Babies and small children can be the most amazing comfort when you are moving – the familiar smell and feel of your child’s warm little body can be something to be extra thankful for when you are in unfamiliar surroundings. The cosy rhythm of the same routine, the repetition of favourite stories and the presence of well-loved toys - regardless of the turmoil and chaos that may be unfolding around you - can all be immensely grounding.
Fast forward to a jet-lagged little dictator screaming because the hotel Weetabix tastes funny, or running out of nappies and being desperate to go and explore or run errands further than your ‘between naps’ window will allow. The joys and frustrations of parenthood seem to be thrown into sharper relief than ever when on the move. The answer is to be as prepared as you possibly can.
First of all, if you are planning a move to Japan with very small children, do not panic. Moving to such a foreign country can seem like a very big deal but - to cut straight to the fundamentals – it is likely that Japan has a lower infant mortality rate than your own country. The very low birth rate means that children are extremely precious and both government and society have a wonderful record of protecting and nurturing the young. Coupled with that, Japanese people genuinely seem to love children and they are made to feel welcome wherever you go.
You will find excellent care, everything you need and all sorts of exciting things to do with your children and babies. At the very least, your next trip back home will find you armed with the smuggest baby or toddler bag around – full of cute little gadgets and labour saving devices that they just don’t have anywhere else.
Before You Come:
Having said all that, unless you speak and read Japanese, it does take some time to get organised, so bring a good supply of baby provisions with you. We would recommend you order a book that, for many foreign parents, becomes a sort of bible: the newest edition of Japan For Kids: A Parent’s Guide by Diane Wiltshire and Jeanne Huey published by Kodansha International. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
We would also bring some extra clothes and shoes for children to grow into and a really good supply of medical equipment. Things like Calpol and teething gel can be tricky to get hold of and the Japanese post office usually prohibits sending more than a three month supply of any prescription drugs through the post - so arrange for anything like that to be sent in small doses to avoid delay.
If you are using formula milk, you can get many Japanese brands as well as SMA and Nestle. Bottle and nipple suppliers include NUK and Playtex, and there is a whole range of healthy baby food including Gerber – but, instructions and labels are all likely to be in Japanese so bring plenty from home so you have time to get help with translations.
The drinking water in Japan does not contain fluoride so many parents bring drops or tablets from home – check with your doctor before you come for advice on fluoride supplements.
Finally a good supply of books in your own language – on the various developmental stages plus story books etc are a good idea. Again, you can get these but mail order charges, hassle and potentially limited choice can all be kept to a minimum if you bring a little library. English books also make good gifts for new baby friends.
Once you Arrive
One of the first steps will be to register with a good GP or paediatrician. There is a good selection to choose from (see GSGI article Expat Living in Tokyo). You will also need to make sure you know how to get to your local emergency out-patients and how to call an ambulance and say where you live (write out your address phonetically and keep it by the phone).
The international supermarkets – although expensive – are a good first stop before you get a friend to guide you around the Japanese products. There is also a delivery company (flyingpig.com) who will deliver a more limited range of Costco products and save you the long journey out there. If you do head out to Costco in the car allow half a day – especially if you combine it with a trip to the nearby IKEA.
While waiting for your shipment, you can find furniture and baby rental companies or look at the Tokyo American Club or National Azabu supermarket notice board for second hand goods. For new equipment, visit stores such as Akachan Hompo or Tokyu Hans and for smaller items and inexpensive toys- your local 100yen store should leave you well prepared.
The ‘TAC’ (Tokyo American Club) notice board is probably the best place to look for English-speaking domestic help with references. Nannies and housekeepers are usually from the Philippines and finding part time help is quite straight forward, although don’t expect a bargain – the set hourly wages are similar to Western rates. Full time or live-in helpers offer better value but need to be sponsored by their employers and as this is quite an involved process it is best to use an agency or ask your employer to help you.
Register as early as possible for international pre-schools, nurseries and kindergartens as they can get booked up (see listing below). All the international schools run from September to June and many have summer activities for June and July. The admission process for the autumn term normally begins in February of the previous year and screening is often involved. Some schools try to leave a few places for those that arrive over the summer.
School commutes and traffic
As with anywhere, when choosing schools, keep an eye on location (Tokyo traffic can be horrendous) and pick up times. We put both children in a school that was 40 minutes away from our house – one had a 12pm pick up time and the other stayed till 3.30pm so we spent the entire time ferrying them back and forth. The reason for this insanity was that we only managed to get the older child into the school on a ‘sibling place’ so it was probably worth it but we really should have lived closer.
Local Japanese schools
Some international families use the Japanese pre-school or kindergarten programmes (called Yochien) as they are a great way to learn the language. You can find information about these from your local city ward. Public yochien start at the age of four and are very inexpensive (as little as yen 4,000 a month). The emphasis is on games, play and socialisation – academics don’t really kick in till the age of five.
Private yochien can start much earlier – 3 or even younger – and can rival the international schools in price and content. I have heard many good experiences from expat families choosing this approach but do be warned - parental involvement is encouraged and the language barrier is harder for adults to overcome. It can be difficult to communicate with teachers, other parents and your children’s new buddies! Even a simple note in the school bag can turn into a headache if you don’t have someone to translate it.
There is so much to do here – and even a trip to the local park can turn into an adventure, you will want to get going straight away. If the weather is wet check out the fantastic ‘Children’s Castle’ and ‘Children’s Hall’; Tokyo Disneyland is easy to get to if you want more familiar surroundings and there are of course thousands of other excursions from seasonal activities such as skiing and swimming through to trips to the local park or noodle restaurant.
Whatever you choose, come out very well prepared. If you have seen the first ‘Austen Powers’ movie, you will probably remember this scene. Austen and the beautiful Agent Kensington (Liz Hurley) are on board a private jet – she is unpacking her suitcase and each immaculate, perfectly folded item is encased in its own labelled, plastic zip lock bag – Austen looks on agog before shouting ’Watch out - Nerd Alert!’ I was often tempted to do the same when I first saw the contents of the average Japanese mum’s baby bag!
There are so many cute little gadgets, gizmos and accessories available for small children that you could go on forever. Bring all the usual things out with you – wipes, nappies, small toys etc plus plenty of snacks, drinks and tissues (public toilets often don’t have paper!) and – if visiting a park – a change of clothes or cover up overalls as playgrounds tend to be on earth rather than grass so little ones get filthy. Litter bins are in incredibly short supply and the Japanese are very neat so a few old plastic bags for rubbish are also a must.
You can get wonderful strollers in Japan but you need to fold them up on the bus so even the best versions can be somewhat cumbersome if taking this form of transport. Taxis are expensive, the drivers won’t speak English and the cab may well smell of smoke. You will need to write down where you want to go (and come back to) in advance. The exception to this is a company called MK taxis, you can phone to book ahead, they speak English and have smoke free cabs – they are more expensive but worth the cost as they also know where they are going!
The underground is great if going further afield (to the incredibly cheap and good zoo at Ueno for example) but the best way to get around locally is by bicycle. In Japan you can ride on the pavement which is obviously much safer. You can buy really sturdy bikes with toddler seats on the front and back – some even have little electric engines to help with the hills – it is a great way to explore the city with kids and wherever you go you will see immaculate, ultra petite Japanese mothers happily pedalling along with huge loads – two children and the shopping is not uncommon. You might like to try it out first at the Yoyogi Park cycling centre where you can hire bikes and go on a 2km ride or visit the mini cycle route for tricycles and stabilisers.
It won’t be long before you find your own routines and rhythms punctuated by the wonderful Japanese seasons. It is a great country to bring up small children. Your kids will be surrounded by excellent values – honesty, gentleness, courtesy, integrity and thoughtfulness are everyday currency. The environment is clean and safe, the food is healthy and delicious – but best of all there is so much warmth and affection for children that their presence will be a huge bonus for you – breaking down barriers and giving you a passport to the best Japan has to offer.