Before I went to Japan, I didn’t have much interest in kodomo.
That all changed when I turned twenty-seven and the proverbial biological clock went off with a vengeance. I quickly got pregnant and started learning to be a mother. I was very fortunate to be surrounded by other okāsan—three of us even gave birth in the same month. We got into a routine of spending our days together. There were five of us with infants who regularly gathered each morning.
Each morning we’d gather at Naoko’s house for kōhī. We took turns coming up with snacks, or we gave Naoko money to cover it. Anyone who received a package of treats from their inaka would bring it to share. We’d put the babies down on the floor. As they grew older and began to crawl, we’d all keep an eye on them, but since the apartment and the room was so small, it was easy to do. The babies amused themselves as the mothers secretly compared their growth.
I was a little surprised when I saw the mothers put the babies on their laps and wrap their hands around a hot teacup. Each time they’d do it, they’d say “achichi” which is baby talk for atsui. This is how they taught the babies the meaning of hot. The babies would feel some discomfort and pull their hands away. At first it seemed like a mean thing to do, but the babies quickly learned that when somebody said “Achichi” it meant it could hurt, and it would stop them in their tracks. This was important because our homes were heated with gas and kerosene space heaters. Babies need to learn not to touch them or go near them. As our babies started to crawl, they’d hear a chorus of “Achichi” if they went too close to the space heaters.
Japanese child rearing practices at that time dictated that a baby must spend three hours outside every day. If you went out by yourself with your baby, three hours passed very very slowly. But in a group, we could make it tolerable. We’d put the babies in their bebīkā and hang out in front of the buildings.
I learned something new when our babies became toddlers. We’d take them outside and they’d toddle around the area in front of the buildings. Sometimes there would be a fall, or a toddler would be running and bang into something. When the inevitable tears started, the mothers would not immediately rush to check for injuries or to give comfort. Instead, they’d point up at the sky and say, “Ah! Karasu ga tonda!” Translated literally it means, “Oh, there is a crow flying.”
It was said with great excitement—as if this event was too good to miss and everyone’s eyes would turn towards the sky. If the injured toddler immediately stopped crying and was distracted, then the mother knew the injury was not serious. And most of the time that is exactly what happened. This makes for a tougher kind of kid that doesn’t get unnecessarily coddled as do children in the United States. It seemed harsh to me at first, but I began to use it myself with great success.
I wondered why it was a karasu. Why wasn’t it just “Look at the birdie?” But karasu are impressive big black birds. I suppose they would be more worthwhile and interesting to look at than just any old bird. And crows appeared in children’s culture in songs and books. All children knew “Nanatsu no ko” which is a song was written in 1921. I doubt there is a Japanese person alive that doesn’t know it. But the karasu is also seen as an evil spirit or a sign of bad luck in Japanese culture as well. Thus the fascination for children. You’d want to watch out for them and they have the thrill that comes with something slightly scary.
I felt fortunate that my daughter got a strong start in life with many loving adults around her. Days passed quickly, and quite often Naoko’s husband would return from work to find us still lounging around. We all took breaks at lunch and returned to our own homes to let the babies nap and to do some household chores, but mornings and late afternoons would always find us together. I’m very glad that I had that introduction to motherhood.
- kodomo – 子供 child
- okāsan – お母さん mother(s)
- kōhī – コーヒー coffee
- inaka – 田舎 hometown. This word and concept comes up a lot. Some translate it as ancestral homeland. You never forget your roots in Japan and your inaka is where you go for longer holidays.
- achichi – あちち This is how you say “hot” to a baby or child. It’s baby talk.
- atsui – 熱い hot
- bebīkā – ベビーカー stroller (for a baby). Notice that it is literally “baby car.”
- Karasu ga tonda カラスが飛んだ “Oh look, a crow is flying!” It’s an expression used to distract a toddler or small child. Kind of like telling a child to look up at an airplane to distract them.
- Nanatsu no ko – 七つの子 The name of a famous folk song that everyone can sing the first few lines of.