Tall tales among the bamboo — where do babies come from?


“Please fill out this information sheet,” said the nurse. It had been several years since I had been to this hospital for a check-up. I noticed, with glee, they had done away with the plastic slippers at the genkan, where the masses had to leave their shoes in a locker and step into slippers before proceeding to the reception. Japanese people think nothing of putting their feet into slippers that millions of other feet had occupied over the years. Foreigners tend to think about all the foot fungus cultures growing happily in warm, dark, sweaty, plastic environments. Talk about multi-cultural slippers!

I wonder if dogs and cats have to put on slippers when they go to the vet?

But for whatever reason, perhaps plastic slipper budget cuts, or overflowing waiting rooms in the department of podiatry, the slippers and lockers were gone. May they rest in peace!

“Can you read it?” the nurse said, referring to the Japanese kanji on the question sheet. I looked at the paper, a standard list of questions for patients about their general health.

“No problem,” I said. These questionnaires are standard — all clinics have them. But upon looking at the questions closer, I realized I hadn’t seen medical kanji in a while. I told the nurse that if I had any questions, I’d ask her.

When I was finished answering the mostly yes-and-no questions, and circling a few stray kanji answers here and there, I turned in the sheet and waited my turn to see the doctor.

Shortly after, I was called in to “Door No. 1” (which always reminds me of a TV game show in which behind one of several doors lurks a tiger who is going to leap out when I open the door). But when I opened No. 1, rather than a tiger ready to leap out, the doctor was sitting at a desk looking at the sheet of paper I had just filled in. He instructed me to sit down.

“So,” says the doctor, “you’ve had a hysterectomy.”

“Oh, no I haven’t!” I said, alarmed. “Did I write that? I must have checked the wrong box, sorry!”

He corrected the mistake on the form. “But, you no longer have a uterus, right?” he confirmed.

“Did I write that? Sorry!” I said. “No, I do have a uterus.”

At least I think I do. As of last month I had one. But in Japan, you never know. There are parents here who tell their children to cover their bellybuttons when they hear thunder because kaminari ga heso o toru (lightning will steal your bellybutton). I’ve never heard kaminari ga shikyu o toru (lightning will steal your uterus) but then again, I’m not familiar with all of the sayings or superstitions in Japan. Perhaps there is some uterus kleptomaniac, like a badger, who is able to turn himself into a woman. This woman and her husband have been childless for years. Every day, when he goes out to the forest to cut bamboo, she goes around stealing other women’s uteruses — via lightning bolts!

Speaking of tall tales, I was beginning to wonder what other lies I had told the doctor on this information sheet full of medical kanji I used to know!

Luckily, it turned out the rest of the information was all correct. But overall, I probably didn’t need to worry anyway. Japan is not a bad place to live if you happen to be lacking a uterus. Momotaro (“The Peach Boy”) was born from a giant peach that was floating down the river, and Princess Kaguya (“The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter”) was found growing inside the stalk of bamboo. Both of these legendary children were discovered by childless couples who couldn’t have children of their own. And they were happy to take these children in and raise them as their own.

This is a common thread in Japanese folk tales in which childless couples eventually are granted one by the gods (pandas take note!). Even Issun Boshi (“The Inch High Samurai”), although born from his mother’s womb, was a result of his mother praying for years for a child. “Please, please let us have a child, no matter how small,” she had pleaded. And so she was granted Issun Boshi, the inch-high samurai, and a ridiculously easy birth.

You have to admit though, these were all adventurous parents. You think it’s hard to put a foreign child through Japanese public school? Imagine your child having been born from a peach!

“Where are you from?”

“A peach.”

“How did you come to Japan?”

“By peach.”

Furthermore, the Peach Boy would have had to endure endless questions about peach fuzz and why his biological parents were pink. Imagine how tired the Peach Boy was of having to tell people, “My parents rotted just after I was born.”

Being discovered inside the stalk of bamboo as a baby isn’t much better, although it is said that Princess Kaguya was originally from the moon. Yeah, imagine how that one went over in school. And poor Issun Boshi must have felt sheer terror every time he spotted a fly swatter. Those were tough times for children.

On the other hand, the fact that these parents were willing to embrace such unusual children shows that the Japanese were really at the forefront of surrogate motherhood.

When it comes to uteruses, Japan is a great place to be even if you don’t have one. If you want a child and have exhausted all the peach groves and bamboo forests, I’d think that surely there is a child hiding in the daikon patch.

Just keep wishing and you shall receive.

  • Edward P

    this is brilliant!! made my day!

  • Sanjeevini Pertiwi

    Don’t you just love Japanese superstitions! I honestly didn’t know about kaminari ga heso o toru! I’m only familiar with the superstition where you can die from eating melons and eels at the same time.
    Great article! ^___^