The Tanakas, “tenkin,” and “o-mutsu-koukan”

A few weeks ago (before all the hospital melodrama), I took my daughter to a nearby supermarket…which had a “baby care room” on the second floor, next to the roof parking lot. We had been invited by a Japanese couple that my wife met last year at a local city-organized “mother-child consultation” session.

The couple (whom I’ll call “Tanaka-san” since it’s a popular name…) and I chatted while our kids played with various toys. Kids at age 1 aren’t really capable of playing together, but it was fun anyway.

Talk turned to my child care leave. It turned out that Mr. Tanaka had taken a few days off during April to stay home and help his wife with household chores. Although a public servant and thus technically allowed to take child care leave, Mr. Tanaka felt that he had no choice but to continue working…basically because his wife had quit her job and he was the only source of income. There wasn’t any sense of jealousy, but it did seem as if Mr. Tanaka desperately wanted to be able to spend more time with his daughter, who had been born about the same time as mine.

Mrs. Tanaka, on the other hand, wanted to go back to work, but was resigned to staying home to look after their daughter. At least for the time being. As a national government employee, Mr. Tanaka was subject to sudden job transfers from the local area back to Tokyo. Typically he was transferred every two and a half to three years, and after a similar stay in Tokyo, he would be transferred once again back to the local area. So as long as he was in that position, it would be difficult for Mrs. Tanaka to find a long-term job.

I’m sure there are plenty of families in the same situation in Japan. The long-standing tenkin (job transfer) system in Japan probably stems from the medieval Edo-period custom of keeping the regional daimyo (feudal lord) virtually hostage in the capital city for one year out of three, as a way of reducing the threat of rebellion by the shogun’s vassal states.

Still, in the modern era, I don’t understand why the national government (or private businesses, for that matter) would deliberately force all their employees to move to different parts of the country every few years. Every time the Tanakas move, the government pays their moving expenses. Out of tax-payer money. Once their daughter reaches school-age, they’ll have a difficult decision to make, one which may result in the Tanakas living separately for years on end.

At any rate, the baby care room closed at 3 p.m., and we went downstairs to the vending machine rest area on the 1st floor of the supermarket to continue chatting while feeding our kids. At some point, I realized that my daughter needed a diaper change. Problem: only the women’s room had a baby changing table.

Mrs. Tanaka immediately offered to change my daughter’s diaper (o-mutsu-koukan). I apologized several times, but she didn’t seem bothered at all. “It’s okay,” she said, as I passed over my daughter and the diaper bag. “It can’t be helped.”

While she was away, Mr. Tanaka in turn apologized to me. “In the countryside in Japan,” he said, “old traditions die hard.”

I’ve been pondering this statement, especially since the hospital incident. As a matter of fact, I have noticed baby-changing tables in men’s rooms in every new shopping center my family and I have been to recently. The regional airports also have baby-changing tables in the men’s rooms, and sometimes the larger train stations do, too. Many have a tamoku teki benjyo (literally, “multiple purpose-like toilet”), which is designed for wheelchair-access but also has a changing table and can be used by families.

Compared to the average U.S. shopping experience, Japan seems more family-oriented in that sense. I don’t know how many Japanese men change their kids’ diapers in public, but I do see fathers leading older children (age 3 to 5 or so) into the bathroom. I have to wonder whether, like child care, Japan has created a modern, forward-looking system for o-mutsu-koukan that its citizens are just not quite ready to deal with…at least, not in public. But I could be wrong.

And yes, I have been asked on more than one occasion (more than a dozen…) whether I can change diapers. I’m the oldest of nine kids. I had to babysit on more than X occasions growing up. We used to use the cloth diapers with giant safety pins. Changing diapers is easy.

About MThomas

Long ago, I gave up my high school dreams of becoming the next Carl Sagan and instead wound up working (in order) at McDonald's, a '60s-themed restaurant, a video rental store, a used bookstore, a computer seller, Kinko's, a Jewish newspaper company, and an HR firm. I eventually became a teacher of intercultural communication in Kyoto, where I vainly attempt to apply quantum mechanics to language teaching, practice martial arts and Zen Buddhism, and always keep one eye on the sky. And yes, I know my profile photo's backward. I just think it looks better this way.
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