Onbu and Onbuhimo History 101

These days, onbu and onbuhimo are getting popular in the world. That’s why some people ask me some questions about onbu. I wrote this article in order to answer them.
I would like you to see a website <Japanese Babywering> that I made in 2012 to introduce onbu to foreign people, and then in this article I will explain the back ground in which Japanese people have raised our children with onbu and the changes of tools for onbu.
I am going to make a presentation about pictures, details and analysis of this article in International Babywearing Conference 2016.

1.Japanese parenting is like a fossil!

1-1.Old custom and a sense of parenting that remain in Japan

In a big interpretation, Japan has not accepted cultures of other countries and other races. That is because Japan is an island country and it had not been easy to have connection with other countries geographically. There are various theories about Japanese origin, but it is considered that there were indigenous people on Japan Island, and they had a good relationship with people overseas and accepted only advantage of foreign thoughts and skills.
To say nothing of globalized society after WW2, we can see Japanese people had not changed their way of parenting since 100 years ago or 800 years ago.①


One researcher said, “Japanese parenting is like a fossil!”
However, the surrounding and tools around us in Japan has changed dramatically because various things and information have come into Japan in this 70 years,

1-2.Japanese children were back–carried almost all the time during their parents were working.

Previously in Japan, most people worked regardless of gender, except the aristocracy, the samurai class and the powerful merchant.
In that society, there were only two ways to raise children.

 (1) Balancing housework and parenting
 (2) Leaving children in someone’s care or making social system to take care of all children at one place, at the same time

Japanese people had chosen (1) for a long time. To do so, it was necessary to keep children around parents during they were working. That’s why they adopted to carrying children on their back.
In the times that many people were farmers, some of them put babies in a basket called Ijiko or Izume. However it was considered natural to look after children well enough, so babies were always carried on someone’s back, or older people who had retired from work, neighbors and older children were willing to take care of them. ② It had must been seen like Baby’s Heaven. Older children were playing, carrying a baby on their back to look after.






2.The meaning of “Himo”

2-1.“Himo” is a flat and long things.

Let me explain the meaning of “himo” in “onbuhimo”. There are two kinds of shapes in long things for tying something: a long and flat thing shaped tape, and a long twisted thing shaped rope. “Himo” is usually translated into “sash” or “strap” in English, but what I want to express here is “a flat and long thing”.
Himo is different from round-shaped rope. “Obi” is a flat, long and wider than a palm. Generally speaking, the width of “himo” in “onbuhimo” is about 7-8cm.
And it is important that we don’t use himo in the same way as a rucksack when we use it for tying a baby on our back. Himo is used for tying something to something. On the other hand, ropes are used for lifting up something. Shoiko has shoulder straps, which are not thin and flat himo, but more like flat ropes made of some twisted and woven himos. I can often see photos and drawings in which himo is running across a body diagonally, but I have never seen the way to use himo perpendicularly to a ground surface.

2-2.Japanese people appropriated the surrounding tools including “himo”

Japanese people used not only “himo” but also kimono for back carrying. They put a baby in kimono (between their skin and kimono), and tied obi belt on it, not dropping a baby. This let them work keeping a baby close to their body and feeling the baby’s condition.



2-3.It is a mystery why shoiko didn’t change to onbuhimo.

“Shoiko” or “oiko” is a wooden rack for carrying a load on the back.
Not only Japanese people but also people all over the world used “shoiko” for carrying burdens. Using shoiko, Farmers carried wood and harvest, and merchants carried goods to sell. Shoiko comes in a variety of shapes, which are also subjects of study. Shoiko has a part for carrying a load and shoulder straps like rucksacks. There is evidence that Iceman from 5300 years ago discovered in Italy used tools like shoiko. We can imagine shoiko had been used in every parts of the world for a long time ago because of its convenience.
However, shoiko didn’t evolve to babycarriers. As opposed to babycarriers in western countries that came from shoiko, I guess there was some reason that Japanese people chose himo for carrying babies on their back. Each ethic has their own figure and life styles including climate and geographical features. Because Japan is originally agricultural culture, previous Japanese people worked bending their knees and back. It may be one of the reasons why shoiko didn’t evolve to babycarriers in Japan.

2-4.A dramatic change happened in 1960’s.

In Japan, kimono and himo had been used for carrying a baby for a long time, but finally in 1930’s, commercialized babycarriers appeared as substitutes for kimono and himo. The first shape was similar to Mei Tai. There is a local onbuhimo called “Onbumokko” in Amakusa, Kyushu. It exactly looks like Mei Tai. We can find similar onbuhimo in China and Korea, but each way to use is different. People in the Continent usually carry babies on their waists, so babies cannot see what their parents and caregivers are doing over their shoulders.
Onbuhimo made in Japan was exported abroad in 1960’s. It didn’t get popular very much, but actually it influenced the commercialization of babycarries in Western culture.

In late 1960’s, in Japan, some people began to say that they didn’t know how to put their baby on their back. Then, Japanese babycarrier manufacturers attached loops to a back supporter section for putting baby’s legs in order to cover baby’s hip and prevent dropping babies. Afterwards, because some mothers began to say that it was embarrassing to stand out their breasts with crossing onbuhimo on their breasts, onbuhimo was changed to the shape of rucksacks. Around this time, the position of back carry started to get lower and lower, and the original Japanese onbu, which enables joint attention changed.

3.A reseach of onbu

It is said that human beings have done hugging and carrying babies on back as well as breast-feeding. ③ However, hugging and holding babies and back-carrying babies have been hardly researched.

3-1.The classification by Kunio Yanagida

A folklorist Kunio Yanagida classified how to carry babies into 3 groups.
The first is carrying a baby by holding in arms, which could be seen a lot in families in rich class. We can see old women in picture scrolls in Kamakura period, who was holding a baby on their bare skin, wearing kimono over themselves and a baby . It is likely that they attached a baby on bare skin both in front of their chest and on their back.
The second is carrying a baby on back. This was a way by working class, and not only mothers but also children did it.
The third is putting and carrying a baby in a basket like ijiko and izume. Farmers did it in the busy farming season.



3-2.A reference to onbu in magazines

Since 1960’s, parenting magazines have been published in Japan, too. It is interesting that carrying a baby in front of the chest had been expressed “onbu in front” until 1970’s. The word “onbu” had been used not only for carrying a baby on the back, but also for carrying a baby close to one’s body in general meaning.
Baby carriers for holding a baby in the arms became common in Japan from late 1970’s. In 1980’s, importing ‘Sunugli’ became popular and many baby carriers could be seen in advertisements and articles in magazines. Domestic companies started to focus on developing baby carriers. Today, in 2016, people who were raised by those baby carriers became mother and fathers and they are raising their own children.


Japanese people carried their babies with everyday things, which were not special. Nowadays we Japanese mostly wear Western clothes and we don’t have himo all the time with us. That’s why I think it is not easy for us to use himo for babywearing like Japanese people of old. However, I would like you to know that they didn’t use ropes and thick and worked straps from the first. They used long and flat things for onbu.

These days onbu is getting familiar in oversea. The definition of onbuhimo in other countries seems to be “back-carrying without a waist belt”, but that is off about onbu in Japanese recognition. I think a big feature of Japanese traditional onbu is that children can see forward over caregiver’s shoulders.
A question from someone who lives in the US get me write this article. That was ”Did onbuhimo originally just mean back carry with any type of carrier or cloth or rope or did it originally mean a specific design like we think of an Onbu today?” I felt hard to explain the action of onbu and relationship with himo which needs for onbu.
It is difficult to explain and understand cultures.

Reference data
①絵巻 子どもの登場―中世社会の子ども像 (歴史博物館シリーズ) / 河出書房新社 (1989/08)
②逝きし世の面影 (平凡社ライブラリー) / 平凡社 (2005/09)
③〈運ぶヒト〉の人類学 (岩波新書) / 岩波書店 (2014/9/20


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