One man's fight to be a midwife

by Yoshino Matsui

The baby looked pale as it started to emerge from the mother’s body, worrying Hisateru Takikawa, who had been attending to the woman for hours since her labor started.

At the time, he was 22 and practiced midwifery in one of his courses at nursing school.

When the baby’s body was in full view and it gave a loud, healthy first cry, its skin turned red instantly. “The moment I saw it, I felt goose bumps,” said Takikawa, now a 27-year-old registered nurse working at a Tokyo hospital.

“Seeing the mother’s smile and her family’s looks of relief, I was simply moved,” he said. “I called my own mother that day. I just wanted to tell her ‘Thank you,’ after I learned how she gave birth to me,” he said.

That was the day Takikawa, a former vocalist in an amateur hard rock band, started to aspire for another medical license — that of midwife, despite the fact the government legally bars men from taking the national midwifery examination.

If things go well for him, Takikawa may make headlines in the early 21st century as one of Japan’s first male midwives.

But difficulties lie in the path to this exclusive domain of women, just as female pioneers have to deal with various forms of male resistance when they break with traditional gender roles.

In April, the Liberal Democratic Party decided to propose amendments to the Public-Health Nurse, Midwife and Nurse Law to allow men to become midwives, in line with the government’s slogan of creating a “gender-equal society” in the 21st century.

Enacted in 1999, the Basic Law for a Gender-Equal Society promotes giving men and women equal chances to participate in social activities “in all fields of their own choosing.” However, the LDP gave up proposing the amendments a month later after a group of midwives launched an aggressive campaign against the move, including submitting to the Democratic Party of Japan — the largest opposition party — the signatures of some 5,000 opponents.

“It’s like a dream that we could halt this legislation in so short a period of time,” said Junko Asahina, a veteran midwife from Shiga Prefecture, who led the campaign.

“But our movement isn’t over,” Asahina, 57, said. “It’s just started. I believe they didn’t fully abandon the amendments and may try to submit a bill to the Diet again in autumn.”

She believes men should never be allowed to be midwives, not only because the job involves contact with female genitals but also because she believes men can not offer the support to pregnant women that female midwives can provide.

At a Tokyo symposium on the issue in early July, Asahina said: “Midwifery is work that requires efforts to be mentally united with a pregnant woman . . . Can men really understand how women feel, when they can never give birth or have a period?”

Hisako Watanabe, an executive from the Japanese Nursing Association, responded by saying that on the basis of her argument, “no nurse can offer good care to dying patients unless they’ve experienced death, or midwives who have never given birth cannot be good midwives.”

The association has long called for allowing men to become midwives.

According to Takikawa, some opponents of the concept of male midwives also oppose men becoming nurses. “Some are very critical of men themselves and say men should never exist in the field of nursing care. But I just want to do things that happen to have been traditionally undertaken by women.”

He said he had wanted to become a nurse since high school when he was a patient at a hospital where he received “tender care” from nurses of both sexes.

Asahina believes a vast majority of women do not wish to be assisted by male midwives during childbirth, and says their husbands feel the same.

No matter how much society becomes more gender-equal, there should always be a female “sanctuary” off-limits to men, she said.

Yuji Yamazaki, an assistant professor at the Japanese Red Cross Musashino Junior College of Nursing and a researcher on the issue, said the idea of considering childbirth as something “holy” and opposing male midwifery reminds him of the Japan Sumo Association, which says women should never enter the sumo ring because it is a “sacred place.”

Masuko Saito, a professor at the Toho University College of Health Professions who has trained a male student in midwifery, thinks that the Japanese characteristic of denying friendships between men and women is partly responsible for some women being averse to male midwifery.

“Women and men are so wide apart in our society,” Saito said. “If a woman and a man who are not married just eat together, some suspect adultery. Even married couples don’t go out very often.”

Some opponents say the entry of men into the field would only worsen the childbirth situation at hospitals, where they say pregnant women are too much under the control of male doctors who overly rely on “unnatural” expedients such as drugs and delivery monitors.

“I can understand their dissatisfaction with the style of births at hospitals,” Saito said. “But that’s why I believe even more that men should be allowed to become midwives. Through their entry into this field . . . I hope people will realize how important the area really is.”