BY CHRISTINA BELL
One of the things my husband, Rob, and I appreciate most about raising kids in Japan is the childcare. By spending their days with Japanese caregivers, our children have experienced Japanese culture from the inside out. Both of our children have attended Japanese daycare at one time. Our younger, Maya, still goes five days a week. The degree of immersion that this has allowed is something very few American kids get to experience. Of course, my kids have no real appreciation for how cool it is to spend eight hours a day speaking a language their parents don’t understand. Maya has no idea how happy I am when she tries to teach me Japanese songs, scolding me when I can’t keep up.
Most of what we know about what happens at daycare comes from the journal that goes to school with Maya every day. This degree of record-keeping is not something I experienced when Max was in daycare in the United States. Every morning, I record her sleeping hours and when we’ll pick her up. I pretend that I took her temperature and write down something within a few tenths of 36 degrees Celsius. I also record whether or not she pooped at home.
I’m not joking.
I first encountered the Japanese fascination with the bowel movements of their children when we still had a full-time nanny, back before we decided Maya need the group dynamic of daycare.
Our nanny spoke very little English, and I speak almost no Japanese. Surprisingly, this wasn’t really much of a problem. In some ways it was great. We could stumble through necessary conversations with some basic vocabulary and fairly extended pantomimes. Occasionally, though, something would come up that required a real meeting. We never knew what to expect and always assumed that the nanny was quitting, so we would ask for translating help. We’re lucky enough to have a friend who is fluent in both the languages and cultures of both Japan and the United States.
The most infamous of these meetings began with the nanny and our bilingual friend putting their heads together and chatting very seriously for what seemed to be a long, long time. There was much nodding and grunting in agreement. The nanny’s normally calm face looked tense and stressed. Hands were held up to demonstrate size, and finally our friend turned to us. “She says that Maya’s poop is very big.”
Rob and I tried not to laugh. I put on my grown-up I’m listening face and said, “Yes, she has very big poop.”
“Yes, she’s a big pooper,” Rob agreed.
Apparently, we weren’t getting it, since more discussion ensued. After a few minutes, the translator turned to us again. “She says that Maya eats a lot. She eats more than other children her size.”
I smiled and reminded myself this nanny was fantastic with children. If being sensitive to her concerns kept her working for us, I was all in. “That’s great!” I said. “We want her to be a good eater when she’s with you.”
Our friend shook her head. “I think she’s worried that the amount of food Maya eats is leading to the big poop.”
“Oh,” I tried to think fast. “Tell her that Maya eats a very small dinner so it all balances out.”
Rob added, “Tell her that we’ll talk to the doctor about it on Maya’s next visit.”
I could tell when this translation registered with the nanny because her face visibly relaxed. We had managed to show proper respect for the poop concerns.
Later, I asked my friend if that level of concern about bowel movements was normal in Japan. She laughed and reassured me that, yes, it was quite normal.
“So,” I asked, “It’s not unusual to call a whole meeting about poop?”
“Not at all,” was the response.
Now that Maya’s in daycare, we are expected to make daily notes of her bowel movements, or lack thereof, for the day. In return for my scrawled notes on her health and her food consumption at home, her teacher writes a summary of her activities for the day. Between both children, we have about three years’ worth of these notebooks. They generally sound the same.
We went to the Fuchu No Mori Koen with the morning snack. Maya enjoyed playing with the soil well that she got dirty all over. She walked well and got so tired to have enough lunch. But she enjoyed snack.
The translation usually isn’t great, but we get the idea. Besides, Maya absolutely loves to have it read to her every night. She comes home and says “Read the book that says what I did today,” which is how I ended up reading this out loud in front of my children.
We went to the Fuchu-no-mori Park. Maya climbed the slightly elevated hill and went down and cooked with a tree base again. Maya was said no to have to enter hear a house by me when I went near. Maya did tender shit after lunch and sat down for a while. Maya said that, “I still appeared and sat down for a while.” Maya may have a stomach ache.
I was so distracted trying to formulate some visual image of cooking with a tree base that I accidentally read the tender shit part out loud without noticing. Max was listening and fell on the ground laughing. I figured he’d already heard the word once and the cat was out of the bag, so I called Rob at work to read it to him, which I could hardly manage because I was laughing so hard.
Always the reasonable one, Rob said, “Are you sure that’s what it said?”
But on the next page, in the section where they record any bowel movements that occur at school, it said, “a lot of tender shit.”
I kind of wondered at the time whether the problem was that she might be ill, or if it had to do with the nonconformity of the shit. Was it not the official day for tender shit? Should I tell the school that they needed a better phrase to describe this situation?
I may never really understand why I have encountered such concern over my daughter’s bowels. I’ll never know whether it’s a cultural thing or just a coincidence. Max’s daycare in the United States never once talked to me about such matters. I have to say that in a strange way, I appreciate the thought. Say what you will about Japanese culture, when it comes to trusting someone with my children, I’ll always choose someone who pays too much attention to their bowels. To me, it seems indicative of a larger attention to detail that I find reassuring.