Maternity badge is dangerous in Japan?

A Japanese friend of mine, Miki, who is expecting a baby this autumn, moved to London recently. When she saw the “Baby on board” maternity badge on my bag, the first thing she said was “Isn’t it scary to put it there like that? I always put my badge inside of my bag.”

Wait, what? What’s the point of maternity badge, if other people can’t see it easily?

My badge arrived! Thanks TFL.

I requested “Baby on Board” badge from TFL at the early stage of my pregnancy. My bump was nowhere near visible outside of my thick winter jacket, but my morning sickness was quite severe. Thankfully, I was able to sit down on the train every day to and from work in London throughout my pregnancy. Sure, occasionally I had to stand for 1 or 2 stations in very crowded Northern Line. But normally someone noticed eventually and offered me a seat.

It was unthinkable for me that mums-to-be can be in danger by putting on the maternity badge. But apparently, that’s what happens in Japan.

When another friend, Mari, visited from Japan, she also asked me if it was safe to put the maternity badge in London. Shockingly, Mari’s friend was hit on her stomach by another commuter on purpose, while wearing the maternity badge in Tokyo. Stories like this are abundantly available on the internet. “Someone tripped me on purpose.” “A stranger said to me, ‘Do you feel special that you are pregnant? I’m not gonna give you a seat!’” What’s interesting is that harassers can be both male and female. You would imagine that fellow women would be kinder to pregnant women, but apparently not.

A survey in 2016 shows that over 40% of women chose not to wear the badge at all or not to wear it most of the time in Japan. And among those who were brave enough to put the badge on, roughly 10% of them experienced some sort of harassment. I think this number could be higher if more women actually show the badge more visibly. Many women chose to hide the badge inside their bag like Miki, and show it when they feel ‘safe’.

Maternity badge in Japan. (Photo from Yahoo! Japan news)

This article analyses that the situation is particularly worse in bigger cities like Tokyo. The author says that the people tend to get married late in the cities and they soon face the enormous pressure of having kids at their mid or late 30s, or even in their 40s. Many of them may have to go through fertility treatment at that point. In fact, according to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, one in 6 couples suffer from infertility. Around 500,000 people per year go through fertility treatment in Japan, and the number is rising as shown in the graph below.

Increasing number of fertility treatment patients in Japan (source)

For the couples who are desperate to have a child, the maternity badge may be a constant reminder of their “failure to be pregnant” and an arrogant display of the “pregnancy club” that they are not yet able to join. Being extremely jealous and stressed out, they attack these lucky pregnant women, who are showing off their bright future with children. Pregnant women then feel “bad” for carrying babies and feel sorry for asking for more help.

Was I just being lucky that I didn’t encounter any harassment in London? There is a news story from 2015, where a woman was challenged to prove that she was pregnant, but I would say it is rare. (By the way, this level of insult seems so common in Japan that it doesn’t even become a news article anymore.) I saw many other women with maternity badges getting seats on the same train. Other commuters were eager to give seats up for me once they noticed. I am truly thankful to everyone who helped me like this throughout my pregnancy.

It is regrettable that Japanese mums-to-be must feel so scared or even sorry for being pregnant. Having a child is amazing, but it is physically exhausting. (I discussed the challenges of being pregnant in this article as well.) Frankly, I believe they deserve all the help they can get! Also, it is absolutely disappointing that some people are so stressed out that they attack vulnerable pregnant women physically and emotionally.

When Mari and I were on the tube, a lady in her 50s or so offered me a seat. I was getting off soon, so declined the offer. But she insisted, saying “sit down for your baby”. Impressed, Mari said: “Wow, I wish people are kind like this in Japan.”

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