Overprotective

Who me? Was I a kahogo mom? My daughter and I were touring the after-school care center she’d be attending. She was in first grade and I was a working mother. The local government ran these gakudō kurabu so that kids didn’t have to be home alone after school got out. They accomodated first through third graders. Any child older than that was on their own. And this Gakudō Club made sure they were ready to be on their own by then.

They were just getting ready to have oyatsu and invited us to sit down with them. We were served glasses of cold tea by a second grade boy. Some of the girls were peeling the ringo that we’d eat. Yes, you read that right. In Japan apples always get peeled and a knife is used to do it, hopefully in one strip as you’d go round and round. And there in front of our eyes CHILDREN were using knives.

“Oh, doesn’t Shana know how to use a knife to peel an apple?” asked one worker.

“She’s SIX,” I wanted to respond indignantly. Instead I just murmured something about different customs. We’d just moved back to Japan after three years in America.

My daughter was wide-eyed at that one. And she could see these kids were really takumashii.

After we had our snack it was time for chores. Another surprise. The kids went in to clean the bathrooms!

The head of the center explained to me that these kids had two working parents so they needed to learn life skills so that they could help around the house. There was no coddling here of either children or parents. They were raising self-sufficient kids. Everything they did was based on learning a skill. So different from after-school care in America where kids were more apt to get extras such as art lessons or drama.

The children would go home at 6 PM. Parents did not pick up their kids. Some parents still wouldn’t be home, but the kids all had house keys. The kids walked home, often in the dark. They’d walk in groups, dropping each kid at their home and cheerfully saying goodbye. As luck, or no luck would have it, my daughter lived the furthest from the center and would be walking the last three blocks by herself. Gulp.

The second furthest away was another first grade onna no ko. Her mother was divorced so it was just the two of them. And her mother worked late, so sometimes she’d come back with my daughter. One evening she announced that she’d cook bangohan for the four of us (my son was two years old at the time). A six year old was offering to cook dinner for us… Okay.

And she did. Eggs, I think, and maybe a salad. She managed the whole thing on her own without my help. Very sugoi! My own daughter was amazed.

Now, what can we learn from this? I tried hard not to coddle my children and they both did their own laundry from the time they were in first grade or so. When my son went off to daigaku he was shocked that there were students that had never done sentaku before and didn’t know how to use a washing machine.

And this is just another reason why I am so deeply grateful that I got to raise my kids in two different cultures!

  • kahogo – 過保護 overprotective
  • gakudō kurabu – 学童クラブ after school care for kids with working parents
  • oyatsu – おやつ a snack, used mostly for children. Adults might take a midafternoon break and call it “osanji” or a “3 o’clock.”
  • ringo – りんご apple
  • takumashii – たくましい strong, capable, sturdy
  • onna no ko  女の子 - girl
  • bangohan – 晩ご飯 dinner
  • sugoi – すごい amazing
  • daigaku – 大学 college or university
  • sentaku – 洗濯 laundry

Morning Glory

If you take a walk anywhere in Japan in the months of July and August, it’s possible to identify where the ichinensei in your neighborhood live. Look out at the balconies of the apāto, or the small yards of the homes. If you see a morning glory plant in a pot, then you’ve found a first grader.

First grade is an important grade in Japan. It is not about the academics, but rather it is about teaching children to live in society. After entering school they learn about themselves, and then about their families. After that they learn about their own school, and the circle continues to widen out to the world. To do this, they also have themes that cover all subjects. In the autumn, we were surprised to see the role of donguri. They counted them, sung songs about them, read about them, picked them up and helped clean the area around the school of them, and then used them for art projects. It turns out that you can get a lot of mileage out of an acorn.

By Asasa198 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40310351

We had moved to Yagumo, an area in the Meguro Ward of Tokyo, in the middle of the school year. I enrolled my daughter in first grade at the Yagumo Elementary School, wondering if she’d be the first foreign girl there. But it turned out that years ago there had been a British child, and since my daughter spoke Japanese they were amiable and welcoming. As her okāsan there was a slew of preparation I had to do. I received a stack of past class newsletters to review, and a math set that needed to have labels put on every piece, some of which were smaller than dimes. You had to write your child’s namae on tiny labels and then put them on every single item. There was no way that my clumsy Japanese script would fit on those labels, so I cheated and put her very unique first name on the tiny pieces. As for the stack of newsletters, I did give them a glance and did my best, but all of them were hand written and difficult to decipher. I was amazed that the teacher would send home this newsletter each week. It told the parents exactly what they’d studied in school that week, and what the shukudai for the next week would be. It was illustrated with seasonal pictures and also had shout-outs to children who had made some kind of achievement. I imagine it is all done via the internet today, which is sad in some ways, though more ecologically sound.

Japanese children do not have a long natsu yasumi. The school year begins in April and is divided into trimesters. The first trimester runs from April until the third week of July. Then they break until September 1. A 40 day natsu yasumi seems more effective than the American system since children have less time to forget what they have learned. And because it comes mid-school year, instead of at the end of the school year, teachers are able to give shukudai.

Yes, homework. The first graders got piles of worksheets to do to review what they’d learned in their first trimester of school. They also had projects. And even though it was summer vacation, it wasn’t like they weren’t going to school. In fact, they went to school pretty regularly for swimming lessons. Almost every Japanese elementary school comes equipped with a swimming pool. In the cities, Japan is always pressed for space, and many of these pools were found on the roof of the school. This is where the Yagumo Elementary School pool was located and my daughter, along with the rest of her class, trotted off for swimming lessons each day of the summer. It was just expected that children would be around for these classes, and they were scheduled at different times during the week. There were regulation mizugi and caps to be bought and labeled, and a whole list of instructions for what and when a child could eat before swimming class. Shana came home the first day with an attendance card and proudly showed me her sticker. The goal was to fill the card with stickers and achieve good attendance and to also get a rank in swimming. (There are ranks for everything in Japan, not just karate.)

One of the bigger homework projects involved a morning glory plant. Each first grader had nurtured their plant from seeds, starting back in April. I guessed that Shana would not be able to participate in this project because we’d moved to Yagumo in June and she didn’t have a plant. I was wrong. It turns out that the teacher had one for her. When I asked the teacher how she could possibly have known that she’d get a transfer student (very unusual in Japan) two months after school had begun, she happily informed me that she had three “extras” that she secretly was growing herself in case they were needed.

Each day the plant figured into her homework. It was used for observation. She had to draw pictures of the flowers on it at different times of day. It was used for math, as she counted the blossoms and then did math problems based on the different colors. For me, the scary part was keeping it alive over the summer. I don’t know what kind of penalty a mother would get if she and her child killed the teacher’s morning glory, but luckily these plants were pretty hardy and even the rowdy boys in her class brought them back proudly at the beginning of September fully intact. It was eye opening to see how one plant could be used for so much. Watering the plant each day and determining how much water was also the child’s job. So they learned to nurture something, with a built in guarantee that the plant was hardy and the job was doable even for a six year old.

During the summer, Shana also had a few days of usagi duty. The school had a rabbit, and each day a sixth grader and a first grader would be responsible for feeding it. The school often paired sixth and first graders together since the first grader would learn the ropes from an older child, and the older child would profit from being in a teaching role. She trotted off to the school, lettuce and carrots in hand.

The last reason that she had to go to school was for a week of rajio taiso. And that’s another post I’ll make this summer!

  • ichinensei – 一年生 a first-grader. At an elementary school, but is also used for the first years of junior high, high school, and college, though usually modified to indicate which level of school.
  • apāto – アパート apartment
  • donguri – どんぐり acorn
  • okāsan – お母さん mother
  • namae – 名前 name
  • shukudai – 宿題 homework
  • mizugi – 水着 bathing suit
  • usagi – ウサギ rabbit
  • rajio taisō – ラジオ体操 radio exercise. Explanation to come….

Cute Mice

Living with cats means sometimes living with mice. I live surrounded by fields and woods so it is inevitable that my indoor cats will sometimes, somehow, find them in my basement. Usually they bring them into my bedroom at night. Alive. (One of my cats gave me a look like, “Well, if you have a pet, why can’t I?” And even took a nap with his “pet.”)

Jack and his pet

Though I never saw any nezumi in my home in Japan, we sometimes heard noises in the ceiling above us. My husband would laugh and say “nezumi no undōkai.” It’s kind of cute to imagine it that way, isn’t it?

Curiously, it seems that there is not usually a distinction drawn between rats and mice in Japan. There’s one word—nezumi—that covers both of them. This used to baffle me. But, when I asked, people would just shrug and say that a rat was an ookī nezumi. For the record, I do not think rats are cute so it does make a difference for me and I’m glad we make that distinction in English!

When I had my daughter and began to collect ehon for her I found that kawaii mice were often featured. One of my favorites was a series featuring a kazoku of 14 mice. I was instantly charmed by the asagohan story. And I’m very happy these have been translated into English. I highly recommend them if you have a child in your life! The author is Kazuo Iwamura.

  • nezumi – ねずみ mouse or rat
  • nezumi no undōkai – ネズミの運動会 literally “a field day for mice” or a sports event for mice. Undōkai are a whole other topic and they happen in the fall, most popularly at the elementary school level.
  • ookī – 大きい big, adjective
  • ehon – 絵本 picture book
  • kawaii – 可愛い If you use one word to translate it, it is “cute.” But it is simply so much more and has unique parameters which is probably why it has been exported from Japan in reference to manga, Hello Kitty goods, etc.
  • kazoku – 家族 family
  • asagohan – 朝ご飯 breakfast

Ribon

Of course you want your kids to be bilingual when you’re in a foreign country or married to a person from a foreign country. I was no exception. To give myself some credit, I never did think it would be kantan. And there were so many ways to “do” it.

Living in Rhode Island in 1988, soon after moving back to the US from Tokyo, I met an older Chinese woman. She had five kodomo and four of them were teens or in daigaku. Her youngest was three years old. She griped to me that she was actually paying college tuition to have her older ones learn the Chinese language. She was determined that the three year old learn Chūgokugo then and there. Outrageous to have to pay money to teach them a language they could have learned at home, she’d say. But apparently three is the age where they realize that the outside world is speaking something different from what is spoken at home. And that’s the first stumbling block for many.

The Monbushō supports Japanese citizens living outside of Japan by providing free kyōkasho and a correspondence course. I’m sure it is quite different now, but for my daughter it meant tape cassettes and workbooks. And when we lived in New Jersey, it meant going to hoshūkō. She liked it and we all liked getting lunch at a Japanese bakery afterwards.

First grade textbook

Back in the early nineties the Japanese shōgakusei were passing around manga and learning American history through a multi-volume set of manga. The teachers at their American school would be impressed by their knowledge. They had no idea it all came from a manga.

This is what it looks like. Sensory overload for me!

The other day, my daughter told my bored grandson to go read his library books. He stated that he’d finished reading all of them. She scolded him for only taking out graphic fiction this time around. I had to laugh. What goes around comes around.

I said I had one word and only one word for her. Ribon! Or I could spell it as it is in English….

Ribbon comes out monthly and is over three inches thick. Buying it in America would cost me upwards of $10 (more like $20 now). And darned if she wouldn’t finish reading it in thirty minutes or less! It seemed like an incredible waste of money to me, but she insisted she had to have it each month and truthfully I was impressed that she could read it so quickly.

But it was those manga that kept her Japanese alive and made her avid to read more. And… as a librarian I thoroughly approve! Her reading level stayed on an elementary school level, but considering she had an American mama and was living in Japan, well, I will take it.

  • kantan – 簡単 easy, siimple
  • kodomo – 子供 child, children
  • daigaku – 大学 college, university
  • Chūgokugo – 中国語 the Chinese language
  • Monbushō – 文部省 The Japanese Ministry of Education
  • kyōkasho – 教科書 textbook(s)
  • hoshūkō – 補習校 Literally, supplementary school, but refers to the Saturday school held overseas in areas where a Japanese population necessitate it. They range from being small cultural schools catering to part Japanese children all the way to very serious endeavors meant to ensure that Japanese children living temporarily outside of Japan will not fall behind in their studies. Don’t even ask me about parent roles. They are expected and way beyond PTA’s of America.
  • shōgakusei 小学生 – elementary school students
  • manga 漫画 – graphic fiction or frankly, comic books

This post is not about clouds

Yesterday I saw a kumo climbing the wall in my office. I do not like spiders. But I hesitated and could not kill it and let it go on its way. Why? Because it was 10 AM and seeing a kumo in the morning is good luck. And I can’t seem to let go of some of these adages that I learned in Japan. So, beware, spider, if I see you again in the evening!

When I gave birth to my daughter in Tokyo, I was in a byōshitsu with three other mothers. This turned out to be wonderful. Two of them had just given birth to their second babies so they were filled with useful tips and advice. We had a lot of time to chat because back then you stayed in the byōin for seven whole days.

The hospital where my daughter was born. No computer back then and the toilet was down the corridor, far far away!

The calmest mama of us all was a day ahead of the rest of us and she fretted out loud a little on exactly when she should check out of the byōin. It would be fortuitous to check out in the morning, because the morning was good luck for checking out of the hospital, she informed us. However, she was going home to her giri okāsan‘s home and if she checked out in the morning, her giri okāsan would feel obligated to prepare lunch for her and she didn’t want to trouble her. I’m pretty sure none of this is a itabasami that an American new mother would have!

Speaking of good things, the expression Zen wa isoge fascinates me because I think I understand it, but I’m not sure I really do. I guess it is a call to action and to not hesitate when one is taking worthy action? Or does it mean that if there is one donut left you’d better grab it quickly? Well, no. But it is an excellent adage to remember when you’re starting to hesitate to do something that you know will help others.

Good translation!

Now, where did that spider go, I wonder?

  • kumo – くも spider. It also means cloud, but you can tell from the context, i.e. in this case, would I really have a cloud climbing up my wall and want to kill it? I think not.
  • byōshitsu – 病室 hospital room. Byō is illness and shitsu is room, so….
  • byōin – 病院 hospital. Byō is illness and the in denotes an institution
  • zen wa isoge – 善は急げ “Do good things fast” or “Don’t hesitate to do good”
  • giri okāsan – 義理お母さん mother-in-law
  • itabasami – 板挟み a dilemma. Literally it means stuck between two boards

Cotton Life

When you go to a foreign country, you expect to discover and learn new things. You find yourself changing in ways that you would have never predicted. Going 100% cotton was one of my adjustments.

I don’t think I ever thought all that much about the content of my yōfuku in America. I bought what looked nice or was well priced. A tee-shirt was a tee-shirt and jeans were jeans. That was the bulk of my wardrobe and still is today. But in Japan, I learned the value of cotton.

The simplest explanation is the otenki. Kyoto is just so darned atsui and mushiatsui that cotton was going to be the best option. And it was prefect for layering during the cold winters. And that was what I found in shops when I started cautiously delving into clothing. I say cautiously, because my size was so different from the typical Japanese women’s size back then. Until I was pregnant and really needed to shop, I didn’t. And then when I confided in my Japanese giri onēsan, she kindly sent me all of her maternity clothes! She was just as tall as me, and had some items that were surely tailor-made.

When my musume was born in 1984, nuno omutsu were still what most mother’s were using. My giri okāsan sewed 100 of them for me. One of the nicest gifts I’ve ever received. Cotton of course and I still have a few of them with blue puppies scampering across them. She had two granddaughters already and perhaps she was hoping for a grandson, but that wasn’t to be…yet.

Japanese diapers

My own parents sent baby clothing from America that had fire-retarding unknown content to me. It did not breathe. I stuck with the Japanese baby clothes—of course, all cotton. And on summer nights I’d religiously insert gauze hankies into her pajamas to absorb ase and change them out during the night every few hours. Yes, I really did those things. Cotton ruled!

And cotton held up well. Our washing machine only used cold water and I hung everything out to dry. The smell of cotton clothing imbued with sunshine and fresh air is always an upper to me!

Hanging laundry while pregnant in Tokyo….
  • yōfuku – 洋服 clothes. Western style clothes. There’s a different word for Japanese style clothing.
  • otenki – お天気 weather
  • atsui – 暑い hot
  • mushiatsui – 蒸し暑い humid
  • giri onēsan – 義理お姉さん (older) sister-in-law. If you put giri before mother, father, sister, brother etc. it turns it into an in-law
  • musume – 娘 daughter or young woman
  • nuno omutsu – 布おむつ cloth diapers (as opposed to disposable diapers which are kami omutsu)
  • giri okāsan – 義理お母さん mother-in-law. If you put giri before mother, father, sister, brother etc. it turns it into an in-law
  • ase – 汗 sweat

Nakayoshi – Part 2

[As I typed the title for this post I had a sudden memory connected with “Part 2.” One of the most popular singers of the Showa Era was Yamaguchi Momoe. And she had a hit song called “Playback – Part 2.” Suddenly I’m compelled to see if there was ever a Part 1. Time to consult Ms. Google. Hah! There really was a Part 1. And now I know. Google it yourself if you’re interested.]

So, back to nakayoshi. Having consulted with my family therapist daughter, she allowed for the possibility that reminding children that they are nakayoshi might be a healthier way to stop a kenka.

Gratuitous photo of my nakayoshi kitties

Sometimes the very structure of a language can aid or hinder communication. There’s this:

When our family moved back to the USA my daughter had very little English speaking ability. We were in a large apartment complex and one day she saw a little girl around her age riding a sanrinsha. She wanted to see if she could borrow it. She asked me, “Mama, how do I say ‘kashite‘ in English?”

三輪車

So simple in Nihongo, but all I could think of in Eigo was the unwieldy “Can I borrow your tricycle?” My daughter just stared at me. Too much English for her sansai self and she gave up right away.

Sweatshirts were torēnā in our house until the kids realized that other American kids didn’t use this term. They’d learned it in Japanese because the Japanese learned it from the Australians or the British? I’m not sure.

One day, when my daughter was in kindergarten in New Jersey, she came to me very excited.

“Mommy, guess what?! The word for orange juice is the same in Japanese and Korean!! orēnji jūsu!”

Gotta love the kids!

  • Yamaguchi Momoe – 山口百恵 one of the most popular singers who retired when she got married. All of Japan wept on that day.
  • nakayoshi – 仲良し good friends
  • kenka – 喧嘩 quarrel or fight
  • sanrinsha – 三輪車 tricycle
  • kashite – 貸して the imperative form of the verb ‘kasu’ which means ‘to lend.’ A casual way of asking. An adult might add a please to it.
  • Nihongo – 日本語 Japanese language
  • Eigo – 英語 English language
  • sansai – 三才 three years old
  • torēnā – トレーナー what we Americans call a sweat shirt
  • orenji jūsu – オレンジ ジュース orange juice

Nakayoshi – Part 1

Japanese honyakusha often talk about the untranslatable words and phrases. We all have our own thoughts on this and there are many that are commonly discussed. We struggle with giving a literal translation (sometimes misleading), a footnote (can get long-winded and cumbersome)—or an explanation when we first use the word in a given text. Because Nihongo has so many ways to write a given word it is very nuanced. And sometimes a word just gets adopted into English. Kawaii is one example. It means cute, but it evokes so much more than that in Japanese modern bunka.

A sign in a store in Kyoto that I photographed for just this reason

I have two new neko. They get along great and because one of them is a koneko there is a lot of mock fighting going on. He’s a strong kitten and sometimes the older one gets knocked around, perhaps a bit too much. This morning I found myself watching the roughhousing and saying to them “Nakayoshi, nakayoshi.” Since I learned my mothering skills in Japan, this phrase came out of my mouth naturally. It literally means “good friends.” But it also works as an admonishment to “stop fighting” to small children who are quarreling.

Sophie bopping Sammy on the head

I thought more about it and sent a text to my busy family therapist musume. I wanted to ask her opinion about this way of stopping a quarrel. It seems to me that it would be therapeutically better to stop a fight by reminding the kodomo that they are “good friends” rather than saying to stop doing something. Or am I going too deep here?

There is a lot about childrearing in Japan that I like. In my mind I’ve combined the best of American and Japanese practices. Not sure my kids would agree, but this is certainly one of the advantages of being bicultural. In Part II I will let you know what my daughter thinks. It is benri that she also understands Japanese and the nuances!

  • honyakusha – 翻訳者 translator. Honyaku usually refers to written translation and sha is a suffix for person. There is another word for interpreters.
  • Nihongo – 日本語 Japanese language. If you’ve been reading my blog religiously, you should already have this one down!
  • Kawaii – 可愛い If you use one word to translate it, it is “cute.” But it is simply so much more and has unique parameters which is probably why it has been exported from Japan as is in many cases.
  • bunka – 文化 culture
  • neko – 猫 cat(s)
  • koneko猫 kitten. Note that this is a combination of cat and the prefix for child. Now then, if you know that inu means dog, you can guess how to say puppy!
  • Nakayoshi, nakayoshi – 仲良し、仲良し Used like this toward children, it is meant as a reminder that you are good friends and to thus, stop quarreling. A nice way to admonish, I think!
  • musume – 娘 daughter or young woman
  • kodomo供 child
  • benri – 便利 convenient

Spring has come

The first place I lived in Tokyo was right across the street from a big otera called Tōkōji. I had a nice view from my window and was able to observe it through the seasons. Lovely! And smack in the middle of Tokyo.

Tokoji – the view from my window

This temple had a large yōchien and the children would arrive by basu each morning. I would watch the sensei teaching them etiquette. As each child alighted from the basu, the sensei would bow and say good morning. The child would reply with their own “Ohayō gozaimasu, Sensei.”

It was always fun to watch, because the now didn’t come naturally to some of the children, and the Sensei would place a firm hand on the child’s atama and “assist” them in bowing.

One by one the children stepped off the bus and bowed to the adult in charge

I also learned a number of children’s songs thanks to this temple. As is true of many schools in Japan, the sliding glass doors to the classrooms were almost always wide open regardless of the weather. Children would run freely between classroom and the outdoor space. It’s a very healthy lifestyle. And when they were singing, I heard it all. The first uta I learned was this one:

So simple that I picked it up easily

There were more to come, but to me this one was the most charming. Living across the street from an otera with a yōchien was an unexpected bonus in my quest to learn the Japanese language.

  • otera – お寺 temple. Of course this word uses the honorable “o” in front of it. Remember, Temples are Buddhist and shrines are Shinto.
  • Tōkōji – 東光寺 the name of a temple in Meguro Ward. It’s very much off the beaten track so only locals would visit it. Or parents of the students at their kindergarten. It also has a cemetery as the temple was created in memory of the death of a ten year old.
  • yōchien – 幼稚園 this usually gets translated as kindergarten, but can include classes of 3,4 and 5 year olds. It contrasts with daycare centers which are called hoikuen.
  • basu – バス bus
  • Ohayō gozaimasu, Sensei – おはようございます 先生 “Good morning, Teacher”
  • atama – 頭 head (part of body)
  • uta – 歌 song

The Crow

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.

Our apartment in Tokyo. Bottom left is us and there’s me… still pregnant

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.

The three babies born in the same month in their strollers

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.

A famous song in Japan

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.