May 2022

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Interviews organizations and people about their activities and initiatives in support of foreigners, international exchange and interculturalism.

Nonprofit Organization Mother’s Tree Japan

~ Supporting Women of Foreign Origin in Japan in Childbirth and Parenting ~

Tabunkahiroba AIAI
Ms. Tomomi Tsubonoya; deputy president and general director. And, Luke; a shelter dog. Ms. Tsubonoya also volunteers as an end-of-life carer for dogs.

For women, pregnancy, childbirth, and raising children are major events that affect both mind and body. Moreover, women experiencing their first birth in a foreign country may face many anxieties due to differences in language, culture, and customs. Mother's Tree Japan works closely with those foreign women living in Japan, supporting them before and after childbirth, as well as with parenting. We spoke to Ms. Tomomi Tsubonoya, deputy president and general director of Mother’s Tree Japan.

From a Nursery Teacher to an Antenatal and Postnatal Therapist

Tabunkahiroba AIAI
Mother’s Tree Japan provides videos on a variety of topics related to childbirth. With the help of midwives, these videos provide the answers foreign women want.

The name of the organization, “Mother's Tree Japan,” is easy to remember for everyone. “Just one tree provides shade, around which animals gather. Trees store water, and bloom. We thought that our organization would like to provide a place where people from various backgrounds may come and rest, and feel safe and secure,” says Ms. Tsubonoya, explaining the origin of the name. The organization practices the kind of warm activities its name suggests.

Ms. Tsubonoya was previously employed in baby care, as a nursery teacher. Around that time, she witnessed her friend's postnatal depression, which prompted her to open her own office as an antenatal and postnatal therapist. As she treated clients, listening to their various concerns and teaching them how to interact with their babies, the number of foreign women visiting her office gradually increased. “I just asked them, ‘How was your birth?’, and they all cried. In addition to the emotional anxieties of the antenatal and postnatal period, I learned that they were raising their children in a context of different cultures and customs.”

Her own experience as a foreigner prompted epiphanies.

Tabunkahiroba AIAI
“I spent my childhood abroad. Having grown up in multiple cultures, there is still a part of me that is constantly seeking to define my identity.”

Based on these experiences at the office from which she offered therapy, Ms. Tsubonoya established Mother's Tree Japan in 2020; aiming to create a safe and secure environment for foreign women in which to spend their antenatal and postnatal periods, where their cultures, religions, and thoughts would be respected. At the same time, she says that her own experiences had a significant influence on the establishment of the organization.

Ms. Tsubonoya spent her childhood in Hong Kong and in the UK from the age of five until middle school, due to an overseas posting of her father; Mr. Masayuki Tsubonoya, who is the president of Mother’s Tree Japan. “I was often injured or ill as a child, so my mother had a hard time. Looking back, it must have been really difficult for my mother, who speaks neither Chinese nor English, to do the usual shopping and take me to the hospital. My mother's image overlaps with that of Asian mothers living in Japan.” What is important to Ms. Tsubonoya and her colleagues is to respect the individual's wishes, and to provide empathy that goes beyond verbal understanding.

Pointing Boards for Communication

Tabunkahiroba AIAI
They were created with input from midwives and international staff who had experienced childbirth. Illustrations with a gentle touch make the boards easy tools with which to convey feelings.

Mother's Tree Japan strives to provide the support that is needed from the perspective of the people concerned. This is how they developed various tools related to childbirth. The “Point It Pointing Board for childbirth” is available for antenatal and postnatal use, for both mothers and clinic workers. The boards are illustrated and available in 10 languages (English, Chinese, Thai, Burmese, Vietnamese, Nepali, Tagalog, Spanish, Portuguese). By simply pointing to an illustration, mothers and clinic workers may communicate their condition, “My water broke.” or “My breast is engorged and painful.” Many words are used in childbirth that do not appear in Japanese language textbooks. “I would be happy if the Pointing Board could relieve some anxiety (for mothers),” says Ms. Tsubonoya. Other products include the “Point It Pointing Board for postnatal check up and home visit,” which is available in eight languages, and the “Birth Plan Sheet,” which allows mothers to communicate their wishes regarding the delivery of their baby. It is available for anyone to download from Mother’s Tree Japan’s website.

Being a Hub for Childbirth and Childcare - Acting as a Bridge to Governmental Offices

Tabunkahiroba AIAI
Practices differ from country to country; for example, baby bathing. Mother’s Tree’s Japan’s staff start by asking, "How do you do it in your country?

Various local authorities provide useful tools and information, but these are not well known. And even if foreign mothers are informed, it is a challenge for them to download and print copies. Mother's Tree Japan runs the “Foreign Mums in Japan Support Gift Project,” which compiles materials and information in the native languages of their users, then sends them directly to the mothers; to help them give birth more easily in Japan. Pointing boards and other materials are carefully laminated before each item is sent. The idea is to help mothers understand that these materials are important.

“We want to deliver the information to foreign mums that Japanese mums take for granted. We started with the idea that the starting line of childbirth should be the same for both Japanese and foreigners (i.e., foreign mums should have the same level of information as Japanese mums do). Our wish is that all mums should be able to welcome new lives, and raise those children without worries.” Mother’s Tree Japan also hopes to play a hub role in connecting governmental offices and the private sector. “We would also like to connect people to the appropriate governmental authorities when we find that public support is needed. In Toshima Ward, where our office is located, the municipal authorities distribute Mother's Tree Japan brochures to foreigners who come to register their pregnancies," Ms. Tsubonoya told us.

Organize Monthly Consultation Meetings for Mothers in Different Native Languages

Tabunkahiroba AIAI
One may participate in consultations anonymously. This is due to the fact that there are class barriers in some countries, and people of the same country may not feel comfortable speaking with each other.

It is not easy to conduct face-to-face activities, due to COVID-19. Most of Mother’s Tree Japan’s current activities are online; “Consultation meetings for mothers”. Consultations are held once a month in seven languages (Vietnamese, Burmese, Thai, Nepali, English, Indonesian, and Plain Japanese). Mothers may hear directly from a midwife and may ask questions freely in their native tongue; with foreign staff living in Japan providing interpretation.

“If foreign mums do not value their language and culture, and raise their children without self-respect, the latter will become double-limited; unable to use either their native language or Japanese very well. When mothers speak confidently about their home country, children may affirm their identities for the first time. I try as much as possible to tell mothers to sing lullabies from their home countries. It would be okay to learn Japanese with their children, starting with ‘Plain Japanese'. Many people think that intercultural cohesion is for the benefit of foreigners, but I want people to know that it is also for the benefit of Japanese people. Experiencing various cultures is a chance for us to enrich ourselves,” says Ms. Tsubonoya. Mother's Tree Japan's activities will be increasingly needed in the future. And, under its big tree, the children of the next generation are growing up.

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