Japan’s population continuously shrinks as the birth rate falls to the lowest level in history. The unique Japanese history and traditions form the society and culture of marriage and reproduction in the country. The book Embodying Culture: Pregnancy in Japan and Israel by Tsipy Ivry and Mac Marshall makes comparisons between being pregnant in Israel and Japan. Even though Israel tends to be known as a pro-natalist state, the book suggests that abortion of defective fetuses in Israel is a lot more common than in Japan (37-39). Moreover, the significant number of different pregnancy tests in the two countries suggest their differences in their emphasis and value. In other words, the comparisons made in the book explains the impacts of a country’s history, culture, and religious beliefs on their perspective of reproduction.
The book starts off the first chapter by explaining the Jewish religious imperative of “be fruitful and multiply” and that Israel is often being perceived as a pro-natal state as a consequence of surviving military conflicts (37). Reproduction is valued in the state of Israel. However, the frequency of abortion of defective fetuses is also explained in the text (39). In fact, pregnant women often sued their doctors for them failing to detect the abnormalities of the fetuses (26). Their strong emphasis on detecting abnormalities during pregnancy is backed up by the reason of “Jewish disease” that the recessive diseases were spread due to intermarriage in a small community (44 and 266). Compared to Japan only having three items in the “Japanese diseases” list, there are 47 items in the “Jewish diseases” list (266). It is inevitable that biological history and reproductive culture are not mutually exclusive and they are interconnected.
As a Japanese myself, I was quite surprised to learn how reproduction and women are valued differently in Israel. Unlike in Israel, Japan does not encourage tests for down syndrome due to moral issues; only patients with a high risk of carrying the disease are permitted for the test. Pregnant women in Japan are not concerned about fetus abnormalities as much as women in Israel. Moreover, pregnant women in Japan are also very valued during the process of pregnancy. Their weight is also controlled for the purpose of carrying children more easily for mothers (74). It is clear that both women and babies are valued during the process of birth-giving and the idea of “multiply and be fruitful” is not widely valued. However, in eras when militarism was emphasized in Japan, reproduction was encouraged in society (78). In fact, in 1907, the Meiji government outlawed practices of abortion and infanticide; “between 1920 to 1940 the population grew from nearly fifty-seven million to seventy-three million” (78). Embodying Culture: Pregnancy in Japan and Israel explains that the historical background can change the value of procreation and babies in society. The idea also relates to the current Japanese society that struggles to cope with the decreasing birthrate. As women become more accepted to enter the workplace, they decide to carry fewer children in order to main their job positions. Moreover, there are still not enough childcare and support for mothers to work and that creates the issue of a shrinking population. On the other hand, the Japanese government works to reduce the burden for working mothers to raise its fertility rate.
The book explains the bidirectional relationship between historical background and reproduction. People make decisions about their babies based on their countries’ historical and cultural backgrounds and changes. Moreover, governments also implement new public policies to cope with the social problems caused by changing birthrate and arising reproductive issues. In other words, the comparative studies of the two countries’ medicalized pregnancy explain that pregnancy as a biosocial phenomenon.
Japan is working on preventing a further decline in its population. Do you think there are other effective ways other than implementing public policies to raise Japan’s fertility rate?
What did you find most interesting in the book?