented fringes of the internet, with a lot of hard work and a little luck, doing so can lead to bigger things.

A walk in the woods

Before embarking on my cycling-tour-stroke-endurance-test to Sado Island last summer, I decided to build up my stamina with a spot of hiking. On a typically sweltering August afternoon, I parked the car at a michi-no-eki (道の駅 / roadside services), took a precautionary photo of the route – as displayed on a nearby information board – and headed west along a narrow valley road. The footpath I wanted was so well hidden that I walked straight past it the first time, and having doubled back, found it to be overgrown and strewn with fallen branches. Fortunately, a local hiking group had been considerate enough to tie lengths of day-glo pink ribbon to trees along the way, so the main obstacle to my progress was the enormous number of spider’s webs, seemingly all of them at head height. To be honest, apart from swatting away at these with a makeshift walking stick, there wasn’t much to keep me distracted, and in well over an hour of yomping the only thing I found worthy of a photograph was this mushroom – quite an impressive mushroom, it has to be said, but a mushroom nonetheless.

I passed the highest point on the trail – the 275-metre peak of Mount Shirazawa-fuji – almost without realising, and soon arrived at the Shirayama Jinja (白山神社 / White Mountain Shrine), which was as shrouded in foliage as everything else in the vicinity.

While its surrounding stone walls – well, they were more like battlements – had tumbled over in the earthquake, the shrine itself was perfectly intact: originally erected in 1515, Shirayama was burned down in a forest fire in 1862 before being rebuilt in 1880, and there appeared to be at least 132 years’ worth of dust on the floors and furniture inside.

The front steps were the first place I had found that offered enough space to sit down, so I dug out the carton of tea and peanuts choco I had brought with me and took a break. And that would have been it, had I not discovered another, much smaller shrine a few hundred metres further along the trail, tucked away in the mossy recesses of a rocky outcrop.

Konsei-shin (金精神) is a Shinto god of fertility, safe childbirth and happy marriage, and making an offering at a konsei-jinja (金精神社 / konsei shrine) reputedly works as a miracle cure for STDs (thank you, Wikepedia Japan). The kon of konsei means ‘gold’ or ‘shining’, and the sei means, among other things, ‘sperm’ or ‘sexual stamina’. So in the same way that the kintama are one’s ‘golden balls’,  the konsei are, so to speak, one’s ‘golden tadpoles’. Not that you need to know any of this to identify a konsei shrine, as its centrepiece is normally a large phallus – or phalli – made of wood (no laughing at the back there, please), stone or metal.

This tiny shrine had three of them, and while I hadn’t thrown any money into the collection box at Shirayama, I felt that this was too good an opportunity to miss, and tossed a hundred-yen coin into the cave-like cubby hole before saying a prayer.

At the time, Mrs M and I were just about to embark on our first attempt at IUI, and whether or not this unplanned pilgrimage helped things along, I don’t know. Still, the coincidence had a karmic feel to it, and as if to emphasise my good fortune, not long before rejoining the main road to the michi-no-eki, I was finally rewarded with a view.

As a footnote to this story, a couple of weeks later I came within a few hundred metres of a much more renowned konsei shrine, which is apparently a short walk from the Konsei Pass between Tochigi and Gunma Prefectures. While I didn’t realise this at the time, the road from the pass did take me through the Konsei Tunnel – or if you prefer, the Golden Tadpole Tunnel – an act that for its sheer Freudian symbolism must surely have done Mrs M and I some favours.

Thoughts on the occasion of Muzuhashi Junior’s first birthday

I once read an article in which the psyche of a new-born baby was likened to that of someone who is falling in love for the first time in Paris, every single day. In other words, as a baby one has to cope with almost continual sensory and emotional overload: every experience is new, every object is mysterious and every interaction with another human being is potentially revelatory, or ecstatic, or heartbreaking. As M Jr reaches her first birthday, I often wonder what she is thinking or how she feels, and because, like most people, I can’t remember any further back in my own lifetime than when I was three or four years old, whatever I come up with can amount to little more than speculation.

The kind of people who can – or who claim that they can – remember what it was like to be a baby are often prodigies; or rather, prodigies often claim that they can remember what it was like to be a baby, and I wonder if this doesn’t have something to do with language. For while the whole ‘falling in love for the first time in Paris’ thing probably settles down a little once we learn to walk and talk – which even for ordinary folk happens when we are about a year old – we do not acquire a sophisticated enough grasp of language to describe what we are doing until a good while later: quite possibly, you could argue, at around the point we begin to retain the memories that will stay with us for the rest of our lives.

If you try to describe what you are doing as you read this blog post, for example, you might say something like, ‘I am sitting at my computer, with a cup of tea on the desk and my mobile phone next to it. It’s a sunny day outside and the post has just landed on the doormat.’ Ask a four year old to describe what they are doing and you might hear something like this: ‘I’m bored. I’m playing with a cuddly toy. I’m bored again. I want to eat an ice cream. I fell over. It hurts. I’m bored again. I want to eat another ice cream,’ etc etc. Attempting to put yourself in the place of a baby, however, is a lot harder both for you and for the baby. The impressions themselves might be: ‘Bright light! Strange funny coloured object! Tastes weird! Where’s mummy? Strange funny coloured food! Yuck! Spit it out! Cry!’ and so on. The thing is, though, babies do not yet posses even such a basic vocabulary as this, so even if, for example, they know roughly what a cat is and recognise it as such when they see one, they haven’t yet learned a word to assign to it, and it is my theory that until this happens, their memory of seeing the cat, or of stroking it or hearing it purr, is perhaps less likely to attach itself to their synapses in such a way that that memory will still be there in six years’ or even six minutes’ time.

The other day at her grandparents’ house, M Jr climbed the staircase to the first floor and made her way into otoh-san’s study, where the two of us kept an eye on her as she crawled around and investigated the various objects there: a stereo, a mosquito repelling gizmo, an alarm clock, some old newspapers, an empty cassette case and so on. To you or I, an empty cassette case would be nothing more than a hunk of plastic – and an out-of-date hunk of plastic at that – but to M Jr it is a thing of wonder: it is hard, partly smooth and partly textured, half black and half transparent; it makes an impressively loud noise if you bang it against something or drop it on the floor, and if you can prise it open, it essentially becomes another object altogether with a completely different shape. Perhaps the only mundane thing about it is that it doesn’t taste of anything, although that certainly didn’t stop M Jr from coating it with drool (in the same way that dogs have a highly developed sense of smell, so a baby’s mouth is more sensitive relative to their eyes and hands, hence M Jr’s tendency to give pretty much any new object an exploratory chew, where the rest of us would instead pick it up and look at it).

As a parent, one aspires to creating a stimulating environment for one’s child, and to providing them with as many and varied experiences as possible, but it seems to me that – up to a point, at least – a baby would be sufficiently stimulated even if he or she was in a completely empty room with white walls, a white floor, a white ceiling and no furniture. Well, OK, I suppose they would at least need an old, empty cassette case to keep themselves occupied, but you get the idea. By the same token, it appears to be possible to create a child prodigy simply by bombarding them with stimuli and forcing them to work, study and practice as much as possible whatever skills you want them to be good at. A recent TV programme here in Japan followed a few such parents, one of whom has her son complete listening tests in Japanese and English simultaneously, while another plays recordings of history lectures and works of literature to her daughters at double the normal speed. Regardless of how they may be developing emotionally, these children do indeed seem to be benefitting from their parents’ zeal, and to embody the theory that so long as they are brought up in the correct environment – or rather, in a particular kind of environment – any child has the potential to excel.

I couldn’t help feeling as I watched the programme, though, that raising a prodigy requires a huge amount of effort on the part of both parent and child, and more to the point, that such effort is way beyond a lazy git like me (I’m not going to accuse her of being a lazy git in print, but Mrs M freely admitted to feeling the same way). The fact is, even bringing up a contented and comparatively problem-free daughter leaves Mrs M in particular in an almost permanent state of exhaustion. Even though I am at work for most of the day, and even though Mrs M is the one who gets out of bed in the small hours to give M Jr her bottle of milk, I too am tired most of the time. Much as I would like to play classical music to M Jr, or read to her from Wikipedia, or teach her English using flashcards, puzzles and CDs, it’s as much as I can do to look on and say, ‘Is that interesting?’ when she’s waving an old cassette case around, or ‘Do you like Michael Buble, then?’ when we’re listening to music in the car, or ‘That’s a cute doggy, isn’t it?’ when the next-door neighbour’s pet poodle walks past.

This isn’t to say that I find child rearing boring. On the contrary, this last year has been wonderful, and inspiring, and moving, and has more than lived up to my expectations of what it would be like to become a father. It is an endless joy to at least try and see the world through M Jr’s eyes, to watch her acquire new skills and express new emotions: she can now, for example, crawl, stand up, hold her own baby bottle, drink through a straw, pick up food and put it in her mouth, smile, laugh, cry, play jokes, do impersonations, wave bye-bye, shake her head, bow (she is half-Japanese, after all), open doors, press the buttons on a remote control and point it at the television, recognise herself in a mirror, recognise herself in photographs, rub her eyes when she’s tired, point, clap her hands (something that happened so spontaneously I can only assume it is a natural human instinct, not something that is taught or copied), dance, climb stairs, climb onto tables, climb out of chairs, blow raspberries, undo zips, undo velcro and turn the pages of book.

Indeed, and while M Jr has yet to utter any words that might be recognisable as such, she seems to have inherited the Muzuhashi family’s love of them (as well as her dad being a blogger who once earned his living writing lame gags for low-budget TV shows, her paternal grandmother was a librarian and her paternal grandfather an antiquarian bookseller), and when Mrs M took her to an event at the local library, one of the volunteers reading books to the children noticed that M Jr was more absorbed in what was going on than anyone else, and advised us to nurture this interest. Thanks to friend of ours whose kids have grown out of them, we have inherited a library of English language children’s books, and while M Jr is often more interested in chewing the pages or attempting to rip them out altogether, she does seem to enjoy following a story, and to be interested in books on a purely aesthetic level.

While we have yet to sit M Jr at a piano and make her read the sheet music to Beethoven’s fifth symphony, she also seems to be musically inclined, and will wiggle her hips to anything even remotely rhythmic or tuneful, inlcuding the warning bell at a level crossing and the jingle our washing machine plays when it reaches the end of its cycle. She turns all kinds of objects into wind instruments, including, so far, the plastic case for a thermometer, a tug boat bath toy she received as a Christmas present, an empty cardboard box and the plastic lid to her baby bottle: the sound she produces often resembles the voice of Darth Vader more than it does music, but she seems to enjoy the reverberative acoustics.

If anything sets M Jr apart from other babies, though, it is her sleeping habits. LIke most parents we were careful to have her sleep on her back when she was born, but it wasn’t long before she had learned to roll over from back to front and front to back again. Not only that, but she soon developed a fondness for moving about in her sleep, to the extent that every night, Mrs M now covers the entire bedroom floor with mattresses and duvets, and when I go to bed an hour or so later, or when one of us wakes up in the night, or when we get up the next morning, M Jr can be literally anywhere in the room: snuggling up against her mum, lying at my feet, leaning against the wall or halfway into a cupboard, and rather than lying on her back facing the ceiling, she is just as likely to be lying on her front with her backside in the air, on her side with her legs stretched out as if she has dreamt of being in a running race, or crammed into a corner of the room in a confusion of bed sheets and cuddly toys (speaking of which, she has already found her Linus-like security blanket, namely a fluffy toy bunny with a Union Jack bow around its neck – okah-san has already bought a second, identical bunny just in case we lose the first one).

Of course, as well as behaving differently from other babies, M Jr also looks different. Not massively different, mind you, but while most new borns resemble bug-eyed, hairy-eared little aliens regardless of their background, the older they get the more genetics come into play, and in M Jr’s case this manifests itself most obviously in a) her head and b) her hair. A typical Japanese head is flatter at the both the front and the back, where Westerners have longer noses and rounder skulls. A typical Asian baby, meanwhile, has a full head of jet-black hair, while a Western one’s is thin and wispy. Then again, most of the strangers who come up and coo over M Jr – and there are a lot, believe me – know that she’s mixed race simply by looking at her mum and dad.

Among a total of around 1500 students at the five different junior high schools where I currently teach, probably five – and certainly no more than ten – are foreign or mixed-race, a situation that was mirrored in the small country town where I was brought up. Until I went to university as a twenty-three year old, my experience of meeting people from different racial backgrounds was limited to the waiting staff at the local Indian restaurant. In the same way, when I walk down the street where I now live, I stick out like an alfalfa sandwich in an Angus Steak House, and when I walk M Jr down the street in her pram or in her Ergo Baby sling, so does she – the only difference being that people are much less likely to smile at me and tell me that I’m cute.

It will be interesting to see how M Jr copes with her celebrity status as she grows up, but for the moment we are thoroughly enjoying parenthood, and looking forward to being bombarded with requests for presents when she learns to talk and turns two this time next year.

Glad tidings

Mrs M is pregnant!

Actually she’s been pregnant since late last year, but I’ve waited until well past the antei-ki (安定期 / literally ‘stability time’ – ie. the point at which it’s OK to tell your friends, relatives and readers) before writing a blog post about it.

Surprisingly enough – and in the first of what will no doubt be numerous differences between the British and Japanese experience of child rearing – while I would describe Mrs M as beings six months pregnant, she would describe herself as being seven months. When I first found out that Japanese babies wait for ten months before entering the world, I thought that I was dealing with a fundamental biological discrepancy, but no, when it comes to measuring one’s term, the Japanese use lunar months of 28 days, as opposed to calendar months of between 28 and 31. Confusing, yes, but logical too when you consider body clocks, menstrual cycles and so on.

By the time our little one is born, I will have fulfilled my ambition to delay becoming a father until my fifth decade, and the first time we went to our GP for advice was more than two years ago, in early 2010.
‘You’re both fit and healthy,’ he said, ‘so there’s no need to start running tests. Think of it this way: you’ve got twelve goes between now and next spring, so I’m sure you’ll come back to me with good news before then.’
Twelve goes later nothing had happened, although the GP in question was none the wiser, as by that point we had moved to Japan. Rather than a GP, when you need medical treatment here you go straight to a specialist, so once we had settled in, we registered with the nearest sanfujinka (産婦人科 / maternity-gynaecology clinic). All four doctors at the clinic – mum, dad and their two daughters – are members of the same family, and dad – let’s call him I-sensei – was the first one we met.
‘Do you understand Japanese?’ he asked me.
‘By and large,’ I said, ‘although I’m not very good when it comes to accents and dialects. I prefer “NHK Japanese”, if you see what I mean.’
‘Did you hear that?’ said I-sensei to one of the nurses as he went through to the next room. ‘I speak standard Japanese!’

One Saturday last summer he gave a lecture at the clinic about the science-y side of conception and pregnancy, and the various treatments on offer should they be necessary. The most reassuring fact of the day was that the average man is capable of fathering a child until he is seventy-five years old (I almost punched the air and shouted ‘Get in!’ when I heard this), but according to I-sensei, while my tadpoles were both energetic and longevitous, they were emerging in comparatively small numbers – the average school, so to speak, has 50 million members, whereas mine were in the 10 million range. In order to counteract this shortfall, he suggested that we move on to The Next Stage: jinko-jusei (人工授精 / artificial insemination, which for the sake of brevity I’ll refer to as AI). This meant a lot more trips to the clinic for Mrs M, as there were injections to receive, prescriptions to pick up, and the AI process itself, which without going into too much detail, involved my tadpoles getting some assistance on their journey to meet Mrs M’s egg  – a bit like being given a lift to work rather than having to walk all the way there, if you see what I mean.

After two months of AI and still no result, I-sensei said that it might be time for The Next Next Stage, so as well as my tadpoles getting a lift to work, Mrs M underwent an additional series of injections – one a day for ten days, to be exact, and a process that was, quite literally, a pain in the backside – to enable her to produce multiple eggs simultaneously (this is standard practice with fertility treatment, and increases your chances of having twins to one in five, as opposed to the usual one in a hundred or so). He also referred me to a nearby hinyoh-ka (泌尿科 / urology clinic) for a more thorough check on my tadpoles.

This was, it has to be said, one of the less dignified episodes in my life so far, and took place on the eighth floor of a rather run-down office building (the clinic was on the verge of moving to new, purpose-built premises nearby). After taking my blood pressure, the head nurse – a middle-aged woman with a tobacco-tinged voice and a no-nonsense manner, no doubt developed over many years of dealing with sheepishly embarrassed men like me – said that she needed a sample of my shoh-sui.
‘Shoh-sui?’ I said.
‘She means pee,’ explained Mrs M (a polite euphemism, the literal translation of shoh-sui / 小水 is ‘small water’).
This required filling a paper cup to about the halfway mark, in a toilet that was directly off the reception-area-stroke-waiting-room, and which had a door that was rather tricky to lock: although it didn’t happen while we were there, countless patients must have suffered the misfortune of having someone walk in on them in mid-small water.

Once the nurse had taken some blood to be sent away for analysis, it was time for the most important sample of the three. For this I was given another paper cup, and led downstairs to a little room with a sofa, a TV and a selection of magazines and DVDs (thankfully, the door lock here was more secure and easier to operate than the one on the toilet).

In yet another room – this time with a bed and some machines that looked very much as if they might go ‘ping’ if you pressed the right button – the nurse taped two sensors to what are referred to in Japanese as one’s kintama (金玉 / golden balls). This was to make sure they were functioning at the appropriate temperature, so I lay down for a few minutes watching the figures on a digital readout waver by fractions of a degree, and then stood by the bed for a few more minutes doing the same thing. The tricky part came when the test was over, and I was left in the room to remove the sensors: particularly when it’s adhered to one’s nether regions, surgical tape isn’t ripped off in a single swift and momentarily uncomfortable motion, but rather in a series of protracted and agonisingly painful ones.

Mrs M and I were then admitted to the urologist K-sensei’s office, where he produced a garland-like string of different sized yellow plastic eggs. These are for assessing the relative dimensions of a patient’s kintama, and reminded me of the set of different sized rings Mrs M used in her previous job at a jewellery shop.

‘This may feel a little cold,’ said the nurse as she then applied some gel to my lower abdomen and kintama, in readiness for an ultrasound scan. For minimum patient discomfort, the gel had been warmed up in advance, although the unexpectedness of this was probably more disconcerting than if it had been cold in the first place.

Once the tests were over and I was finally able to put my trousers back on, K-sensei said that my tadpoles were fine – their image through a microscope was on a TV screen in the corner of the room, and apparently, if a certain number are active within a certain area of the screen, you’re in the clear. Where I-sensei was a kindly, professor-like man who wore John Lennon spectacles and used standard Japanese, K-sensei was shambling, eccentric and spoke in a kind of incoherent mumble, as if his voice were a poorly tuned radio, and had a habit of propping his trendy, rectangular specs on his forehead, from where they would promptly fall back down onto the bridge of his nose.
‘The results of your blood test will be back in three weeks,’ he said. ‘But that’s just a formality, really – there’s a condition called koh-seishi koh-tai (抗精子抗体 / anti-sperm antibodies) that we have to check for. I’m sure that if you keep trying you’ll get pregnant before long.’
‘This may sound like a strange question,’ I said, ‘but do you think I should stop riding my bicycle?’ (Along with wearing loose-fitting underwear, the standard advice in the UK is to lay off the cycling if you’re trying for kids.)
‘No effect at all,’ he said. ‘Some professionals suffer from ED, of course, but that’s only if they’re cycling for very long distances.’
‘ED? What’s that?’
‘Erectile dysfunction.’
‘Ah, I see.’

Three weeks later we went back to the urology clinic, where I donated another blood sample, another half-full paper cup of small water and another school of tadpoles.
‘Your tadpoles are fine,’ said K-sensei – they were darting around on the same TV screen in the corner of the room – ‘I’d be perfectly happy if these were mine. But…’ He let out a long sigh as his spectacles plonked back down from his forehead to his nose. ‘You can’t get pregnant naturally. The test came back positive for anti-sperm antibodies. We’ll run another one to make sure, but your only option now is taigai-jusei (体外受精 / IVF).’

While we were both practically speechless with shock, it was quite a relief to know exactly what we were dealing with. Plenty of people who have nothing to physically prevent them from having children take a lot longer than two years before they manage to conceive, but Mrs M had suspected from the start that something was amiss. As anyone who’s ever tried it will tell you, IVF involves large amounts of time, money and stress, coupled with a comparatively slim chance of success, but at least we could now entrust ourselves to medical science, rather than having to cross our fingers every month and hope the stars of fertility would somehow align in our favour.

Shoh-shi koh-reika (少子高齢化) describes the modern Japanese phenomenon of a declining birth rate and an ageing population, and because of the former, the government is desperate for its citizens to procreate. Up until a few years ago, and even if you were paying your national health insurance every month, having a baby would cost you somewhere in the region of £1000, and even more than that if you needed a caesarian, an epidural or an extra few nights in hospital to recover from the birth. Nowadays, though, most local councils will foot the bill for everything, including part or all of the cost of at least a couple of tries at IVF. So while Mrs M and I would still have to deal with the time and the stress, at least we wouldn’t have to shell out too much cash for the privilege.

A few days later – partly out of habit and partly because she had a couple left over from her last trip to the chemist – Mrs M took a pregnancy test.
‘I’m not sure if this is right,’ she said, ‘but there’s a line.’
‘It’s a bit faint, though.’
‘It must be faulty.’
‘There’s one more left in the box. I’ll try again later in the week.’

At the second attempt the line was more distinct, and when we went to see I-sensei to make absolutely sure, he confirmed the good news.
‘But K-sensei said it would be impossible for us to get pregnant without IVF,’ said Mrs M.
‘It does happen sometimes,’ said I-sensei.
‘Perhaps Caucasians are biologically different…’ mused K-sensei after giving us the result of the second blood test, which confirmed the positive result.

If you have anti-sperm antibodies – which as K-sensei explained are normally caused by trauma to the kintama, although in my case the origin was unclear – even if your tadpoles manage to swim all the way to their destination, the antibody stops them from fertilising the egg: like a kind of kamikazé tadpole, they effectively self-destruct. But – and this is the important part – the anbtibody isn’t present in the tadpole himself but in the liquid he swims in, from which he is removed in preparation for both AI and IVF. Even so, while K-sensei was (probably) wrong and I-sensei was (probably) right, Mrs M getting pregnant was still mathematically unlikely and spiritually miraculous, albeit in an athiest, secular kind of way.

(Oh, and in case you were wondering, it’s not twins.)

Preggers pt 2

Mrs M is now seven months’ pregnant (or eight if you count them the Japanese way), and we keep ourselves amused of an evening by watching Muzuhashi Junior on the move. She seems to be most active just after we’ve eaten and just after we’ve gone to bed, and like a cat in a sack, when she kicks her legs or wiggles her arms, little comedy bulges appear in Mrs M’s bump. Late last year, though, when we had only just found out the good news, M Jr was a barely discernable shadow on the ultrasound scan – like the kind of inconclusive photographs people point to as evidence of the existence of UFOs or life on Mars.
No matter how apparently healthy your baby is – a couple of weeks later, and despite being just 8mm long, M Jr’s heartbeat was both audible and visible – the chances of miscarriage are relatively high if you have conceived with the help of infertility treatment. So Mrs M quit her part-time job and spent those first few months doing as little as possible – not that she felt like doing much in any case, as she was queasy from morning sickness most of the time.

Before the pregnancy we had made pilgrimages to various kosazuké-jinja (子授け神社 / ‘child bestowing shrine’), and as well as tossing a coin in the collection box and saying a prayer, bought lucky charms called omamori (お守り) and ofuda (お札 – in case you’re thinking of buying one, an ofuda is supposed to be hung on a south-facing wall and returned to the shrine if and when your baby is born).

Once you’re pregnant it’s time to visit an anzan (安産 / safe childbirth) shrine, and to observe a somewhat obscure tradition called inu-no-hi (戌の日 / dog day). Because they can pop out a healthy litter of puppies every year, dogs have long been regarded as symbolic of safe childbirth, although as opposed to the more commonly used kanji for dog (犬) the dog of dog day (戌) is the eleventh sign of the Chinese zodiac. There is therefore a dog year every twelve years and a dog day every twelve days throughout the year, and on the first dog day of the fifth month of her pregnancy, the mother-to-be buys a length of white material called a hara-obi (腹帯 / literally ‘stomach belt’). The hara-obi is wrapped around her belly to support her bump, protect the baby and keep them both warm, although as Mrs M discovered, having your stomach bandaged up in several metres’ worth of swaddling makes it hard to breathe and practically impossible to sit down. There is a very detailed description of dog day – in Japanese only – at this website, and judging from the diagrams contained therein, Okah-san didn’t wrap Mrs M’s hara-obi in quite the correct fashion.
Shrines and temples, incidentally, make plenty of money from hara-obi, ofuda and the like, and tend to be conspicuously well appointed: above the entrance to the Izumotaisha child bestowing shrine in Kasama City is this enormous rope, which despite weighing in at a quite mind-boggling six tons is replaced every year.
After dog day we went along to the city welfare department to register the pregnancy, and to take advantage of the various financial incentives on offer to prospective parents. As if to emphasise the declining birth rate out here in the sticks, when we arrived at the reception desk the lights were off and there was no one in sight. The sound of laughter drifted over from the far end of the darkened office, along with the unmistakable aroma of McDonald’s french fries, and after calling out a few hopeful ‘Excuse me!’s, a woman eventually appeared and led us into a meeting room to complete the paperwork.

Despite managing to avoid the enormous expense of IVF, we were still entitled to most of the money back for our three courses of artificial insemination (which I have been reliably informed is referred to as IUI – intra-uterine insemination – in the UK), along with a large chunk of what we will pay for scans and antenatal care. Once M Jr is born, as well as child benefit (jidoh-téaté / 児童手当) we will get a nappy allowance every month for the first year of her life, although a cut-price car seat is one of many expenses to have been trimmed from the council budget due to the financial burden of the earthquake.

A couple of weeks later we went back for a Baby Welcome Class, which was mostly for the benefit of us dads-to-be. Using a life-size and life-weight baby doll, we were shown how to change a nappy (the midwife’s advice was to avoid lifting the baby’s bottom by grabbing hold of its ankles, as this can put unnecessary pressure on its lower back) and how to bathe the baby (for this we kept a towel draped over the baby’s body help it feel at ease). The dads were also asked to wear a pregnancy simulation suit, so that we might better understand what it is like to use a Japanese-style squat toilet, for example, or lay out a futon, when you have acquired what is effectively a 10kg beer gut. In fact, the limit on weight gain during pregnancy – strictly enforced by most doctors – is a mere 7kg (just over a stone), and when Mrs M attended a separate antenatal class at the maternity clinic, most of the time was taken up with warnings about how bad it is for an unborn baby to be subjected to a diet of fatty foods.

At the Baby Welcome Class we were also shown an old NHK educational film, in which an expectant father – replete with eighties side-parting and large-framed, Buggles-style specs – was subjected to various tests and experiments. In one rather surreal sequence, a researcher swallowed a small, waterproof microphone and the father talked to the researcher’s stomach as if it were his pregnant wife’s. The resulting recording was played back to show how clearly an unborn baby can hear what is going on in the outside world, although in this case it was merely a rather stilted ‘Hello? This is your dad. How are you?’

While babies can’t see or smell anything when they’re in the womb, their senses of hearing and taste are already developing, and a recent TV programme put forward the intriguing theory that up until they are three or four years old, about a third of children retain memories stretching back until before they were born. Of the children who were interviewed for the programme, several recalled the food their mothers craved during pregnancy, as welll as the moment of birth itself: one talked about the taste of a particular melon-flavoured ice cream bar, and another described the feeling of being popped out of his mother’s stomach when she had a Caesarean, information they (probably) wouldn’t have heard about second hand. (Apparently, such children are less likely to open up to their own parents, so the next time you meet a friend’s or relative’s toddler, try asking them what they remember and you may be surprised by the response.)

Other than the Baby Welcome Class, the only research I have done into becoming a parent is watching The Back-Up Plan on DVD, a thoroughly unremarkable film notable mainly for J-Lo’s hairstyle, which looks as if she has been in head-on collision with a steamroller and a tanker full of industrial-strength bleach. Something tells me that the time has come to start reading Mrs M’s ever growing collection of baby books and magazines…

Muzuhashi Junior

Mrs M called me at 5.30 on Monday morning to say that she was at the maternity clinic with okah-san. An ultrasound scan the previous Tuesday had shown that M Jr was swimming in a slightly smaller amount of amniotic fluid than she ought to be, and after another scan on Saturday, Mrs M was told that if it reduced any further, she may have to be induced later in the week. In the event, she woke up on Sunday morning to the oshirushi (literally ‘honourable sign’, although in English we use the rather more literal – and frankly scary – ‘bloody show’), which meant that all things being well, she would go into labour naturally within the next few days.

I took Mrs M to stay with the in-laws on Sunday evening, and we had been advised that unless your waters break, there is no need to panic until the jin-tsuu (陣痛 / contractions) are ten minutes apart. So despite hers starting at 2am the following morning, she managed to have a last-minute shower before leaving the house, and – bless her – waited until a more civilised hour before waking me up.

After stopping off at a convenience store to buy breakfast for okah-san (Mrs M had already been given her first dose of hospital food), I arrived at the clinic at 7.15, where a friend of Mrs M’s was about to check out after giving birth to her second child. She told us that while this one had taken just two hours, her first took thirty-six, so I braced myself for going at least the following night without sleep.

I also called the board of education to tell them that I wouldn’t be going in to work that day, and after being put through by what appeared to be the town hall caretaker (‘There probably won’t be anyone there,’ he said, ‘Nobody turns up until 8.30’), it took a couple of minutes before my colleague S-san realised who I was, and why on earth I was rattling on about babies and contractions.

By mid-morning Mrs M’s were about four or five minutes apart, and for the next few hours, okah-san and I took it in turns massaging her back and making a note of how much time it took before the next one. We had heard that moving around is supposed to help things progress, so I followed Mrs M up and down the corridor, pen and notebook in hand, and stopped every few minutes as she doubled up against the wall in agony (incidentally, if you happen to pass a woman in a maternity clinic corridor, the chances are she will be walking like John Wayne after a particularly long day rustling cattle).

‘Is there any way to stop the pain?’ Mrs M asked a passing nurse.
‘If you stop the pain then the baby won’t know it’s supposed to come out!’ came the reply.

The clinic we had chosen practices what is known as shizen-bunben (自然分娩 / natural childbirth), although don’t be fooled by the name, as instead of a birthing pool in a candlelit room, natural childbirth in Japan means not being able to receive any form of painkilling treatment (before we emigrated, there was an excellent fly-on-the-wall documentary on British TV called One Born Every Minute, and as well as the occasional epidural, almost all of the mums who appeared in the programme were puffing on gas and air like stoners on a bong).
‘From what I can tell,’ continued the nurse, ‘you’re on course to have the baby today. But you shouldn’t walk around too much. Get some rest in case nothing happens until halfway through the night.’

At one point Mrs M’s bump was hooked up to a heart monitor, and we listened as M Jr’s heart rate climbed to around 150 beats per minute mid-contraction, and slowed to around 130 the rest of the time. Towards the end of the test, W-sensei – who I had met on several previous occasions – turned up on his morning rounds.
‘The baby’s fine,’ he said after looking at the readout. ‘Have you mastered Japanese yet?’
‘Not quite yet, I’m afraid,’ I said.

While Mrs M was busy dealing with her contractions (she described them as feeling like really severe period pains), to be honest, I was getting thoroughly bored. When I wasn’t on massage duty, I watched the queue of newborns waiting to be bathed in a big butler’s sink, and wasted time testing exactly how sensitive the motion-sensitive lighting was in the gents’ toilet, re-coiling the cable for the emergency call button, and watching the Olympic highlights on TV (the previous night, Bolt had won the 100m, Murray had won the tennis and Uchimura had won Japan’s second gold medal in the gymnastics). Mainly to get some fresh air, at about three in the afternoon I went on a snack run to the 7-11 – you wouldn’t have known it in the clinic, where most of the blinds were drawn and the air conditioning was running, but it was the first rainy day after weeks of blazing sunshine.

While the interval between Mrs M’s contractions had finally come down from four or five minutes to more like two or three, she was still six centimetres dilated, and more out of hope than expectation, asked one of the nurses to examine her. When Mrs M stood up, I noticed bloodstains on her gown and on the bed, and after a minute or two in the examination room, the nurse re-emerged with slightly more urgency than before.
‘How dilated is she?’ asked her colleague as they jogged back to the examination room for a second look.
‘Eight centimetres. Well, maybe a bit less.’
‘Are you the father? Put this on,’ said the nurse, and held an open-backed white gown in front of me, as Mrs M was led into what looked for all the world like a store room.

Yet more nurses appeared – one of them looked so young that I could have sworn she was one of my junior high school students on work experience – and a woman I assumed to be the midwife put Mrs M’s feet in stirrups and told her to grab hold of the metal bar above her head. A drip was fitted to her right arm and another heart monitor to her bump, and when the next contraction came (by this point M Jr’s heartbeat had begun to slow down rather than speeding up during the contractions), the nurse told her to push.
‘Good, good. You’re doing really well. I can see the top of the baby’s head.’

After nine hours in which practically nothing had happened at all, everything was kicking off, and for probably the first time in my life, I found myself speechless. I wanted to give Mrs M some words of encouragement, but apart from a whimpered ‘Ganbaré!’ (‘Good luck!’), couldn’t think of anything to say in either Japanese or English, and held onto the metal bar almost as tightly as Mrs M.

‘Take off my glasses,’ she said, and one of the nurses was ordered to take them away for safe keeping. ‘No!’ said Mrs M. ‘Don’t do that! I won’t be able to see the baby!’

After ten or fifteen minutes and six or seven pushes a different woman took charge, and this time it was the real midwife.
‘It’s too narrow,’ she said. ‘I’m going to have to give you an éin-sekkai (会陰切開 / episiotomy).’ Which she promptly did, and a couple of pushes later looked at me and said, ‘Do you want to see the baby coming out?’
‘Er, sorry. I’d rather not if that’s OK.’ (I’ve never been one for blood and guts, and in any case, I probably would have keeled over altogether if I let go of the metal bar).
‘Get your hand out of the way!’ said Mrs M, whose hair I had been stroking in a vain attempt at being supportive, and with one more push, M Jr was out.

‘My word, your baby’s got a big bottom!’ said the midwife.
M Jr was as purple as a London 2012 advertising hoarding and covered in blood, and once her throat had been cleared, she let out her first, tentative cry.

Ironically enough, now that the ‘natural childbirth’ was over, it was finally OK for Mrs M to get some pain relief, and she was given a local anaesthetic before the midwife stitched her up. As we had been led to believe, this was possibly even more painful than the birth itself, so that when Mrs M held M Jr for the first time, her expression alternated between a euphoric smile and a gritted-teeth grimace.

After posing for a commemorative photo, I took M Jr outside to meet okah-san, who appeared to be completely unruffled by the whole experience, whereas I was dizzy, red-eyed from crying and had a line of snot dribbling onto my top lip.
‘This is your granny,’ I told M Jr.
‘I’m not a granny,’ said okah-san. ‘I’m the mother’s mother!’

Back in the delivery room, M Jr had a quick first go at breast-feeding before being placed in this elaborate looking cot. Among other features, a heating element kept M Jr at just below thirty-seven degrees centigrade: body temperature, obviously, but also the kind of conditions she will soon have the pleasure of experiencing on a summer’s day in Japan.

The delivery room would soon be needed for another birth, so once a half-litre bag of glucose had emptied into Mrs M’s arm, she was very carefully transferred to a wheelchair and taken back to meet otoh-san and onii-san, who had driven straight to the clinic after finishing work.

Not long after she became pregnant, Mrs M got rather angry when I told her that to be completely honest, I don’t think babies are particularly cute – as everyone knows, they tend to look like a cross between Winston Churchill and Gollum from The Lord Of The Rings.

OK, so perhaps I’m being a little unfair, but M Jr did look as if she’d gone the proverbial ten rounds with Mike Tyson: her eyes were swollen half-shut and filled with sticky, milky tears, her face was puffy, her hair was matted and her mouth was stuck in a kind of exhausted pout.

An hour or two later she was a little more normal – cute, even – although as I stood in the corridor looking at the most recent additions to the population of Ibaraki, I realised that whether they’re Asian, European or a mixture of the two, new-born babies are almost impossible to tell apart. Presumably for this reason, I had been asked to write M Jr’s name on her legs in black marker pen – first name on one leg, surname on the other – and to further aid with identification, the boys were given blue woolly hats and the girls pink ones.

Still, whether or not she looked like a bloke after a boxing match, M Jr had arrived. 50cm tall and weighing 3.26kg (that’s almost 7lbs 10oz in old money), she was born at 4.21pm Japan time on August 6th 2012. Mrs M had been in labour for just over fourteen hours, and we were all safely tucked up in bed again by about ten o’clock on Monday evening.

Muzuhashi Jr – Pt.2

It has now been three weeks since M Jr was born, and as well as the usual parenting concerns – eg. How do I change a nappy? How do I tell when a bottle of formula has reached the correct temperature? Is it just me or does one of her ears stick out slightly further than the other one? – I have been trying my best to get up to speed with the various traditions and pecularities associated with having a baby in Japan.

Starting at the very beginning, here’s what I’ve managed to find out so far (although be warned, as some of these may be specific to Ibaraki, or subject to variation depending on which part of the country you happen to live in):

1) Moh-kohan ( 蒙古斑 / Mongolian spot)

Most East Asian babies, along with a few from isolated groups elsewhere in the world – Native Americans, for example, and East Africans – are born with a blue-green mark in the small of their back called a Mongolian spot. In most cases the mark disappears over time, although it occasionally persists until adulthood, or manifests itself elsewhere on the body (if you find your Mongolian spot embarrassing, like a tattoo, it can be removed with laser treatment). According to Wikipedia, Mongolian spots are sometimes mistaken for bruises in the West, and as a consequence, at least a few expat parents have been wrongly accused of hitting their children. M Jr has a small and rather faint Mongolian spot, although given that it’s at the top of her builder’s cleavage, I didn’t think a snapshot would be appropriate.

2) Mei-shin (迷信 / superstitions)

M Jr is both a lion and a dragon (Leo and Chinese year of the~ respectively), although we won’t  know what her ketsu-eki-gata (血液型 / blood type) is for another year or so, which in Japan is rather akin to not knowing your own name. Even Mrs M, who is almost as cynical as me when it comes to things like star signs, will talk in all seriousness about how As are obsessive compulsive and ABs have split personalities, and isn’t it unusual that we ended up together despite me being a B and her being an O.

A rather more obscure superstition that I became aware of just recently is the roku-yoh (六曜 / six labels for the Japanese calendar). Originally imported from China, the roku-yoh designate each day of the year with varying degrees of good or bad fortune, and while they don’t really have anything to do with childbirth, I thought I’d share them with you anyway, in case, like me, you’ve ever wondered what all those strange kanji are next to the dates in your diary:

Sen-shoh (先勝 / literally ‘before win’) – The morning of a sen-shoh day is lucky, but the hours between 2pm and 6pm are unlucky.
Tomobiki (友引 / ‘friend pull’) – The morning is lucky, lunchtime is unlucky and the evening is very lucky. Tomobiki days are good for business dealings and lawsuits, but bad for funerals.
Senbu (先負 / ‘before lose’) – The morning is unlucky and the afternoon is lucky.
Butsu-metsu (仏滅 / ‘Buddha destruction’) – Very unlucky all day.
Tai-an (大安 / ‘big safe’) – The most auspicious of the six, and thus a good day for weddings and the like.
Shakkoh (赤口 / ‘red mouth’) – The time between 11am and 1pm is lucky, but the rest of the day is unlucky.

Despite being born at four in the afternoon on a shakkoh, M Jr seems to be doing well, although in future, we may decide to hold her birthday parties at lunchtime.

4) Héso-no-o (臍の緒 / umbilical cord)

Allowing a father to cut his baby’s umbilical cord is a recent development in Japan, and wasn’t even mentioned to me as a possibility when M Jr was born. A much older tradition dictates that the umbilical cord is given to the parents, who leave it to dry before placing it on the butsudan (仏壇 / Buddhist altar) or kamidana (神棚 / Shinto shrine) in the family home. Otoh-san, for example, still has both Mrs M’s and onii-san’s umbilical cords, and while we donated most of M Jr’s for medical research, a small part of it now sits in a little wooden box on the kamidana.

(In contrast to this, Bobby Orgon said recently on Sekai Banzuké that in his home country of Nigeria, the umbilical cord is believed to possess mysterious powers, and that rather than keeping it, a father takes his baby’s umbilical cord from the hospital and buries it where there is no chance of it ever being found.)

4) Mitsumé-no-botamochi (三つ目の牡丹餅)

Three days after her baby is born, it is customary for the mother to eat bota-mochi – rice cakes covered in red bean paste – and for her family to give them to friends and relatives when they pass on the news of the birth. Okah-san placed her order for bota-mochi almost as soon as M Jr had let out her first cry, and a couple of days later I took the day off work to drive okah-san around, handing out bota-mochi to our many aunts, uncles and cousins. The two main disadvantages of bota-mochi are that a) they’re not particularly appetising, and b) they’re made of mochi-gomé (餅米 / extra-sticky rice used specifically for making rice cakes), which in the past was thought to aid the production of breast milk, but which has recently been found to do the exact opposite.

5) Mei-mei-sho (命名書 / name scroll)

Also on the third day after the birth, the mei-mei-sho – on which are written the baby’s name, its status within the family (for example, whether it’s an older brother or a younger sister), its birthday and the name of the head of the household – is displayed on the butsudan, the kamidana or even the tokonoma (床の間 / the decorative recess in an old-style tatami room, which in a  modern-day hotel or B&B is often home to the TV). When Mrs M was born, otoh-san hired a professional calligrapher to write her mei-mei-sho at a cost of over 10,000 yen, whereas this time round, he typed it on Microsoft Word and printed it on a sheet of A4 paper.

6) Shussan-todoké (出産届 / notice of birth)

It is necessary to give notice at the town hall within fourteen days of a birth, so that your baby can be included on the koseki-toh-hon (戸籍謄本 / family register), and also so that you can begin receiving kodomo-té-até (子供手当 / child benefit). In the process of doing this, Mrs M and I realised that while M Jr will be registered as living at Mrs M’s parents’ address, her hon-seki (本籍 / permanent residence) is about a kilometre away, on a now empty plot of land where her great-grandparents – otoh-san’s parents – owned a house before they passed away in the 1970s.

7) Toko-agé (床上げ, aka obiaké / 帯明け or possibly obiya-aké / 産屋明け)

Back in the days when home births were the norm and the child mortality rate was far higher than it is now, a party called oshichi-ya (お七夜 / ‘honourable seventh night’) was held to celebrate a baby reaching a week old. Nowadays mothers and their babies spend that first week in hospital, and are only allowed to check out when they’ve been given a clean bill of health. At this point, however, they are expected to spend a further two weeks at the mother’s parents’ house, and this twenty-one-day period is known as toko-agé.

The literal translation of toko-agé is ‘floor up’, and refers to the practice of keeping mother and baby’s futon laid out on the bedroom floor at all times. While grandma does the washing, the cooking and the cleaning – not to mention as much of the baby-minding as her daughter is willing to hand over – mother and baby stay indoors and avoid anything that involves the use of cold water (they are seen as being particularly vulnerable to catching colds and infections). Unfortunately for Mrs M, otoh-san didn’t quite catch on to the purpose of toko-agé, and packed her futon away every morning, thus depriving her of the chance of a siesta. Also, for someone who was going for a walk at least once a day until the evening before M Jr was born, being stuck indoors felt a little claustrophobic, so she moved back to our apartment after just seven days in hospital and seven days at home.

8) O-iwai / uchi-iwai (お祝い / 内祝い)

In the UK, a new arrival is the cue for a veritable frenzy of knitting – booties, blankets, little baby-sized jumpers and so on – but in Japan, the parents will instead be granted the gift of cold, hard cash. The word o-iwai – ‘honourable celebration’ – is used to describe all kinds of gifts, but the tricky thing for the recipient is what to give in return (uchi-iwai).

As okah-san explained to us, uchi-iwai should amount to at least half the value of the original o-iwai, and it is best to go for a nice, round figure. For example, to the friends and relatives who gave us 10,000 yen o-iwai, we will give uchi-iwai to the value of 5000 yen, and for the friends and relatives who gave us 5000 yen o-iwai, we will round up their uchi-iwai to 3000 yen. Many people order their uchi-iwai from gift catalogues, but to avoid disappointment, Mrs M and I will be giving shopping vouchers instead, and okah-san has insisted that we supplement these with an extra present of something edible, meaning that in some cases we will retain just 20 % of the original o-iwai.

The shopping vouchers are from a credit card company called JCB (nothing to do with the people who make mechanical diggers, I might add), and purchased at a branch of the electronics store Yamada Denki. One of Mrs M’s great aunts lives just down the road from Yamada Denki, but when Mrs M suggested dropping in to hand over the uchi-iwai straight away, okah-san said that under no circumstances must we do so until the twenty-one days of toko-agé were up (after all, Mrs M was officially supposed to be at home, napping on her futon and with okah-san waiting on her hand and foot).

OK, so that’s the stuff we’ve already done, but still to come – in the near future, at least – are:

9) Omiya-mairi (お宮参り / first visit to the shrine)

After thirty days (one website suggests thirty-one for a boy and thirty-two for a girl, but anywhere around the one-month mark seems to be OK), the baby is taken to the local shrine so its family can pay their respects to the ubusunagami (産土神 / god of one’s birthplace). In some cases, this is done a hundred days after the birth, and known as momoka-mairi (百日参り / hundred-day visit).

10) Okui-zomé (お食い初め / literally ‘honourable eat first’, aka momoka-iwai / 百日祝い)

Taking place a hundred days after the birth, okui-zomé is symbolic of the move from a milk-only diet to rinyu-shoku (離乳食 / solids), although unfortunately for the baby, the food on offer is strictly for adults. A variety of traditional dishes are laid out on the dinner table and then wafted under the baby’s nose – if it’s a boy, this is done by the senior male member of the family, and vice versa for a girl – before being eaten. Presumably the baby has to make do with a jar of Cow & Gate instead.

(Nb. This isn’t M Jr, just an anonymous Google picture search baby.)

11) Koku-seki (国籍 / Nationality)

While most Japanese citizens are only allowed to hold one passport, those of mixed parentage (who are referred to as haafu – ie. half-Japanese, half-foreign) are allowed to hold two until they reach twenty-two years of age. At that point they are supposed to choose which passport they want to keep, although many who retain their Japanese passport secretly renew the other at a later date. By the same token, some parents don’t bother registering their haafu baby with the relevant foreign embassy in the first place, effectively choosing Japanese nationality straight away.

Partly because so many foreigners went back to their home countries after the earthquake, immigration laws – or at least the way in which they are implemented – have been relaxed a little of late, so I have a feeling the one-passport-only rule may have been dispensed with by the time M Jr reaches her twentieth birthday. In any case, at some point in the next few months, Mrs M and I will apply to the Consulate-General in Hong Kong for M Jr’s British passport, which will cost about a hundred quid including postage, and last her for the next five years (by which time she will of course look utterly different from the photograph of Winston Churchill contained therein).

Speech 演説

After much badgering by my teachers, this year I finally decided to have a shot at the prefectural speech contest for non-native speakers of Japanese. Somewhat improbably, I came in second place, although this may have been because a) one of those teachers was on the panel of judges, b) another teacher gave me a lot of help writing my speech, c) I had concocted a fiendishly cunning tactical plan after seeing a Vietnamese friend take part last year, and d) I have been living in Japan and studying the language a good deal longer than most of the other contestants: my first lesson (at South Thames College in Putney, in case you were wondering) was nearly a decade ago, and all told I have lived here for over four years, whereas the eventual winner – whose speech was so wonderful that it actually made me cry – has only been here for six months.

If nothing else, entering the contest taught me the importance of preparation, aka the six Ps: Proper Preparation Prevents Piss-Poor Performance. When I was a teenager, I harboured ambitions of becoming an actor, but gave it all up because I couldn’t handle the pressure. Terrified that I might forget my lines, I either deliberately took minor roles or volunteered for backstage work instead, although the thing is, I can’t recall ever taking the time to properly memorise my lines. Determined not to make the same mistake again, I recited my speech at every available opportunity, including over breakfast, during the cycle ride to and from work, in the teachers’ cloakroom, and while Mrs M and M Jr were taking a bath. I also used all three third-year classes at my junior high school as audience guinea pigs, and while I don’t think I ever made it all the way through without making at least one mistake, by the time I was standing at the lectern on the big day, the words were so fixed in my mind that it would have taken an assassination attempt or a stray meteorite for me to mess them up.

Several of my fellow contestants, meanwhile, were still tweaking, memorising and generally fretting right up until the last minute. The woman sitting next to me as we waited for our names to be called didn’t listen to a word that was being said, instead muttering her lines to herself the entire time, and one or two others didn’t know exactly what they were going to say until they were already saying it. As the organisers explained, going over the official time limit of five minutes wouldn’t necessarily be fatal to one’s chances of getting a prize, but it wouldn’t exactly help them either, and two or three contestants were interrupted in mid-sentence by the dreaded warning bell (the timekeepers also held up a ‘thirty seconds to go’ cue card to add to the tension).

Five minutes, as it turns out, makes for a much shorter speech than you might expect, to the extent that once I (OK, my Japanese teacher and I) had timed it, pruned it, timed it again and pruned it some more, mine ran to just one side of word-processed A4. This is even more surprising when you consider that Japanese is such an economical language: a much larger amount of information can be packed into a 140-character Japanese Tweet, for example, than its English equivalent.

I have made speeches in English many times, and while it’s risky to just play it by ear, speaking in your native language allows you so much more leeway for ad-libbing, covering up mistakes or saying the same thing in a slightly different way. In a second language, though, you have far fewer weapons at your disposal, and are a lot more likely to talk yourself into a syntactical dead-end from which there is no elegant or economical means of escape.

My chosen specialised subject, as you might expect, was M Jr, and while my teachers kept emphasising that prize-winning speeches in the past have at least ended on a serious note – they tend to have serious beginnings and middles, too – I made a point of playing it for laughs. For those of you who don’t understand Japanese, I have translated the speech into English, and while much of the humour has been lost as a result, just for the hell of it, I also fed the original into Bing Translator, with bizarre – and frankly funnier – results (see below).

Becoming a father for the first time in Japan

In December 2011 my wife became pregnant. As a result, I realised that when it comes to childbirth, there are various differences between Japan and the UK.

For example, when my wife found out that she was pregnant, she said, ‘Ten months is going to be tough..’ ‘Wow!’ I thought. ‘Japanese women are pregnant for ten months! And to think, British women are only pregnant for nine…’ Later on I was relieved to be told that one month of pregnancy is calculated differently by Japanese and non-Japanese*.

Pregnancy in the UK is basically a licence to ‘eat as much as you like’, and it is not uncommon for pregnant women to gain four or five stone. In Japan, on the other hand, pregnant women are told by their doctors not to gain more than one and a half stone – sometimes even one stone – in weight. Despite her morning sickness, while she was pregnant my wife had a craving for ice cream, and in particular, green tea-flavoured Super Cup. In accordance with the doctors’ guidance, I strictly limited the amount of ice cream she ate. But when I got home from work, many was the time I would find an empty Super Cup in the kitchen rubbish bin.

On 6th August last year my wife’s contractions started and we went to the hospital. According to her, the labour was so painful it felt as if her back would break. If she had given birth in the UK, she would have been able to receive as much painkilling treatment as she liked. In Japan, however, most women giving birth are not allowed to take medicine of any kind. So when my wife asked a nurse, ‘Excuse me, can I have some painkillers?’ she was flatly refused. ‘If you take medicine,’ said the nurse, ‘your baby won’t know when it’s supposed to come out.’

Eventually my wife’s waters broke and she was taken into the delivery room. Seeing her on the deilvery table was so terrifying that I had absolutely no idea what to do for her. When I whispered, ‘Good luck!’ and tried to stroke her hair, she swatted my hand away and said, ‘Get out of the way!’ (This is an experience I think dads all over the world will be able to relate to.)

Before I knew it my wife had given birth to a beautiful baby girl, and I was so happy that tears came to my eyes.

At present, one in four babies in the UK is born to mixed-race parents, whereas in Japan, that statistic is just one in thirty. As a result, such children are viewed as special and referred to as ‘half’s. ‘Half’ isn’t necessarily a bad word, but since our daughter has both Japanese and British genes, instead of being referred to as a ‘half’, I hope that she will be referred to as a ‘double’**.

Either way, from now on my wife and I will try our very best to bring up our baby.

Thank you very much for listening.

* The Japanese calculate the term of a pregnancy in lunar months of twenty-eight days, as opposed to calendar months of twenty-eight to thirty-one, hence the confusion.
** The ‘double’ idea wasn’t my own, and is gaining in popularity as an – albeit slightly jokey – way of referring to mixed-race Japanese.

The top four speeches were broadcast on local radio (one of my students, whose mother had tuned into the progamme by chance, came up to me the next day to say congratulations), and listening back made me realise how many ‘um’s and ‘er’s I used to stall for time, when what I should have been using were Japanese ‘eh-toh’s and ‘a-noh’s. Not that I’m going to post it here, but Mrs M videoed the whole thing for posterity, and watching this made me even more self-conscious, largely because I have developed a Prince Charles-like habit of concluding each paragraph with a kind of half-smile / half-grimace.

This is the radio broadcast:

And here’s the bonkers Bing translation:

That would be a father for the first time in Japan,

My wife got pregnant two years ago, in December. I noticed variations in it about childbirth in the United Kingdom and Japan sparked, of.

See, for example, pregnancy, wife “10 for months, it’s harder now…” and when I said, I “Wow! Japanese girls are pregnant 10 months it until delivery?! In the United Kingdom takes only 9 months! “And wondered. Being taught how to count Japanese and foreigners is different is one month pregnant, I felt.

A British woman was pregnant, basically “all-you-can-eat” in, often pregnant fat 2, 30 km away. On the other hand, doctors in Japan is pregnant woman. 10 kg so that does not increase more than the weight limit. Wife was fixated in the ice cream (especially green tea taste Super Cup) despite the morning sickness nausea during pregnancy. I have severely restricted wife eats ice cream according to the guidance of the teacher,. But I get home and kitchen trash discovered the empty Super Cup many times out of the box.

She started 8/6 last year, and went to the hospital. According to his wife is sore hip crumbling labor pains or feel. If you birth in the United Kingdom in general labor analgesia can so you can freely take medicine. However, natural childbirth from straightforward in Japan, my wife “or why the pain? “And when I asked the nurse who was refused if you drink drugs, when the baby is out, some couldn’t once and for all.

Finally, my wife and her waters broke and went into the delivery room. When I saw the wife is depicted riding on a birthing bed, I too scary too, you can give and what did not know at all. In a low voice “go for it! “And said, as his wife’s hair. Then, “out of the way! “And I have been rebuffed. This experience is worldwide independent dad that you can see well.

Landmarks that cute girl is born safely between, I’m glad tears..

Currently, parents is international couples is one of four children born in the United Kingdom. In Japan it to substitution, so a 30 per person, such children are seen as a “half” something special. “Half” is not a bad word that is so blood of English and Japanese in both daughters, want to seen as a “double” not “half”, and I hope.

I work and I would like to hard parenting hard with my wife from this either way,.

Thank you very much for your attention.

Here’s the original Japanese text:


一昨年の12月,私の妻が妊娠しました。 それをきっかけに,イギリスと日本では出産に関して、さまざまな違いがあるのに気づきました。



去年の8月6日,陣痛が始まり、病院に行きました。妻によると、陣痛は腰が砕けるかと思うぐらい痛かったそうです 。もしイギリスで出産するなら無痛分娩が一般できなので薬を自由に飲むことができます。ところが、日本では自然分娩が普通ですから,妻は「痛み止めをもらえませんか?」と看護師さんに頼んだとき、「薬を飲んだら、赤ちゃんはいつ出てこられるか分かりませんよ」ときっぱりと断られました。

いよいよ、妻は破水して分娩室に入りました。妻が分娩台に乗っている姿を見た時、私はあまりにも恐ろしすぎて、何をしてあげたらいいのか全く分かりませんでした。小さい声で「 頑張れ!」と言って、妻の髪の毛をなでようとしました。すると,「邪魔!」と拒絶されてしまいました。この経験は世界中の立ち会いするお父さんはよく分かると思います。





And finally, purely out of curiosity, I fed the Bing translation back through Bing and back into Japanese, with even more surreal results:


私の妻は妊娠して 2 年前に、12 月に得た。私はそれの変化イギリスときっかけと、日本での出産に気づいたの。

、妊娠、妻を見る「10 ヶ月間は、それは難しい今…」と私が言ったとき、”うわっ !日本の女の子妊娠 10 ヶ月はそれまで配信ですか?イギリスはわずか 9 ヶ月で !」と疑問に思いました。日本人と外国人をカウントする方法を教えられている 1 ヶ月妊娠しているが異なる場合は、私は感じた。

イギリス人女性は妊娠中、基本的に「食べ放題」に、多くの場合妊娠脂肪 2、30 km。その一方で、日本の医師は妊娠中の女性です。10 は増加していませんので kg よりも重量制限。妻、アイスクリーム (特に緑茶味スーパー カップ) にもかかわらず、朝のつわり吐き気を妊娠中に固定されてあった。私は深刻な妻食べるアイスクリーム先生の指導によると制限が。しかし、家に帰るし、台所のごみ箱に何回もの空のスーパー カップを発見しました。

彼女は 8/6 昨年を開始し、病院に行った。彼の妻によると痛みの崩壊しつつある労働痛みヒップまたは感じです。イギリスに生まれの一般的な鎮痛労働する場合だからあなた自由に薬を取ることがでくことができます。しかし、自然分娩から日本、私の妻の簡単な”や、なぜ痛みですか?”私赤ちゃんが出ているとき薬を飲む場合は拒否された看護師を尋ねたとき、いくつか一度、すべてことができなかった。

最後に、私の妻と彼女の水を破ったし、分娩室に行った。妻は乗る、出産ベッドに、私はあまりにも怖いのも描かれている見たとき、与えることができるし、はまったく知りませんでしたか。低い声で「それのために行く !」いう彼の妻の髪。その後、「邪魔 !」私は拒絶されています。この経験は、あなたがよく見ることができます世界中の独立したお父さんです。


現在、親は国際カップル イギリスで生まれ、4 人の子供の一つです。それ置換するので日本では 30 人、そのような子供は、「半分」特別な何かを見られています。「半分」そう遺伝子英語と日本語の両方の娘に悪い言葉ではない、ない「半分」、「ダブル」を見たしたいし、思います。



Poo! うんち!

When you have a baby, all of a sudden poo takes on a much bigger role in your life than it used to. In the days following M Jr’s birth, her nappy filled with a black, tar-like substance, the technical term for which is meconium, and which contains a mixture of (and I quote) ‘intestinal epithelial cells, lanugo, mucus, amniotic fluid, bile and water’. This eventually settled down into something less sticky and with more of a green tinge to it, and while Mrs M and I both wondered aloud how M Jr’s digestive system contrived to turn milk green, according to a kind of colour swatch given to us at the hospital, white poo is actually a bad thing, and a sign that your baby could be suffering from a medical condition called tan-doh-heisa-shoh (胆道閉鎖症 / biliary atresia).

After this initial period of plentiful poo-ing, however, M Jr was soon exhibiting signs of the dreaded benpi (便秘 / constipation). Many more Japanese are cursed with this condition than the rest of us, and as a consequence, the relative ease and frequency of one’s bowel movements is considered a perfectly respectable topic for dinner party conversation. Some say the epidemic came about after meat and / or dairy products were introduced into the Asian diet, and others that after centuries of eating rice, the Japanese intestine has evolved to be slightly longer than average, and thus more easily blocked. When Mrs M – who is, as the saying goes, benpi-kei (便秘系 / a member of the constipation club) – first moved to London, like most of her fellow countrymen and women, she still ate sticky, white, low-in-fibre rice with every meal including breakfast. But despite experimenting with supposedly bowel-friendly brown rice, wholemeal bread, dried fruit, orange-flavoured fibre drinks and even linseed, it soon became clear that what we were dealing with was a full-blown genetic predisposition.

At just over a week old, and while she and Mrs M were still staying with the in-laws, M Jr went poo-free for over forty-eight hours. I had read online that breast milk contains an ingredient that naturally guards against constipation, and at the time, M Jr was drinking a mixture of breast milk and formula, so we immediately cut out the latter. With the temperature in the thirties, dehydration was another possible factor, and at least once a day we gave her a baby bottle of warm water. In accordance with an NHS Direct-style website I had found, we also massaged her stomach and moved her legs around as if she was jogging or riding a bicycle, but to no avail.

Then one evening I sat in front of the TV with M Jr on my lap, and in her usual fashion, she wriggled about and pulled an array of funny faces. She also farted a couple of times, and I soon became aware of an odd – although not necessarily offensive – smell. Upon investigating further, I was confronted with a veritable number twos tsunami, and before long, the entire family had gathered round to congratulate M Jr on her achievement. More to the point, from that day onwards, sitting on my lap had a kind of laxative effect on M Jr, so that every time I put her there, she would screw up her face until it turned red, wave her arms and legs like a beetle on its back, and endeavour to grant me the gift of poo.

It wasn’t long before she had clammed up again, and this time we were in for the long haul. After three defecation-free days, Mrs M took her to the maternity clinic, where I-sensei said that M Jr was too young to take any medicine or have an enema (rather than a rubber hose and warm water, My First Enema involves sticking a glycerine capsule up your baby’s backside, upon which the capsule dissolves and magically opens the floodgates). The only thing he could suggest instead was the Cotton Bud Method, which I can’t imagine anyone resorts to in the UK, but which is tried and tested over here. For this you dip a cotton bud in baby oil or vaseline, insert it to a depth of about a centimetre (and when I say insert it, I don’t mean into your baby’s ear), and gently move it around in a circular motion, supposedly to stimulate the evacuation response. Even this didn’t work, though, and on Day Six, Mrs M called A-san, who as well as being the mother of one of my students, does home visits as a qualified midwife.

By the time A-san turned up, it had been a full week since M Jr last needed her bottom wiped, and while we weren’t exactly panicking – I had read that a week between poos is nothing out of the ordinary for a newborn – it was disheartening to watch her gurning away of an evening, only to find that no solids were being emitted, just gases.

This time, on the second or third attempt, the Cotton Bud Method worked, and again, the result bore an uncanny resemblance to the contents of a jar of Patak’s. If someone is benpi-kei, one always assumes that their poo has congealed to a diamond-like hardness and would therefore be painful to pass, but this carrot-and-coriander-soup-like mixture looked as if it ought to come out of its own accord, or at least without the sufferer having to pull any funny faces.

And perhaps that was M Jr’s problem all along, in that she hadn’t yet worked out how to push, as it were, in the correct fashion. A few nights ago I was awoken by the sound of another Niagara Falls of faeces, which had burst forth at the exact moment Mrs M was changing M Jr’s nappy. Like me, Mrs M had assumed that it would be a couple more days before the next installment in this scatological saga, but after a few seconds of grunting like a pensioner with a prostate problem, M Jr let rip, and Mrs M almost ran out of baby wipes trying to stem the tide.

What the future holds is anyone’s guess, although I suspect that no matter how much fibre we force her to eat when she moves on to solid food, M Jr’s digestive fate is already sealed, and she is doomed to spend the rest of her life worrying about where the next poo is coming from. Still, at least she’ll have a hundred million fellow Japanese with whom to talk about it over dinner.

(If you fancy reading another poo-related blog post, please make your way to this page at More Things Japanese.)