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The Japanese Art of Grieving a Miscarriage (nytimes.com)
140 points by Thevet on Jan 11, 2017 | hide | past | web | favorite | 68 comments

Missing from this article is that while jizo statues are used to commemorate miscarriage, they are far more commonly used to grieve over/religiously absolve oneself of abortion. While I'm happy that the author found some relief in this tradition, it struck me as odd that this was omitted. That miscarriages and abortions were treated with the same ritual always spoke to me as a more sincere expression of the suffering of women, especially given the gender inequity in Japan. The NY Times also themselves wrote about this 20 years ago:


I always found gender inequity in Japan quite different from how it was in the West. To me it seems that Japanese women were comparatively highly respected. Their role in society was different from that of the men, and still is, but independently from that the status of women was high since long ago. Just as an example, Japanese wives have traditionally had full financial control over the family budget - men got an allowance from them. I think wives/mothers in traditional households were usually seen as the head of the family behind the scenes, doing most of the important family decisions.

I work in Japan and don't agree with you. I believe they may be "respected" but they are not treated equally at all and I don't think their status is high at all. In the household they may control the finances but from my experiences they don't generally have the final say in the finances. Also in the workplace amongst others there is a huge disparity between pay and "rights".

In the southern USA, women are "respected" until they violate social norms of getting married and having children. I hear that women in Japan are still expected to (and usually do) quit their jobs when they have a child. You might try talking to some women in these situations to find out if they consider that to be a situation in which they are "highly respected".

You might find https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women_in_Shinto to be interesting reading.

Note that I never wrote that the situation is maximising happiness as-is and shouldn't be changed. I just wanted to point out that the peculiarities of the traditional female role in Japan differs quite a bit from Western societies, and one should be careful to leave out assumptions that come from mirroring our home culture.

One other example is that in Japan, the arguably most formative work of literature is 'Tale of Genji' (~1000 AD!), written by a woman. This work has a Dante's Inferno like status in Japan, in that it was both formative to both Japanese language and culture. The closest you could compare it to in English is if you combine the impacts of both the King James' bible and Shakespeare's work.

This is just to show what I mean with cultural status of women in Japan - it basically started since 1000 years ago when the women's way of writing (Hiragana / vocabulary / grammar) has started to become more and more the standard thanks to Lady Murasaki, and funnily enough this is still an ongoing process with Kanji's still being dropped for Hiragana. I think you'd have a hard time finding a historical Western woman with a comparable cultural impact - Queen Elizabeth I is the only one I can think of.

Huh. I expressed no opinion that the situation was or wasn't maximizing happiness as-is or should or should not be changed. I was recommending that you talk to modern Japanese women about whether they feel "highly respected".

I think you don't understand the situation in Japan because you see it with Western eyes. There are actually a lot of women who enjoy having this kind of role in society (and who have no interest in a career) - just because they were raised in that culture and do not reject it.

Now, it is true that if you are an ambitious woman in Japan, it is going to be difficult to make a career for yourself and you will certainly face discrimination at some workplaces. But that does not mean every woman is like or feels like that.

Huh, I didn't express any opinion about the situation in Japan, so are you actually replying to what I said? I definitely didn't say anything about what every woman in Japan thinks or feels. I think HN discussion would be better off if people responded to what was actually said, instead of repeatedly making things up and responding to that. I say "repeatedly" because that already happened in this thread.

In the west, a lot of the women I know would love to quit after having children in order to raise them full-time, but can't afford to. One of the main reasons the Japanese government is pushing to increase women's stature is to get them to work more for the economy's sake.

One of the issues of inequality is that housework and child-rearing is looked down upon, not that people choose to do housework and child-rearing. There are only a few countries that have made progress on that end - see e.g. Scandinavian countries where paternal leave and stay-at-home dads are on the rise.

> I hear that women in Japan are still expected to (and usually do) quit their jobs when they have a child.

You don't always have a choice - because there are no or few daycare facilities available anyway, and you may not live close to your parents either.

Daycare has become very good in Japan (I don't know about the rural areas). Many cities are trying their best to accommodate all the children so the parents can keep working if they please. I think the government is putting pressure on cities because of declining birth rates to be as helpful as possible. Where I live you can put your child in daycare starting at 4 months with special exceptions (low income so both parents need to work, etc), or starting at 1 year old for regular folks. It's a little difficult to get into your choice school usually but they can usually fit you in one of your top three choices.

> Daycare has become very good in Japan (I don't know about the rural areas)

As you mentioned, don't generalize to everywhere in Japan. I can tell you even in Kansai it's far from ideal and the daycare facilities are completely full and you need to reserve more than a year in advance to even have a chance to get your kid in.

Okay I made a mistype. Daycare has become much better is the correct thing to say. It's not the best but much better than it was 15 years ago. There is a "waiting list" almost everywhere I know of but if you try you can get in generally.

I was unable to get my son (8 months old at the time) into daycare anywhere near my home in southern Tokyo; we were lucky to get into a private place four stations in the opposite direction of my workplace.

This was last year. The situation is very much still problematic, even in cities.

And another Times article on Jizos by Peggy Orenstein from 2002 that also mentions the abortion angle: http://www.nytimes.com/2002/04/21/magazine/mourning-my-misca...

Weird they'd run an abbreviated rehash of one of their former magazine pieces, different authors aside. But I guess that's the world of op-eds. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Not everyone has read every 15 year-old article.

Found that one much more informative and less 'self-help book style'. thanks for sharing.

Those things are not missing from the article. The article is a woman's personal accounting of how she dealt with her own loss. It is insensitive and improper to push your own agenda on to such a personal and touching article.

FWIW, Jizo (地蔵, "Earth Treasury") is the Japanese version of the Buddhist boddhisattva Kshitigarbha: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kshitigarbha (A boddhisattva being one who is enlightened, but chooses to hang around the mortal planes to help others instead of flitting off to heaven.)

More traditionally, he's considered the patron saint of children (living ones too) and travelers. The "baby Jizo" thing came about when he morphed from being the protector of unborn and recently died children to actually representing the unborn/dead child, and is as far as I know this is an entirely Japanese adaptation.

Also, Jizo statues are common memorials for children who died young as well. Every now and then, you run into one with a child's sandals, toys, snacks etc beside it, which is pretty heart-breaking because you know that only a few months ago there was a little toddler running around in those tiny pink flipflops that are now bleaching in the sun and rain.

I was once at Hase-dera in Kamakura, which has an exceptionally large collection of baby Jizos. There was an American tour group stomping through and laughing at all these statues decorated with bibs and Hello Kitty figures and even little bottles of sake, because isn't Japan just so wacky and crazy? If they only knew the amount of heartbreak and pain they represent...

We do a similar thing with balloons - as I've gone through a miscarriage (with my wife) and a pet dying after twelve years (with the kids too) - and realizing that both were significant deaths for us that had no traditional outlets for our feelings - a funeral felt strange in those cases - we wrote goodbyes on balloons and let them go.

But there is something fun in a Jizo statue - that it makes an abstract feeling more concrete.

>a funeral felt strange in those cases

Huh? Why? Back when I was married, we had a funeral every time one of our pets died. Not some big affair with other people, of course, but just a small little ceremony for ourselves in our home or in the backyard where we buried the box.

Writing goodbyes on balloons and letting them go as you did can also be said to be a form of a funeral.

True. Yeah I don't know - our children were very little and I guess I think of a funeral as kind of byzantine thing for a handful of people to do.

We also didn't have a body in either case - maybe an empty box felt strange? I don't know. I am also very into breaking from traditions.

Americans would do well to adopt more mourning traditions. I recommend everybody read "On Death and Dying" which I found to be very insightful and quite helpful.

(edited to fix spelling)

America has quite a lot of different mourning traditions. I assure you that the last overnight wake, funeral then year after gathering was quite enough for me.

I'm not sure if those are the right way for us to grieve? Personally, I found the Jewish mourning ritual of Shiva to be more fulfilling than funerals.

We might need to change the way we grieve too? The book "On Death and Dying" points out that advances in science have made it harder to accept death in our modern age, since a "cure" could legitimacy be just around the corner.

I doubt they will change, deep cultural roots after all. Since the funeral is a small part of the overall, I'd hold off on the judgement based on my description. I would also point out that advances in science are unevenly distributed and actually don't affect a lot of deaths in certain places.

Jews have funerals (and 1-year anniversary gatherings: unveiling). and Shiva is very similar to a wake

Interesting, the Dakota do a one year after gathering (and some relatives have some restrictions on their activities during the year). I wonder how common the practice is?

Non-Americans would do well to stop talking about America as a single culture. It's even more laughable when an American does it.

I find the Orthodox tradition for miscarriages and stillbirths to be particularly beautiful.

Do you mean Jewish Orthodox, Christian Orthodox, or some other? And can you describe the tradition?

There are several areas where America could do well to in adopting a clear tradition, mourning being just one.

> more morning traditions

I have enough shit to do in the morning, and I'm not waking up earlier.

But really, why? Why can't America just do things the American way? Why do people reject the idea that Americans are allowed to have their own culture?

I don't think the GP is suggesting we simply co-opt other customs. But that we can either develop our own or adapt others'.

The lack of any tradition has been a deafening issue for child deaths.

There are small efforts, such as rainbow babies or purple butterflies (Google them) that are helping bring awareness and systems to grieve. But most are to bring awareness or as a marker to indicate non-verbally to others to tread lightly. But nothing has taken root in the same mourning traditions we see in other cultures.

I agree that the knee-jerk reflex to presume superiority of international (and especially European) cultural aspects is tiresome. And very rarely do people actually manage a dispassionate comparison of two cultures, with a preference that could not be deduced from their prior political leanings.

But in this case, jf isn't just emoting about his opinion, he's at least suggesting some place for further reading. His comment is useful for someone who might want to know more about how other cultures mourn.

> Why do people reject the idea that Americans are allowed to have their own culture? reply

No one said that they are not allowed to have their own culture. Read the post you are replying to again. It is implying that American are lacking in mourning traditions and that some should be adopted. Looking at what other cultures do is a start, but there's nothing to say that these new mourning traditions couldn't be entirely new, and specific to Americans.

> No one said that they are not allowed to have their own culture

No, people just constantly assert that other cultures are better and that Americans should adopt their values instead.

You're tilting at windmills here. The original post did not say this, yet this is what you are continuing to rant about.

I suspect GP meant "mourning" but misspelled


> Not sure why people downvote


I often run into people simultaneously rejecting that we have our own culture and forbidding that we dare adopt any other culture. It's all been appropriated, and of course one can't be doing that. I'm glad I have no need to please these people, as I'm not sure how to do so.

My neighborhood in Japan is surrounded by graveyards, including many, many jizo. At first, I was creeped out by the ever-present reminders of death, but now I feel it is a very healthy society that confronts mortality head-on and makes death part of the visible landscape of daily life.

In Samoa and American Samoa, family members are usually buried beside their homes. It's not completely uncommon for homes to later be extended, causing the graves to be inside the houses or in the verandah.

I visited the home of a distant family member (by marriage) once and their grandparents graves were inside what had become the sitting room/lounge.


In the American South one can also find "familial graveyards" [1] Although it's a dying tradition, as I understand it. [1]https://geanderson.wordpress.com/2010/09/22/now-about-that-c...

Most homes in Japan also have shrine to ancestors too. I have one at my house. Family friends come by regularly to leave fresh flowers and gifts and spend time remembering their friends. It's a nice tradition.

In the countryside in Japan you often have graves next to one's home, especially in remote areas where you are far from a temple or a village center - that way you can still visit the grave often.

This is a great story, and I'm glad that a simple tradition helped comfort a fellow human. But while I do understand that most people likely do not take the religious reasons behind rituals too seriously, I find the following wicked:

> According to Buddhist belief, a baby who is never born can’t go to heaven, having never had the opportunity to accumulate good karma.

I'm no scholar in these matters, but almost every religion has some sort emotional torture built in for parents of miscarried/aborted children :(

The Mormons have a clever hack for this - on Fridays they have a group that "baptizes the dead" to make up for it. The true believers around here set great store by it.

Catholicism isn't terrible in this regard, either. They actually take a rather agnostic approach, which is refreshing to see.


Basic summary is that they rely on God to judge, and instead hope that He finds them worthy.

That's a big reason why genealogy is so important for the Mormons. They need to baptize past ancestors so they'll be able to see them in heaven.

The headline has a distasteful fetishizing tone, but the article is a respectful appreciation of a valuable cross-cultural lesson.

I've never understood why people grieve after a miscarriage. Similarly, I was surprised to learn that many people find having an abortion to be somewhat traumatic. I've never had children and I hopefully never will.

Anybody else feels similar or wants to explain? Is it cultural, all just pregnancy hormones or something else?

That sounds like an odd and crippling inability to empathize. People talk to their gestating children, give them names, make plans for them, tell them how well they are going to take care of them, and then, sometimes, all that falls apart.

It doesn't matter if it's a human life or a hobby project, if a human being spends time and effort on something, and comes to care about that something which is causing them to expend that time and effort, and then they lose it, and can't replace it, they're most likely going to grieve in some way small or large.

Never burnt food or had a computer crash in the middle of some work and felt slightly sad or disappointed? The amount of grief is proportional, I would imagine, to the combination of the value of the thing, the amount of time spent on it, the amount of future plans for it, etc -- and with a baby which you're going to spend the rest of your life (and afterlife, wills and trusts) on... that value is going to eclipse everything else. Already you plan to spend the rest of your life on it, and as it grows you just become more attached, so I can understand the grief, to an extent, it's probably worse than I imagine. i.e., we all know it would be "horrible" to lose a child who had been born and grown up some years, but I don't think anyone could really grapple with the depth of that unless it happened to them.

If you can't understand that, and you never understood it, then I imagine you never bothered to try, because that's just human nature.

I had a driver cut me off the other day when I was driving my son. Just pulled out into the middle of traffic with zero visibility hoping there was no one else there... I was surprised by my immediately violent thoughts of what I would have done to that driver had my son been harmed.

Having kids absolutely rewires parts of your brain. So, that said, I agree with both you and enimodas. I think this is one of those occasions where it's important to distinguish between sympathy and empathy.

Many people dream of having children, of raising them and caring for them with their spouses, of helping them be kind, happy, healthy, educated successful people, of sharing triumphs and defeats with them.

When they learn a child is coming, they're joyful. They work and sacrifice in anticipation: everything from the mother's morning sickness (which, contrary to the name, can happen all day long) to preparing a nursery to finding a day care (which in crazy places like Silicon Valley people often have to do in advance of the birth to secure a spot). They share the happy news with friends and family and coworkers and strangers, have a baby shower, etc.

In some cases, they've been trying to have a child for years. Maybe they're getting up in age and worried they're losing their chance. Maybe they've spent a lot of time and money on fertility treatments. Maybe they've had previous miscarriages.

I've never experienced a miscarriage and hope I never will, but I can imagine some of the disappointment and sadness of never getting to know this new little person, of knowing the sickness was for nothing, of seeing of all these items they bought that now remind them of what might have been, of telling people it didn't work out, of undoing all that work done in preparation of something that won't happen, and of wondering if it's worth it to try again.

> ... seeing of all these items they bought that now remind them of what might have been, of telling people it didn't work out, of undoing all that work done in preparation of something that won't happen ...

This is the reasoning behind suggestions of not even telling others until after the first trimester, which is when most miscarriages happen. It doesn't make any of the other parts easier, but at least the unwinding doesn't have to happen.

An aunt of mine had two (or three?) miscarriages before having her first child. Each time she was absolutely devastated. Honestly I'm pretty surprised that anyone would find that hard to understand. I'm not really big on children (and am childless myself) but trying hard to intentionally get pregnant* , anticipating a child for months, preparing yourself emotionally, and even making space in your home for a child, only to have a miscarriage has got to be one of the most traumatic things I can imagine. Short of losing an already born child or a spouse. In the case of my aunt she went through a really rough time where she blamed herself and later God for her suffering. I don't think that's cultural at all. I think that's just part of being human.

As someone who isn't really interested in having kids it's easy to forget that some people really want them. It is baked into our DNA and has been since before we as a species walked the Earth. If the pregnancy wasn't an accident then it's no wonder people mourn over a miscarriage. As far as they were concerned it was their future child. And I say that as someone who is very much not pro-life.

* Conception is not as easy as abstinence-only education would have you believe. Some perfectly fertile couples try for years before successfully conceiving.

> Some perfectly fertile couples try for years before successfully conceiving.

If both partners are young and healthy then they should have a bun in the oven within 4 months, otherwise something is abnormally wrong.

As long as we're nit-picking here, 4 months of trying doesn't mean that something is wrong. Most doctors ask couples to try for a year before seeing a specialist (unless the woman is older, then wait 6 months or less).

Take a group of fertile 22 year old women, for example. Each one has about a 25% chance per month of getting pregnant, while trying to conceive. After four months, you can expect that about 30% of the original group still will have not conceived (75% ^ 4). Absolutely nothing wrong with them, it's just a numbers game.

Spreading misinformation like "a bun in the oven within 4 months, otherwise something is abnormally wrong" is awful for couples who are trying to conceive for a few months, and already stressed out enough about it.

> Some perfectly fertile couples try for years

Maybe those couples are not so perfectly fertile after all...

>> Some perfectly fertile couples try for years

> Maybe those couples are not so perfectly fertile after all...

Perhaps seemingly perfectly fertile couples might have been a better way to put it.

Tycho of Penny Arcade describes this well, I think:

  Children carve something out of you, a place for themselves; 
  people can twist the knife in that spot, and it just bleeds and bleeds. 
The process of having a child changes the parents in many ways: emotionally, psychologically, physically, etc. The parents carry not only their own expectations, hopes, and dreams, but those of their friends and family.

This is true. I never once teared up during a movie, passage from a book, etc until after my son was born. I can't say what it is like for other people but for me it is almost like gaining a new sense.

I ended my years long lurking here to be able to second this comment. The way you articulated this--a new sense--is so spot on.

It is neither cultural nor hormonal. A miscarriage is the loss of what was going to be a human life, and all the plans, thoughts, and hopes that went along with it. And the later in pregnancy it is, the harder it is to take. Miscarrying at six weeks is different from miscarrying at 11 weeks. I've done both (and I didn't grieve terribly either time, but I felt the loss). I can't imagine how much worse it would be to miscarry at, say, 18 weeks, when you've felt the baby kicking.

I'm much like you: It is a bit harder for me to understand. I have no desires for children either.

But it seems most people think of it somewhat differently. Other girls dreamed about what they'd name their children while I dreamed of travel and work and adventure.

But they grow up, and are genuinely excited to be pregnant. There are hormones and stuff plus fufillment of dreams and family life and things. And then it is all lost. The further along someone is, the more they are attached to both the human growing and the person they imagine it will grow up to be. I don't actually think it is possible for you and I to properly understand the loss because of the difference in mindsets.

For abortion, some folks have additional cultural baggage and guilt. Not to mention that some folks have to jump through hoops to get an abortion, and I'm pretty sure "what if..." is common. Understandable because it is a major life decision either way.

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