You may happen to have long planned and booked a trip to Japan and be taken by surprise by an unexpected pregnancy. You may also be already pregnant when you decide to visit Japan. First of all, congratulations, this is the beginning of a great adventure!
Pregnant women are showered with all sorts of information, sometimes completely irrational and often stress-inducing, and it is important to sift through it with a critical eye and personal approach. It is no different when you travel abroad, especially to a far-away country and one that was hit by a major ecological disaster a few years ago.
However, provided that you comply with basic rules of precaution and act with proper common sense, it is quite possible for you to travel to Japan when you are pregnant. And since it may prove difficult to go again in the following years, you had better enjoy it to the full!
In Japanese, the word for pregnancy is 妊娠 ninshin. Let us mention in passing that Japanese women gain an average 8kg during their pregnancy.
A Useful Reminder of Basic Facts
Pregnancy can be broken down into three terms, which roughly correspond to the following stages:
- 1st term: intense fatigue and low resilience, higher risk of miscarriage and, in some cases, morning sickness.
- 2nd term: vitality recovered, lower risks.
- 3rd term: return of intense fatigue, freedom of movements restrained, risk of premature birth.
It is therefore best to plan a trip in the 4th and 5th months, possibly in the 6th. When you start your 7th month, some airlines will refuse to let you board the plane anyway. Do not forget to follow the usual advice about wearing compression stockings and drinking plenty of water. You should also inform the cabin crew so that they are ready to assist you if necessary.
Of course you should avoid to plan long days of travelling or long hiking excursions with no breaks. It is actually best for you to take advantage of the safety, quietness and cleanliness of transport facilities in Japan, especially trains and taxis. You should wear loose-fitting clothes, carry a lightweight bag, use the excellent takuhaibin system to avoid carrying your luggage around, and drink a lot of fluids (water and tea, the latter more moderately on account of the theanine it contains).
Finally you should make a note of the contact details of hospitals where the staff will speak your language and keep them close at hand. In Tokyo for example, there is an international hospital called St Luke with an ER open around the clock (contact details: 9-1 Akashi-cho, Chuo-ku / Tsukiji station, exit #3 and then a 7-minute walk / phone 03-5550-7166 in English). Through your medical insurance or credit card supplier, you are probably covered for medical expenses abroad and you can also probably call a Helpline at all times. You should also keep the details of your country's Embassy in Japan handy.
Japanese Food and Pregnancy
Food requires the most attention. There are two main diseases which you must be careful not to catch when pregnant, wherever in the world you may be.
First of all, toxoplasmosis (トキソプラズマ症 toxoplasma-shô), a parasitic disease to which over 50% of pregnant women are not immune. It may be passed to the fetus and cause serious brain damage (about six hundred births per year in France for example). In order to avoid infection by toxoplasma gondii, which may be transmitted by cat scratch, when cleaning cat litter boxes or by contact with contaminated soil, it is strongly recommended to stay away from the following foods:
- Raw, marinated or smoked, i.e. undercooked meat (cooked rare or extra-rare, beware of surface cooking);
- Salads, raw vegetables, unpeeled or poorly washed vegetables and fruits.
Then listeriosis (リステリア症 listeria-shô), a bacterial infection that can also be passed to the fetus and cause premature birth, infections and even death in 30% of cases. In order to avoid listeriosis, for which the contamination rate is 20% higher for pregnant women (fortunately there are only very few cases), stay away from the following foods:
- Raw or smoked fish or seafood, i.e. most sushi (for more information, read our article Eating Sushi during Pregnancy);
- Undercooked, therefore unpasteurized pork meat and pates, food products in aspic;
- Raw and/or non-pasteurized dairy products (milk, butter, cream);
- Most cheeses, in particular those with a natural crust and soft ones (although they are not very common in Japan);
- Food products whose “Best Before” date has expired.
Pasteurization may translate as パスチャライゼーション (pronounced the English way) or 低温殺菌 teion sakkin (sakkin meaning sterilization), but unfortunately this information does not appear on all labels.
Other food products and drinks should also be ruled out:
- Alcohol consumption, from Sake to Japanese beers although they usually have low alcohol contents;
- Soybean in large quantities, because of its hormonal content, although it is harmless over a short period;
- Raw or undercooked eggs which may contain salmonella;
- Excessive salt consumption, a risk factor for pre-eclampsia.
Despite the above restrictions, Japanese cuisine is, however, sufficiently rich and diverse to offer you a large choice of delicious dishes!
If you are not sure how a particular food has been prepared or cooked, especially in a restaurant or at an outdoor food stand, and there is no way for you to find out, you should probably not eat it out of precaution. The best option is definitely to be put up in a house or flat where you can prepare your own meals. Through a smart use of bento boxes, you may avoid a lot of stress. Also drink bottled water rather than tap water even though water processing is generally excellent.
For those of you who are wary of possibly contaminated products from the areas affected by the nuclear disaster of March 2011, watch out for kanji 福島 (Fukushima) and 宮城 (Miyagi) generally followed by 県 (ken, prefecture).
If you have any questions or things you want clarified, do not hesitate to contact your Doctor, gynaecologist and/or obstetrician before leaving, or even from Japan (although remember the time difference).
Of course you cannot very well choose the season for your trip to Japan if you are pregnant. You should follow the advice given to all travelers and take extra precautions. However, it is not advisable to travel in summer because of the very hot and humid weather. In the winter, you may wear a 腹巻 haramaki to protect your tummy : it consists of a padded belt which allegedly goes back to the time of the Samurai. We strongly advise you against onsen where water temperature rises well over 40°C, which is very bad for the heart and bloodstream. You may occasionally visit sento which offer a large variety of baths. In any case, do not soak for too long and/or at temperatures higher than 37°C.
Because of the variety of services provided in Japan, you will daily appreciate the comfort of travelling while pregnant. You will find konbini and other vending machines on every street corner, especially in urban areas, which will make it easier for you to buy a snack or drink on the run. There are lots of escalators, for example in stations, and you should make extensive use of elevators. The Japanese are very organized and helpful and will see to it that your wait in queues and for visits is kept to a minimum. Also avoid long and frequent rides on downtown buses as it may be difficult to find a seat (for example in Kyoto) and because the stop-start driving can be quite tough on the future mother.
Another minor inconvenience of public transport: people typically do not comply with the signs posted by the reserved seats (for the old and disabled, for pregnant women and women accompanied by young children) at the back of train and subway cars. This is quite surprising given the supposedly all-encompassing Japanese politeness. Do not hesitate to carry a copy of the official logo (the picture at the top of this article) and request that one of the reserved seats be vacated for you if you feel tired. You can say, for example: すみません、妊娠していますから。。。 Sumimasen, ninshin shiteimasu kara ("Please excuse-me, I’m pregnant").
Finally, do not forget to bring your own first-aid kit and cosmetics: moisturizing and sun cream (especially in summer), face care cream and care for stretch marks. Japan obviously offers a large variety of all such products but it will hardly be the right moment for you to scrutinize labels or try new products, allowing, moreover, for the risk of allergies and intolerances.
If you plan to stay longer or even give birth in Tokyo, and you can visit the Tokyo Pregnancy Group website where you will find all the information you need.