Things to Consider about Pregnancy, from a Japanese lens

Back2Life
5 min readSep 19, 2022

Of Fish & Norms

[This article should not be taken as medical advice. Please always inquire with your doctor for any and all medical and dietary concerns.]

Photo: The Telegraph

Nearly everyone, everywhere around the world has something to say when it comes to what you should do, not do, and eat during and post-pregnancy.

So, what do Japanese people think about this time?

To fish or not to fish?

Statistics show that an average Japanese person eats about 69.1 kilograms of fish per year, said The Guardian — with the island chain consuming about 10% of the world’s fish supply.

Photo: FitDay

However, that doesn’t mean it’s the same for pregnant women. This is due to the dangerous mercury levels naturally occurring within fish — methylmercury to be exact.

Mercury is a naturally occurring element within the atmosphere, but has increased within our world due to human activity. The European Environment Agency reported levels 500% higher than what should be natural in the air and 200% more mercury presence in the sea.

In the case of the sea, the mercury mostly enters the waters through precipitation. Afterwards, the specific chemical compound of methylmercury comes into existence due to interactions with the oceanic microorganisms, which are then eaten by bigger organisms, which are then eaten by smaller fish, which are then eaten by bigger fish and so on and so forth.

According to a paper published in 2011, “All fish and shellfish contain some MeHg, but larger, longer-lived predatory fish generally have the highest levels. MeHg is particularly hazardous because it can cross the blood-brain barrier.” (via Hindawi, Journal of Toxicology)

This ability to cross the blood-brain barrier is what makes it dangerous for babies in-utero as mercury poisoning can lead to imparied neurological development, damaged nervous systems, digestive problems, and more.

This issue can affect any baby around the world — those born in Japan not excluded. As such, doctors warn not to eat fish that are at the top of the food chain like most tuna, swordfish, and shark. They also recommend that pregnant women also limit their intake of fish overall to a weekly basis rather than daily.

So what kind of fish is okay?

Photo: Tastycraze.com

Well apparently — bonito. According to this article by Uogashi Walker, bonito contains the necessary nutrients for pregnancy like iron, B vitamins, EPA, DHA, as well as high-quality protein with 9 amino acids!

Bonito is a rather sturdy fish, so try it braised in a sweet soy sauce like in this Bonito Kakuni or try out this Spanish version that is stewed in tomatoes and onions!

According to various websites, other great (and some cheaper) options are: sardines, anchovies, salmon, mackerel, herring, haddock, plaice, mullet, pollock, perch, catfish, squid, and shellfish.

Some Traditions

Women in Japan (and in some other East Asian countries) used to spend 100 days indoors after the baby was born. However, most women — who on average have their first child at the age of 31 — are able to go about their business once they feel well enough to go outside.

But that doesn’t mean women necessarily go back to work. Before the 21st century, having a baby usually meant that you’d quit your job indefinitely. Maternity leave wasn’t really a thing.

Photo: Daily Mail

This cultural habit had lead to some experiences of discimination, where women would be asked about their personal lives during their interviews; including but not limited to:

Are you married?

Are you planning to be married?

Are you planning to have children?

(And no, it’s not illegal to ask that in Japan.)

If you responded yes to any of those questions, one may not feel so confident in securing the job. But it isn’t without some reason.

The Los Angeles Times reported in 2013 that ⅔ of Japanese women left employment without much prospects of returning. One of the causes of this exodus could be due to the fact that being a stay-at-home mother was seen as a status symbol for women. If you (or your wife) could rely on a single income, it implied that the breadwinner had adequate wealth and reputation.

While this wasn’t the case for all women in the workforce, this problem and this subliminal cultural belief still exists within Japanese society today.

Some companies even ask you to “schedule” your pregnancy, so no more than one employee goes on maternity leave at one time. Read this article by USA Today to learn more.

Another hurdle that families have to face is the expensive childcare that is hard to come by in Japan. Families face extensive waiting lists for state-sponsored child care or pay copious amounts of their salary to having their child watched by professionals. To rub more salt in the wound, cities like Kyoto are apparently looking at methods like cutting back on salaries of childcare workers whilst increasing the price for care to try and balance the city’s large debt. (via Let’s ask Shogo)

As such, sometimes the Japanese family would just be financially better off if the wife (or in some cases father) stayed at home to care for their children.

Photo: The Japan Times

Fortunately, the ever sluggish economy and the shrinking workforce is what’s pushing a change in public opinion. In 2016, The Telegraph reported that for the first time, the majority of Japanese society that mothers should return to work after having a child.

One can only hope this is a sign that Japanese culture is progressing toward the needs of modernity and loosening their grip on tradition which some say is strangling fiscal and cultural growth.

Like other developed nations, there should be little to no stigma about having a child and a job. There should be no barrier to choosing the life that you want.

Not really sure of the main message for this one. Watch for fish and do what’s best for your pregnancy and family!

Fall means mushrooms, and the Japanese diet sure does love them! Check back in two weeks to learn about traditional varieties of mushrooms and how to use them in your recipes! In the meantime, follow us on Facebook and Instagram for more fun facts, photos, and tidbits!

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Back2Life

Promoting global Food Education, Sustainability, and Traditions for our Modern World. Based in Tokyo, Japan.