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.

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.)

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).