©Photo by Utamaro Kitagawa _Fond of Children_ - Harvard Art Museum

The History and Benefits of Baby Wearing in Japan

Keeping Baby Close and Cozy

By Elizabeth Sok
December 3, 2021
Families, Mamas

Whether you’re on the go with your little one or staying closer to home, consider wearing your baby—a comfortable, convenient and longstanding choice for parents in Japanese cities.

Before I had kids, something that struck me about my yearly trips to Japan was how visible young children are. Of course, I knew that Japan is considered a super-aging society, with one in three people in the elderly category. But, compared to everywhere I lived and visited in North America, I saw so many more babies out and about when I was in Japan. 

Part of this is potentially related to the enduring nature of sansaiji shinwa, or “the myth of the first three years,” which is the belief that a mother must fully dedicate herself to child rearing for the first three years of her baby’s life or risk averse outcomes. Part of this is also the so-called taiki jidou mondai, or waitlisted children problem, whereby Japan has a shortage of childcare resources—especially for women working full time. Yet, the high visibility of babies in contemporary Japan is also because they are largely being carried through public spaces, tiny heads popping out of front and back carriers, as their caregivers go about their days. 

The History and Benefits of Baby-Wearing in Japan© Photo by Utamaro Kitagawa - Harvard Art Museum

At the time, I felt inspired. This solved one of my dilemmas about having children in the first place. I always had trouble envisioning myself handling a stroller through the city streets, folding it to get on a bus or in a café or fighting through the snow (hi Canada!); but with my baby strapped to me, I could better imagine what my life would look like with a little one. When my first and second daughters came, carriers were indispensable to me whether I was in North America or Japan. 

The History and Benefits of Baby-Wearing in Japan© Photo by iStock

With my girls in soft carriers when they were tiny or more structured ones as they grew, I was able to navigate the cityscape more seamlessly, attending to their needs for closeness, milk, stimulation and sleep while still doing what I needed (and wanted) to do. Indeed, even preschool pickup and park time these days are facilitated by the carrier where my younger daughter can snuggle up or interact with inquisitive kids on the playground depending on her mood while my eldest daughter’s outdoor play is less restricted by baby’s needs.

A little history

The History and Benefits of Baby-Wearing in Japan© Photo by Public Domain - Wikicommons

So, why are carriers so popular here? In fact, their ubiquity has much to do with Japan’s long history of baby-wearing. Traditionally, Japanese mothers, as well as elder children or other carriers, wore their babies on their backs–known as onbu in Japanese. In fact, drawings from the later Heian period (794-1185) show women placing their babies inside the obi, or sash of their kimono, to carry them on their backs. By the Edo period (1603-1867), there are depictions of older children caring for their younger siblings in this way, as well.

In 1953, in the postwar period, the first company was established which specialized in making obi for the explicit purpose of carrying babies. Allowing the mother to have her hands free to work as well as helping the baby to see the world through her eyes, this practice remains popular in Japan, both around the house, or out and about in onbu himo, or back-carry baby carriers. 

In 1975, the new term mae onbu (literally: front back carry) came into usage around the same time as imports of front-wearing baby slings entered Japan from the United States. Since then, dakko himo, or front baby carriers, as they are now called, dominate the market for the ease of breastfeeding the baby on the go, as well as being able to keep a close eye on the little one. Even though the front carriers are largely imports from the United States or Western Europe (in brands like Ergobaby, which is the market leader, or Baby Bjorn), Japan’s long history of baby-wearing means that carrying babies remains second nature and exceptionally popular, particularly in baby’s first year of life. 

Baby-wearing benefits

What are some benefits of baby wearing in contemporary Japan? In my experience, it has been an invaluable aid in raising young children here in several ways:

  1. Ease of navigating public transportation, from stations without escalators and elevators to packed trains 
  2. Flexibility in places to shop and eat out; you don’t need to worry about whether the stroller will fit through the door or if the baby will wake up when you take them out of it
  3. Ability to meet baby’s needs for closeness and breastfeeding, and still get on with your day 
  4. Ability to exercise and get outside in the earlier postpartum period since you can breastfeed on the move
  5. Ability to get housework done and keep baby happy simultaneously 

How to ‘baby wear’ 

The History and Benefits of Baby-Wearing in Japan© Photo by iStock

There are several different types of carriers to choose from if you are considering baby-wearing.  As you explore the baby carriers on the market, remember to consider your baby’s age and temperament. How old is your baby? They cannot be front facing before 5 months or when they have strong neck support. Being close to a caregiver’s skin also helps newborns regulate their breathing and body temperature; so, for the early days, some recommend soft carriers rather than structured ones.

Soft carriers refer to baby slings (like the Betta CarryMe which is worn crossbody), baby wraps (such as the Boba or Solly made of stretchy material that you wrap around your body to hold baby), or soft-structured carriers (like Ergobaby’s Embrace that combine stretch, softness and support). These carriers can also help soothe colicky babies for the first few months or fourth trimester as they are getting used to life outside the womb.

For slightly older children, structured carriers, like Ergobaby’s Omni, BabyBjorn’s One Kai or Aprica’s Koala provide proper hip support and comfort for baby while reducing the strain on the caregivers’ back and shoulders. Structured carriers can often also be used from birth right up until approximately 36 months and offer a variety of baby-wearing positions: front carry (facing parent or facing out), hip carry and back carry. Having a structured carrier is great with a toddler, as well. With a baby carrier on hand, outings don’t have to end with one parent shuttling a sleeping 2 year old in their arms on the bus or train! My eldest daughter napped happily in her carrier until she dropped her daytime sleep at 2 1/2. 

The History and Benefits of Baby-Wearing in Japan© Photo by Public Domain - Wikicommons

Baby wearing in Japan today brings together a long domestic history of slinging baby to your back and the global bestsellers first introduced to the Japanese market over four decades ago. 

Why not take a shot at this fusion of Japanese and foreign childrearing by snuggling your little one against you in a baby carrier? Newbies to seasoned vets can enjoy the freedom of movement and ability to soothe that come with baby wearing at home and on the go!

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