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Pregnancy Do's and Dont's in Japan vs. the US

Updated: Apr 9

*I should probably start off by pointing out that I am not a doctor! Do not use this post for medical advice! Go to your own OB/GYN or midwife before making any changes to your pregnancy habits.

In America, we tend to think of a pregnancy as a time loaded with restrictions.

"Don't exercise too much, don't exercise too little, don't drink that and definitely, definitely don't eat this!"

The pregnancy do's and don'ts in the US differ a lot from many other countries. There are some key differences in diet, activity levels, and managing pregnancy symptoms in Japan that I'd like to point out here!

1) For one, in Japan, you can eat sushi while pregnant!

Sushi on wooden board with vegetables

In fact, it is even encouraged! Japanese doctors consider sushi to be an excellent source of neonatal nutrition! Prospective mothers are advised to limit their intake of fish that have higher mercury levels (like tuna), and only to eat raw fish at reputable places, however.

So, conveyor belt sushi or grocery store sushi might be off the table for now, but you can sit down in a trustworthy restaurant or buy from a higher end department store and eat away!

This is a big pregnancy don't for Americans, with doctors citing the risk of parasites and bacterial infections. Having been pregnant 4 times, I never did actually take the "risk" myself, but I do think people can lay off Hillary Duff for her one sushi meal ;).

Studies actually show that babies of mothers that ate copious amounts of omega 3 fatty acids (like those found in many fish) while pregnant, performed better on cognitive tests at ages 14 months and 5 years, with mercury levels not having a negative impact on neurodevelopment. (At least, not in the amounts they ate, which you can read about here.).

2) They don't focus on limiting caffeine intake

woman drinking tea

While some women in the US might be taking this as a cue to keep drinking insane amounts of coffee everyday, this is not exactly what this means. Japanese women tend to drink more tea than coffee. More green tea and matcha in particular, which are substantially lower in caffeine.

The average cup of matcha has around 60 mg of caffeine, and regular green tea has even less, while the average cup of coffee sits between 90 and 150 mg. I know these measurements like the back of my hand from having been pregnant and trying to milk every little milligram that was allowed!

So, while it is not a focus of Japanese doctors to monitor caffeine intake, it is almost universally agreed that women should consume no more than 200 mg per day.

3) You're not supposed to gain too much weight!

pregnant woman doing yoga

As a westerner, I was a bit miffed by this one. In the US, it is acceptable to gain between 25-35 pounds during your pregnancy. Anything more and the doctors might say something.

In Japan, doctors heavily enforce weight restrictions. They only want you to gain between 15-26 pounds! It is believed that less weight gain by the mother will allow for fewer complications during the birth (probably true). But also that having a smaller baby will play a part in that as well (not sure about that one but again, I'm not a doctor).

Clearly this is another area where pregnancy do's and don'ts differ between countries.

4) Keep your belly and your feet covered up!

man embracing pregnant woman from behind

Apparently if your belly isn't kept warm during your pregnancy, your baby can catch a cold? For this same reason, some older Japanese women will very openly criticize a mother who doesn't keep her feet covered, even on the hottest days! You will often see pregnant women wearing extra layers, probably because they don't want to hear it from everyone else!

5) Keep the Sexual Activity to a minimum...

In the US, we are all about learning safe sexual positions, and focusing on those kegels 😂, but Japanese doctors encourage sexual activity at a maximum of “once in a while.” They are worried about putting too much pressure on a growing belly, and the risk of infections.

6) You don't have to take prenatal vitamins

healthy food for prenatal nutrition

Japanese doctors are more focused on getting all of your nutrition through a well-balanced diet than prenatal vitamins. The only exception to this is that folic acid supplements are still encouraged.

7) You'll get a pregnancy badge!

At your first prenatal appointment, you will get a how-to handbook and a pregnancy badge! The badge is a small one indicating you are pregnant, so that other people will be considerate of your condition. Sometimes you can jump to the front of a long line, or (hopefully) be given a seat on a busy train!

8) Pregnancy symptoms are managed differently

pregnant woman sick with morning sickness pregnancy symptoms

Typically, in the US, pregnant women are advised to ingest ginger or citrus for morning sickness. In severe cases, they are given medication to help them with the nausea and vomiting.

In Japan, obviously the recommendations for managing pregnancy symptoms are a little different. One thing that is recommended for replenishing lost fluids is the Pocari Sweat drink. It is full of electrolytes and had a mild, slightly citrusy flavor.

When women suffer from frequent vomiting, Japanese Kampo medicines can be used. Kampo medicine is a practice originally based on traditional Chinese theories and treatments. This study was one of a few that pointed out the effectiveness of some Kampo herbal medicines given to pregnant women.

When pregnant women in Japan were given these traditional herbal medicines, they had fewer hospitalizations due to severe morning sickness! So if you are really into managing your pregnancy symptoms via natural methods, it might pay to look into this form of treatment!

9) Finally, you have the option to pick out a luxury birthing package!

pregnant woman in bath with petals

Pregnancy in Japan is not actually covered by medical insurance, because it is not considered an "illness." However, it is extremely affordable to pay for check-ups and appointments right out of pocket. You actually purchase a birthing package with different tiers of luxury! Interestingly, you can pay for extra baby supplies, a private room, and sometimes even facials or a five-star dinner voucher!

The Takeaway:

If you are a foreigner about to experience pregnancy in Japan, expect some culture shock. From the pregnancy do's and don'ts to the way you will be advised to manage your pregnancy symptoms, many things are going to be quite a bit different.

However, with access to the internet, pregnancy forums, Skype for family members, etc., you can combine the wonderful elements from both cultures to create your own unique, multi-cultural pregnancy experience (aka more pregnancy do's than don'ts, probably)!

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