Giving birth to her third child in Japan this year should have been a joyous occasion, but Ayaka Kato recalls feeling “worried, lonely and sad.”
“I wasn’t allowed to see anyone in the hospital, including my own husband and two kids. The first time my husband could see our baby was on the phone,” the 32-year-old said, adding that her partner could only hold their child after she was discharged a week after the birth in September.
It’s a difficult reality for young parents in most places around Japan, where an estimated 80 percent of hospitals enforce a ban on partners during childbirth as part of coronavirus control measures. Parents say the rules don’t make sense considering Japan has weathered the pandemic much better than other countries despite a recent surge. They also say the rules are outdated when you consider bars, malls and trains in the largest city and capital Tokyo are busy. Widespread mask wearing is also the norm.
The government even launched a Go To Travel campaign to incentivize domestic tourism, and the government decided this week to extend the end date until at least June next year. Despite a recent announcement by Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike to order bars to close early and a decision by the national government to exclude Osaka and Sapporo from the travel campaign, overall measures have been mild compared to other places in the world.
Critics say the freedoms enjoyed by the rest of society make the measures endured by women in hospitals look unfair and even hypocritical. Japanese gynaecologist Yoko Sagara expressed concern about the practice during a press conference in Tokyo in November, where she said that hospitals should reconsider the partner ban. In an attempt to restore the old normal in hospitals, she started a petition calling on them to welcome companions back.
So far the petition has been signed by a thousand people, including experts from Japan and abroad. Japan is not the only country to grapple with the issue, but the stark contrast between the number of cases and the strict rules stands out. A similar petition gathered 150,000 signatures in New York after several hospitals there started banning all support people from labor units in March. New York has recorded tens of thousands more deaths than Japan, whose rate stands at a little more than 2,000. But New York Governor Andrew Cuomo demanded an end to the ban, saying that in “no hospital in New York will a woman be forced to be alone when she gives birth.”
The policy has also caused a stir in Hong Kong, where the government silently implemented a similar ban “three or four times,” according to Lindsey Ford, a British resident of Hong Kong who is expected to give birth to her first child in six weeks. The ban is not widely known and parents only learn about it when they arrive at the hospital, Ford told VICE World News.
“It’s my first baby, it causes a huge amount of emotional stress and anxiety. My husband is devastated, just like me. It’s important for him to be there, we’re not living in the 1950s, they want to be there, he is devastated and fighting, just like me.”
Meanwhile she is doing everything in her power to pressure the government into changing it.
“I will fight against it, but [it’s] unlikely that anything will change, so I’ll prepare for having to give birth alone,” she said.
In Hong Kong, media aren’t reporting much about it, and the same goes for Japan. Sagara, a member of the Japan Association of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, argues that the bans could have serious consequences for the health of both mother and child. “Before the pandemic, approximately 10 percent of pregnant women already struggled with psychological issues, mainly depression,” she explained.
Mental health is not Sagara’s only worry. She has heard of other rules enforced in different hospitals in Japan, including rules against breastfeeding. According to Sagara, the different measures could have a negative impact on the relationship between mother and child and could ultimately cause developmental issues.
The World Health Organization has emphasized that women need a companion during labor, even during a pandemic. The organization wrote in September that every woman “has a right to a companion of her choice to support her during labour and childbirth.”
Lauren Wade, an Australian resident of Japan, gave birth to her first child three months ago in Tokyo. First, she was nervous about giving birth in Japan and not back home in Perth. But she and her husband decided to stay “because our life is here.” As the pandemic became more serious, she did not want to risk not being able to come back to Japan, which wasn't allowing foreign residents to re-enter the country at the time.
“When I first heard that my partner couldn’t be there, I burst into tears, I couldn’t imagine going through that alone. I couldn’t imagine the father of my child missing this experience,” she said. The prospect of being alone, Wade explains, made her extremely anxious and upset. “It was traumatizing.”
She was further shocked when at her 30-week check-up hospital staff suggested to book her in for an induction, a practice that along with caesarean sections has been on the rise in many hospitals during the pandemic. “This is a medical intervention only done when necessary, for the safety of mother and baby. But doing it is not without risk. So I told them I didn’t want to be induced, I want for the baby to come naturally. I strongly said I don’t want to do it, then someone more senior entered the room saying ‘this is a big hospital, you should consider the safety of other patients.’ I felt I had no control, they didn't care for my wishes.”
After that, she was told it was difficult at this stage of her pregnancy to change hospitals, but she did manage to find a spot at a private clinic. “It did cost almost double of what a normal hospital would have cost, but it’s money well spent,” says Wade, who doesn’t have any regrets. The whole experience has also made her reconsider life in Japan. “I wouldn’t feel positive about having a second baby, we’re considering moving back to Australia.”
‘Treated as a virus’
Ai Yoda, 35, gave birth without her husband by her side about six months ago. Like many Japanese women, she returned to her hometown, Shizuoka, before the birth. This was before the government and medical organizations started to advise pregnant women against traveling to their hometowns due to fear over virus spread.
Eventually, she managed to get a place in a hospital but was told she had to go to a special room for people who came back from Tokyo, which at the time was considered to have more infections. “I was asked to choose a personal room at my own expense since I came from Tokyo where the virus was already spreading. It was kind of shocking for me and I felt like I was treated as a virus,” Yoda recalls.
Not having anyone to talk to aggravated feelings of loneliness and negativity, Yoda said. This was also her first time staying overnight in a hospital. “I really just wanted to talk with someone to relax and change my negative mind. I think the loneliness impacted me both mentally and physically.”
Citing her high blood pressure, the doctors decided on a caesarean section. She managed to give birth to a healthy baby, but her high blood pressure lingered for some time, which she attributes to being so anxious. She is still bitter about the experience. “I was dreaming of welcoming my baby together with my husband.”
For Kato, the mother who gave birth in September, it was somewhat easier because she had experience with two earlier children, and at least knew what to expect at the hospital despite being alone.
“But if you do it for the first time it must be so traumatic,” she said.