Learning from Japan's Custom in Remote Islands: the Role of Social Parents at the Time of Childbirth - Projects



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Learning from Japan's Custom in Remote Islands: the Role of Social Parents at the Time of Childbirth


A kari-oya (a godmother-like social parent) is one of the old customs of Japan, meaning someone who protects and fosters the life of a child, in addition to the biological parents, by socially establishing a non-legal parent-child relationship with the child. In olden times, a child had need for multiple social parents and was influentially supported by them within a community from both economic and psychological perspectives. The child would eventually learn from the social parents how to live independently while expanding a personal network with other people through them. A social parent who supported the foster daughter's delivery prepared a favorable environment for childbirth and accompanied the delivery to encourage the expectant mother.
Rites of Passage and a Kari-oya

The rites of passage are milestones in life such as birth, growth, maturity, marriage and death. In the past, the rites of passage were occasions where people celebrated the safe passage of each milestone as well as demonstrating personal developments to others*1. In olden times when medical science was at a primitive stage, it was often a real challenge to raise a child to adulthood. Therefore, it was necessary for parents at that time to strengthen ties with local communities through the rites of passage and ensure that the child would establish a sound development with other adults. The concept of a social parent (kari-oya) under a parent-child relationship in addition to the biological parents emerged as a symbol of such social customs*2.

The system of social parents is one of the old customs of Japan, aiming to protect and ensure the development of a child by socially establishing a non-legal parent-child relationship between the child and multiple adults in addition to the biological parents*3. There were various types of social parents across Japan in the olden days, which were classified into two categories based on the timing of establishing the relationship, that is, (1) from the pre-natal period through childhood and (2) after attaining adulthood.

Social parents during the period from the pre-natal period through childhood included an obi-oya (maternity belt parent) who purchased an iwata-obi (a stomach wrap to protect the mother's womb) for a foster daughter who was pregnant, to symbolize her wish for a safe and problem-free delivery; a toriage-oya (midwife parent) who accompanied the childbirth of the foster daughter; a daki-oya (baby-holding parent) who first held a new-born baby; a chitsuke-oya (breast-feeding parent) who performed the ritual of the first breast-feeding for a few weeks after the baby was born; a nazuke-oya (godparent) who determined the name of the baby; a hiroi-oya (picking-up parent) who picked up a baby abandoned by his/her biological parents in a street as a ritual (if the baby was born in the year of calamity, or yakudoshi, for the parents), having wished for healthy development of the baby; and a mori-oya (nanny parent) who baby-sat the baby until s/he was four or five years old. Since ancient times, a well-known Japanese proverb has held that "children below seven years of age are in the hands of the Gods." The biological parents hoped that their child could take root in this living world by conducting various rituals for the child and thus established a social parent-child relationship between the child and a social parent at each ritual event until the child was seven years old.

In contrast, social parents after entering adulthood included a heko-oya (loincloth parent) who purchased a Japanese traditional loincloth called a fundoshi for a foster son as a coming-of-age ritual; genpuku-oya or eboshi-oya (both meaning coming-of-age ceremony parent) who attended a genpuku ceremony (a coming-of-age ceremony by changing the hair-style and crowning) of the foster son; a koshi-oya (wrap-skirt parent) who purchased a koshimaki (women's wrap-skirt-like underwear) for a foster daughter as a coming-of-age ritual; a Kane-oya (iron paste parent) who purchased Kane (iron paste used to blacken teeth) for the foster daughter as a coming-of-age ritual; a nakoudo-oya (go-between parent) who served as a go-between at the marriage ceremony of the foster daughter. Although the criteria for coming-of-age varied according to regions and occupations, children reaching a certain age (in most cases, 15 years old counted by the traditional Japanese system) were required to join a youth group such as wakamono-gumi (a group for boys) and musume-gumi (a group for girls) to spend their adolescent period with peers until they get married*4 .

The Role of Social Parents under the Traditional Neyako System

There is a traditional youth group system called neyako, which still exists in Toushi-town, Toushijima, a remote island which is part of Toba-city, Mie Prefecture. Under the neyako system, about five to ten boys make up one group and live together after graduating from junior high school under the supervision of a social parent who has no blood relationship with them. These boys are called neyako and learn things necessary for becoming an adult including appropriate skills for fishing, the primary source of income for the island*5. The majority of youth in the island will enter the fishery business after attaining adulthood and their biological fathers will become their bosses. It is said that a social parent plays the role of counselor in such a social system. A social parent gives advice to his neyako boys who may have an ambivalent or conflicting feeling towards their biological fathers while working as apprentices, and acts as a bridge between these children and fathers*6. When the first of them to get married does so, the neyako group will then be broken up; however, the relationship between the social parent and the neyako boys will continue through all stages of life. For example, neyako boys traditionally send midsummer and year-end gifts to their social parent as a seasonal greeting, while the social parent attends every ceremonial event such as marriages and funerals for his neyako boys.

A Social Parent Supporting the Development of Girls

In the case of girls, the existence of social parents was considered important as well. A social parent such as Kane-oya and Koshi-oya was required when girls reach a certain age or at the onset of their first menstruation*7.

There are other areas where the custom of social sister-sister relationships exists instead of social parent-child relationships. For example, in Hamanaka-district, Atsumi-town (current Tsuruoka-city), Yamagata Prefecture, there is a traditional custom where girls reaching 13 years old (counted by the traditional Japanese system) draw a piece of rice straw at the end of each year and establish a social sister-sister relationship (keyaki kyodai) with another girl who drew the same piece. They make their vows to each other to continue the keyaki kyodai relationship through their entire life, being committed to the duties as sisters, such as attending every ceremonial occasion with each other*8.

The Izu Islands have long been known for a big coming-of-age celebration for girls. In Hachijojima Island and Aogashima Island, for example, there was an old custom called Hatsu-tabi. When a girl experienced her first period, a social parent was appointed from among those with no blood relationship who then stayed in a menstrual hut with the girl. The term tabi means "separating a home fire." Since ancient times, both menstrual blood and maternal blood at the time of delivery were considered kegare (meaning a foul and impure state that will bring about calamities). People believed that kegare could be transmitted via a home fire; therefore, they let girls who were in the menstrual or postpartum period stay in an isolated hut to "separate a home fire" from their houses*9.

During the stay in a menstrual hut, the girl would learn from the social parent how to take care of her menstruation as well as other things required for an adult such as social etiquette, weaving skills, village rules, etc. The onset of first menstruation was considered an auspicious event, foretelling prosperity for the island. At the end of the menstrual period, the girl was allowed to come out from the hut and her parents would then put on a big feast for her, inviting single boys in the village. For this day, parents of girls worked hard to save money for a big feast, prepare new clothes and special food for celebration. The Japanese ethnologist Tokuzo Omachi reported that Hatsu-tabi was the biggest ceremony in the lives of these islanders*10.

Girls were required to live together in a menstrual hut every time they underwent menstruation, being separated from their families. This custom may appear to be somewhat irrational from the standpoint of feminism. However, life in a menstrual hut meant a relief from labor and family duties for women. They could have more time for resting, chatting with each other, looking for a wife for their sons, etc. In other words, the menstrual hut served as a place for social interaction between different generations. The menstrual hut was also used as a childbirth hut in some areas. This provided a good opportunity for unmarried women to directly observe the methods of delivery and postpartum care.

The Significance of Accompanying the Mother at the Time of Delivery

Then, what kind of role did a social parent play at the time of delivery? I would like to consider the significance of social parents accompanying the delivery, based on some interesting stories heard from people in Aogashima (Aogashima village, Tokyo), the southernmost island of the Izu archipelago.

In Aogashima Island, there was a traditional custom which was observed until about 1970 where a girl established a parent-child relationship with a social parent at the onset of her first menstruation and the social parent would accompany the foster daughter's delivery. After learning about the custom of Aogashima, I had interviews with some women, who knew the situation of that time, to ask about the conditions of childbirth and the role of social parents. When I asked the women, who had experienced childbirth with their social parents, what social parents actually did to help their delivery, they answered "It was I alone who delivered my baby. My social parent did not do anything apart from stay with me." I thought it quite impressive when they repeatedly told me that they had delivered their babies on their own.

I also asked some women, who had experienced the role of social parent, about their attendance at the delivery. They answered that they just observed the process of childbirth, saying "I did not do anything to help," and "I only tried not to make any excessive noise and kept a close eye so no-one would try to enter the childbirth hut."

Since people in Aogashima Island believed in Kegare, a social parent could not touch a mother and her baby. The mother had to take care of her baby by herself immediately after delivery. They said that the role of social parent was to help an expectant mother concentrate on her delivery without touching or saying anything to encourage her.

As a matter of fact, however, there was something to do for a social parent during the delivery. She took care of the personal needs of the mother such as preparing meals and tea, making a fire in an Irori fireplace, maintaining a consistent room temperature and humidity, and providing adequate air ventilation within the hut. The interesting thing is that the social parent needed to take care of the mother without talking to her (as it would disturb her delivery), by only guessing at the needs of the mother. A woman who has the experience of social parent said "I was able to guess what she was thinking or needing without talking to her, because I had known her since she was a little child." In other words, it is supposed that the continuous relationship between a social parent and a foster child over many years prompts the personal development of the social parent, and at the same time, encourages the foster-daughter to have confidence in delivering her baby with the silent attendance of the social parent.

Of course, there were some social parents who were difficult to get on with and the foster children were often frustrated by the control of power by such social parents. Nevertheless, a presence of camaraderie among women nurtured under such a hierarchical relationship in a small secluded island might have brought physical synchronization that encouraged their sex and reproduction in olden times when there was no medical treatment.

The custom of kari-oya is a system where a social parent, an "escort runner of life," supports and encourages the personal development of a foster child based on a long-term and complex parent-child relationship. This may provide some meaningful clues for modern Japanese society where the number of mothers who are worried about child-rearing is said to be on the increase. It should be noted, however, that the role of social parent was not only to reduce the burden of child-rearing for mothers but also to assist the development of a foster child without disturbing the relationship between the child and his or her biological parents. I believe that there are numerous things we can learn from the custom of kari-oya when thinking of a society that supports and encourages childbirth and child-rearing.

  • *1:"Rites of Passage" by Arnold van Gennep (translated by Tsuneo and Hiroko Ayabe, 1977, Kobundo Publishers Inc.)
  • *2:"Koyarai" by Yuki Oto (1944, MIKUNI Publishing Co.,Ltd.), "Japan's Childbirth Custom Corpus" by Imperial Gift Foundation Boshi-Aiku-Kai (1975, Dai-Ichi-Hoki Co., Ltd.), "Society and Children" by Kunio Yanagita (vol. 12 of Kunio Yanagita Complete Edition, 1990)
  • *3:"Child-Rearing Text Book in Edo" by Yoshinaga Koizumi (2007, Shogakukan Inc.)
  • *4:"Folklore of Boys and Girls" by Kiyoko Segawa (1972, Miraisha); "Folklore of Boys" by Takeshi Amano (1980, PERIKANSHA Publishing Inc.); "Coming-of-Age Ceremony and Rites of Passage" by Noboru Haga (1991, Yuzankaku Inc.); "Logic of Tradition and Custom" by Kazuhiko Hirayama (1992, Yoshikawa Kobunkan); "Youth in Village and Country" by Shigenori Iwata (1996, Miraisha)
  • *5:"Study on a Seniority System: Youth Groups in Old Times" by Ken Yamaoka (1993, Hokuju Shuppan); "Youth Groups and Practice in Class Rooms" by Ken Yamaoka (1999, Hokuju Shuppan)
  • *6:"Basic Materials on the Neyako System in Toushijima, Mie Prefecture and Development in Adolescence" by Hidemi Sawada (vol.42 of Yasuda Women's University Annals, 2014)
  • *7:Note 4 in "Folklore of Boys and Girls" by Kiyoko Segawa; "Master and Apprentice", "Folklore of Coming-of-Age Ceremony" by Tokuzo Omachi (vol. 3 of "Tokuzo Omachi Completed Edition", 1976, Miraisha); "Rites of Passage in Japan" by Tohru Yagi (2001, SHIBUNKAKU Co., Ltd.); "Ethnological Structure of Marriage and Families" by Tohru Yagi (2001, Yoshikawa Kobunkan)
  • *8:"Folklore of Atsumi-cho" by Mitsutami Sato; Note 7 of "Rites of Passage in Japan" by Tohru Yagi
  • *9:"Aogashima in Tokyo" by Usaku Sakai ("Study on Remote Islands", 1966, Kokushokankokai Inc.); Note 7 of "Folklore of Coming-of-Age Ceremony" by Tokuzo Omachi; Note 7 of "Rites of Passage in Japan" and "Ethnological Structure of Marriage and Families" by Tohru Yagi
  • *10:"Hachijojima" by Tokuzo Omachi (1976, KADOKAWA CORPORATION)
Aki Matsumoto

Ms. Matsumoto is a research specialist at the RINRI Institute of Ethics. She was born in Miyazaki Prefecture in 1975 and graduated from the Graduate School of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of the Ryukyus, being awarded an MA in History. She has been engaged in historical and ethnological research at the education committee under the supervision of Okinawa Prefecture. She is currently following a doctoral program in international relations (second semester) at Tsuda College graduate school, researching the impact of changes in the rituals of “birth/delivery” and “death” during the modernization of Japan on the perspectives of life and sex as well as families and human relationships. Her major publications include "No more diapers for babies: thinking of lost childcare methodologies" (co-author) (Keiso Shobo) and "Sexuality Education Theory" (Asakura Publishing).