Hokkyoku Shirokumado’s Babywearing


We often use the phrases “babywearing” and “wear the baby” on our website as well as in our product descriptions. However, we believe babywearing and the simple action of carrying a baby to be different.

In Japan, every form of product strapping a child to a parent, we call it “Dakko Himo”. Soft Structure Carriers or SSC, as well as strollers are considered “baby-carriers”. On the other hand, both traditional Japanese back-mounted baby slings and modern slings which wrap the baby to one’s back can be called “Onbu Himo” or babywearing. “Wearing” your child is something people may not often hear, but Japanese have known in their core to be “babywearers”, having used to carry their babies on their backs since long ago.

Even before the year 1300 in Japan, paintings of people have shown babies being cared for and carried inside their mother’s clothing. This intimate relationship between mother and child may not have been fostered in western culture as much as the way it did in Japan. Many of these familial scenes can be viewed in the works of popular Ukiyo-e prints.

In the 21st century, babies are no longer carried inside their mother’s clothes. However, many Japanese would still like to have this feeling of closeness.

This is how we define “babywearing”.

  1. Having a child held close to one’s body.
  2. Using something beside your own body to carry a child.
  3. “Wearing”doesn’t mean to hold or carry a child but rather, the child becomes a part of you.

Babywearing to us is not for the purpose of transportation but rather as a way for a mother and child to bond while the baby is being raised.

What we want to spread through our products is to “awaken” people’s true physical parent nature within.

We hope that you will learn a little something from what we have to say.

The core of babywearing in Japan

Japanese have a long history of carrying their babies on their backs. Even up until just 50 years ago, babies were tied to their mothers by just a single cloth. If the baby was held just a little too loose, it could be very dangerous so the grandmothers and neighborhood old ladies used to gave advice such as how to properly carry the baby. It was common to even see older siblings carrying babies on their backs. For these reasons Japanese have always been “babywearers”.

Since time immemorial, people have been raising children. In both the Heian and Edo periods, peasants who had jobs would have to continue working even if they have children. Even in their own homes, these people would not have the time to relax and read Waka(Japanese Poetry) unlike the nobles. They were too busy to work for living while caring for their babies at the same time.

Even during the modern Showa Period, still parents had to do a whole lot of housework while taking care of their newborn babies. Often grandparents can be seen nursing their grandchildren in some of the old photos and movies of the era. Older siblings too, would sometimes have to carry their younger brothers and sisters on their backs while in school. Farmers would carry their babies in the fields working, breast-feeding them when they need to.

Because of going through these busy daily lives, Japanese form their own unique way of carrying babies on their backs called “Onbu” which becomes their first form of babywearing.

Do you know the song “Baby Raccoon on the Mountain”?
♪♪Baby raccoon on the mountain
Drinking Milk
Falls asleep
Picked up
Carried home on mom’s back
See you tomorrow♪♪

All over the world, babies’ lives evolve around cycle of being fed, being held and put to sleep, and back again. Japanese babies are the same. They have been carried, held, and loved all day long.

Raising children and babywearing

Throughout history, women all over the world did not have the privilege of taking time off from housework or their jobs while raising their babies. In Japan, it was normal for women to do both housework and fieldwork throughout the day with their babies on their backs. Except for feeding, babies were sometimes left with other family members while their mother worked. Unlike nowadays when a mother can separate her professional career and housework, it was inevitable.

It is my own belief but going all the way back to when people were hunters and gatherers, adults would have never left their babies alone. These babies were easy prey for wild animals so there had to be someone watching them. Because of this, adults must carry their babies at all times wherever they went. It was a survival for the babies to be worn on parents.

After the industrial revolution, work migrated from one’s home to factories far away. In Japan, women began working in factories around the year 1900. It was not ideal to carry a baby while working in such poor environment but many mothers had no choice but to keep their babies with them while working. It is not just wearing babies that are good but the quality of the environment and how they are worn are important.

Raising a baby genuinely is the key for every parent. In order to do this there must be skin-ship, love and encouragement while watching the baby. People who practice babywearing fulfill these natural parenthood and even proved to better mothers’ hormone balance. Sometimes babies need to experience a variety of environment. Our products can keep babies in the correct positioning in accordance to their growth. However, it is not just worn correctly in position that is the key to a good parenthood. It might even be good for babies being carried in an awkward position sometimes (but, of course in a level that does not hurt them.) It is just another new life experience for them. Babies learn from their interaction to natural environment even if it may not be a perfect one at times. They are quick to learn and can adopt. Those challenges can be learning curves for them. And after all, nobody is a perfect mom, right!?

A clingy baby is perfectly natural

Sometimes in zoos, due to various reasons, animal mothers would abandon their babies. If this happens, zoo keepers will have to take care of these babies. This sadly leads to the parents becoming slowly and slowly distant to their babies. Mammals family benefit from being close to each other naturally. In nature, baby animals are clingy since they are born. And when the right time comes, the babies will have to be independent from their parents and vice versa. This transition over time from clingy to independent is a natural course of life and benefits all mammals both physically and emotionally.

Humans are similar. Parents and caregivers would take care of babies night and day because babies are unable fulfill their need alone. Babies learn that they are loved and cared for instinctively. Babies learn through experience, by watching others and often by copying what others do. By observation and listening to conversations and interactions, babies learn about communication as they have done for centuries.

My first sling in 1999

Before I founded Hokkyoku Shirokumado, and even before I got my first ever sling, what I had experienced was insufferable “stiff-shoulders” by carrying my baby.

In 1998, the baby carrier I bought had given me so much pain to my neck and shoulders within five minute of wearing them. It was also troublesome and complicated to wear. It required time and effort to put on, and by the time I was done, my baby would start to cry in discomfort. It was never a simple task. I was introduced to slings during an event called “The Day of Good Birth” in Ikebukuro, Tokyo on November 3rd, 1999. It was there I bought a sling for the first time. The sling was called “Sling EZee” made by Parenting Concepts sold at a booth run by La Leche League; a group that supports breastfeeding. In fact, before I bought the sling, I hardly knew anything about them.

Around this time, single cloth slings were commonly sold and used in the United States. In fact many countries had been using them for a long time in history, but I had no idea about their existence until 1999. I of course had no idea about how to properly use it. Come to think of it, I think I had it so low and was wearing it too loose.

A miracle cloth

I tried to unriddle the instruction that was on a piece of print, and worn the sling haphazardly, but can never forget how comforting it felt to my body. It didn’t hurt me at all. Even felt light carrying my baby.

When my second child was born, my older 2 year old regressed and wanted to be carried once again. And with this sling, it was no more a painful task. Not only it was easy for me but also it gave so much comfort to my baby that made them sleep peacefully. Their faces told how comfortable and at ease they were. It was no more effort to put them to sleep and they stop being cranky even after they woke up. There was enough space for airflow to keep children cool while they slept as well. It was then for the first time, I experienced how wonderful it is to wear a baby. The true benefit for “babywearing”. I couldn’t keep this feeling to myself and wanted to let all the mothers in Japan know about babywearing. It wasn’t too long before I began importing slings. This is how I began my journey of Hokkyoku Shirokumado.

Japan’s view of western babywearing

In the summer of 2006, I participated in a babywearing Conference at Reed College in Portland, USA with the assistance of an interpreter.

The naming of baby carrying single cloth “sling”, and sold commercially was first started in America. However, I was bit disappointed at the conference because most of the sessions were about practical matters such as what fabrics are used and how these are sewn. They did not cover the physical and psychological effects that babywearing has on both babies and their parents.

This should have been expected because even though recently people have started babywearing, they were still minority in the west. Majority of people were using baby carriers in daily bases.

American babywearers themselves explained that though babywearing existed in the west, its culture has disappeared due to the life style shift after the industrial revolution. I also believe one of the major changes was the change in working environment during that period. It is absolutely different raising babies at home to raising them while working in factories. I believe it was an inevitable choice to have their babies kept in a certain place away from them while working, especially during the eighteenth century. This choice seems to have continued to impact the child raising culture today.

Though there are very few researchers studying Babywearing in the world still, I believe that it is important to understand the effect of babywearing when you realize babies spend hundreds and thousands of hours being held in arms and carried on their parent’s back during their childhood.

Reasons for the changes of the Japanese babywearing style

I think that the reasons behind the changes of Japanese babywearing style are to do with the evolution of babywearing products and changes in raising baby culture in our country.

There were many social reforms done as part of the occupation policy during the post-Second World War, and had some effect on traditional Japanese child raising culture.

For example, when giving birth, instead of using a midwife at home, babies were to be delivered at hospitals. It was also taught that babies will not become independent if they were breastfed all the time. So it was recommended to feed them baby milk in a set amount per day in schedule. People tried to “control” their babies. It was also encouraged to put them to sleep in separate beds from their parents because holding them will become habitual to the babies. I believe this was not just placing the American culture to Japan but more likely that Japanese began to place importance in “early independency” of children.

In 1990, a book called “Warnings from Silent Babies” by Takeshi Horiuchi discussed the emotional and psychological cycles of babies when they cry and caused quite an eye-opening knowledge to the public. Babies cry when they want something. That is the only sign they can give. And it is caused by variety of “wants”. It is not only for hunger and thirst. It may be communicating that they are too hot, too cold, feeling sick or in pain, being lonely or being scared. It is many ways of feeling. If a mother ignores a crying baby for a long time, the baby begins to feel abandoned and realize that there is no one there to be cared by. If this continues, the baby will begin to retreat their emotion within and stops expressing outwards.

Torigoe, a baby product manufacturer, who has helped me greatly for the patterns of our “Mukashi Nagara No Onbu Himo” (Old Fashioned Sling) once told me that around the time of the Second World War, They introduced back mounted baby sling which was a single piece of cloth with a back support pad for the baby attached to it.
However, during the mid-1960s, many people complained that they did not know how to use the slings. Therefore, they introduced the product with added two foot-holes for the easy and secure placement of a baby.

Originally, slings were single pieces of cloth wrapped over the back of baby, going through under their arms and held tight in front of mother’s chest for placement of the babies before tying. But I believe the mothers were worried because their baby’s legs were dangling under and may fall out from the sling. So the loops for the feet were added next to where the bottom of the baby should go or the foot-holes on the cloth or even a way to wear from the babies feet going in first before carrying them became the new style. And those old fashioned slings worn in the shape of an X across the mother’s chest eventually phased out.

1986, there was a report showing then the well-known pop singer, Momoe Yamaguchi carrying her baby using front baby-carrying sling which also became a push to the decline of using old-fashioned back carrying slings.

The post-war reforms and culture shift as well as the evolution and perception of slings have all influenced the Japanese babywearing of today.

Summary: The best relationship between parent and baby

One can learn much from looking into the history and theories but also looking at the daily facts are important.

“Attachment Parenting” is the way of raising children placing importance in physical interaction. Or one may try to focus on parent and child bonding. Whether buying the baby slings and carriers knowing these benefit or without the knowledge, it is not so important.
Perhaps some mothers like the color of the slings or may think it’s “cool” to be a babywearer. Whatever that sparked the idea in you to get a sling is OK.

When I hear babywearing moms saying that these products make them feel at ease or fit them perfectly or even realize that babies do not cry twenty-four-seven, then I know that the true magic is at work. It makes me happy to know that I have done a little something to improve the mother and baby relationship.

Happy babywearing
Founder of Hokkyoku Shirokumado’s・Masayo Sonoda

*Torigoe Manufacture was founded right after the World War Two but unfortunately closed its business now.