Embodying Culture: Pregnancy in Japan and Israel (Studies in Medical Anthropology)
Rutgers University Press, 2009
312 pp., $32.95
The Meaning of (Gestating) Life
"What's the book about?"
It was a question I heard frequently over the holidays this past December, as I went to pre-Christmas rehearsals, parties, and church services carrying Tsipy Ivry's Embodying Culture: Pregnancy in Japan and Israel.
"It's about pregnancy," I'd say. "In Japan and Israel."
The inevitable response: "Why there?"
The gestation of Embodying Culture began when anthropologist Tsipy Ivry was concluding a research program as a graduate student in Tokyo, and became pregnant. A native Israeli, Ivry was surprised by what she describes as "an overwhelming and all-encompassing sense of becoming 'different,'" a sensation she attributes not only to the experience of pregnancy itself but also to the reality of being pregnant as an Israeli woman in Japan. This impression in turn led to a developing interest in the lived experience of pregnancy and how it is socially and culturally constructed in different societies.
In this ethnographic study, Ivry focuses on pregnancy as a "meaningful cultural category." The anthropology of reproduction is skewed toward a body of literature on the drama of birth, she argues, not on the much longer experience of the pregnancy itself. What work does exist on the subject of pregnancy tends to focus on "technologically oriented" assisted reproduction. Ivry instead seeks to "take up pregnancy as a meaningful unit of analysis" and thus contribute a study rooted in the " 'gray' and 'undramatic' category into which most pregnancies still fit."
Looking at the differences between pregnancy as experienced in Japan and in Israel, Ivry asks if pregnancy is "about" different things in these two cultures. And, if so, "what are the socio-cultural conditions that produce this difference … what are the implications of these differences for the ways in which pregnancy can be experienced and dealt with?" Beyond that, what implications do these two different pregnancy experiences hold for the anthropological study of reproduction as a whole?
The text itself, as you will have guessed by now, is quite dense, riddled with the multisyllabic expressions of a true academic. Reading it made me feel as if I were eating an entire plum pudding in one sitting—or studying for an exam back in graduate school. Yet the topic is one of great interest to me. Having been pregnant and given birth three times in the past five years, I know what it means to be an avid consumer of what Ivry calls "pregnancy information." When I was expecting my firstborn, I gorged on everything from BabyCenter to the Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, so I figured I was, if not Ivry's exact intended audience, close enough. I pressed on—and I was glad I did.
Although both Israeli and Japanese women experience pregnancy as a highly medicalized event, much as in the United States, the forms that medicalization take differ greatly. And these differences, Ivry argues, are deeply rooted in distinctive cultural contexts: in Israel, a struggle to stay alive amidst constant military conflict; in Japan, an emphasis on the betterment of society through the long-term maternal efforts of child-raising.
If we think of each culture's implicit understanding of pregnancy as a narrative, Ivry contends, we'll find that the "protagonist" of the Japanese narrative differs sharply from the protagonist of the Israeli narrative:
In the Japanese arena the protagonist of pregnancy is the interconnected entity of the mother-baby, whereas in the Israeli case the protagonists are the pregnant woman and her suspect fetus. Pregnancy is conceptualized as an early stage of parenting in Japan and is all about the interdependence of mother and baby and their ongoing relationships. The Israeli model defines pregnancy as a state "in limbo" that involves two separate individuals (of whom only one is a person).
This implicit understanding, in turn, shapes the experience of pregnancy for Japanese and Israeli women. Japanese pregnancies are understood through a lens Ivry refers to as "environmentalism," by which she means the notion that the mother's body (and thus her actions, both physical and mental) are responsible for the outcome of the pregnancy—in other words, the baby. To this end, Japanese ob/gyns place strict boundaries on the body of the pregnant woman: she must not gain too much weight, nor allow herself to become chilled, nor submit herself to the bumps and jerks of public transportation.
As I read through the book I found it impossible to avoid comparisons with my own experiences of being pregnant in the United States, and although some of the logic of Japanese ob/gyns escaped me, I discovered that I resonated with much of what Ivry wrote about Japanese women. The notion that the developing baby is indeed a baby right from the start reflects my own convictions, and I was especially drawn to Ivry's descriptions of the Japanese practice of taikyô, which involves speaking to the unborn baby. In the words of a bestselling Japanese prenatal guide, "It is practiced in order to deepen the bonds between the mother and the baby, through the mother's recognition of the baby and her acceptance of him."