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N.Y. expat delivers parenting options

Woman overcomes obstacles to bring Tokyoites more choices in giving birth, child care

by Tomoko Otake

When New York native Brett Iimura visited Japan for the first time in 1976, the teenage girl spent an “absolutely amazing” time here. Visiting a Japanese friend she had met at her school in New York, Iimura stood out everywhere she went because back then there were very few foreigners in Japan, even in Tokyo.

“We were very visible, and I was young,” Iimura, director of the Tokyo-based Childbirth Education Center, recalled recently at a cafe in Tokyo’s residential Setagaya district. “I was considered exotic, and given presents at every store I went to.”

While she recounts the experience favorably, her feelings toward Japan, a country she and her Japanese husband have made their home for the last 17 years, are a little more complex.

That is because Iimura, who has given birth and raised two children here, has gone through some discouraging experiences — as an expecting mother scrambling to find a doctor to help her realize her desire for a home birth.

When Iimura was pregnant with her first child in 1994, she spoke with many doctors and midwives, explaining that she wanted to give birth at home and that she was looking for backup support from medical professionals in case something went wrong.

But many of the doctors she visited here were dismissive, saying it was unsafe, Iimura says. Some even judged that she was not fit for home birth — an option uncommon but accepted in Japan — because she asked “a lot of questions.”

“A friend of mine who had given birth at a ‘josan-in’ (a birth center led by a certified midwife) told me about it. I hadn’t known this option existed in Japan, so I went to visit her while she was there,” she recalled. “I asked a lot of questions, particularly about hospital backup, (such as) who they used and what the procedures were. And they got the impression that I was not a candidate for home birth because I was ‘too worried.’ “

After a long and interesting “adventure” — at a time when the Internet was not available — she eventually found a doctor who gave her backup support. And she has been able to give birth to both of her children at home.

“I (finally) found the head obstetrician of a hospital who was very in favor of home birth and very, very willing to give backup,” she said. “It took a long time, it was a lot of work. And I realized that this information isn’t out there in the expat community. I was having a hard time (even though) I spoke Japanese.”

Through this experience she realized how little information was available to women in Japan, especially those in the expat community, not just regarding their birthing options but also about how their bodies worked.

This prompted her to start birth education classes when her son was about 1 year old. She set up the CEC with a friend a year later, in 1997.

The center, which gives various birth preparation and early parenting classes in English, has served 1,600 couples from 70 countries.

Iimura, who says she loves the safety of Japan, notes that she has tried hard to fit in and belong in society. But at the same time, she has come to terms with the fact that she will never fully belong to any group, Japanese or American, she says.

“I don’t belong to any group anymore and that’s very difficult,” she said. “You don’t fully belong to an American group, you don’t fully belong to a Japanese group. You are always in between. You go back to the States and people expect you to be American and you don’t even know what’s going on anymore. You feel like a foreigner. I remember when debit cards first came out (in the States) and I had no idea what they were talking about.”

But in Japan, Iimura has learned to use what she calls the “aura of excuse” trick — such as when doctors refuse you access to your own medical records.

“I tell women (who take my classes) that, ‘If you are having trouble getting lab results or a copy of your medical records, tell the doctor that you need to show these records to your doctor back in whatever country you come from,’ ” she said. “And that will usually easily get you the records. If you use that reason, you can get the record much more easily than, say, a Japanese person.”

For a growing generation of mixed children, like Iimura’s, she says she hopes that Japan will accept them as Japanese — instead of looking at them as “half-gaijin” or worse, considering their mixed heritage, plain old “gaijin.”

“I think it’s important for Japan to recognize that all of our kids are Japanese,” she said, adding that in Tokyo one in 10 couples is mixed. “All of our doubles, triples, quadruples, whatever we call them, they are also Japanese. This is the new face of Japan. And I am hopeful that acceptance is inevitable.”