In One of Tsukuba`s Old Hamlets- OMONOI (面野井) – the Birth of a Child is Celebrated by the Neighbors on the Third Day- with Boxes full of Uncooked Rice and a Sprig of Nandian (nanten,南天)
By Avi Landau
Because I am a foreigner, the fact that I am still always discovering local traditions and customs which I hadn`t known of ( even after all these years) probably doesnt surprise anyone ( or me) very much. But when someone born and bred in one of Tsukuba`s old villages, someone who has raised children here, and has all the while proudly kept up the local traditions encounters a ceremony which she had NEVER HEARD OF BEFORE- it is certainly an occassion to raise eyebrows.
And probably no-one was more surprised than Harumi-San herself, when her mother-in-law told her to get ready for the OBOTOGI- a word which meant absolutely nothing to her – which was apparently going to take place the next day. Naturally, it was a little embarrassing to admit that she had no idea what it was that needed to be prepared, but her puzzled querry was met with understanding.- because a child had not been born into the neighborhood in more than 20 years !
As I have just hinted, in Harumi-San`s neighborhood an OBOTOGI is a celebration of a new birth. It takes place on the 3rd day after delivery- not at hospital , but at the newborn`s home- since that was where until recent years ,babies in OMONOI, an old village now near the Kenkyu Gakuen Station on the TX Line, came into the world.
What happens ( I was told) is this: a representative from each household in the neighborhood puts 1.8 kilograms of uncooked rice ( this is a traditional measure called one SHO, 一生、ISSHO-) into a laquer-ware box ( JU-BAKO) and garnishes this with a sprig of the NANDIAN tree ( a plant which is traditionally believed to keep misfortune away) that can be found growing in the gardens of nearly all the local homes. This is then wrapped in a furoshiki ( traditional wrapping cloth).
All these representatives then gather at an assigned time, and go over to the house of the new mother and child ( who were NOT present this time, as they were in the hospital).
The neighbors offer their congratulations and then enter the house and stay for a cup of tea and a chat, before taking their leave. When they do say that it is time to go, their hostess, returns the laquer-ware boxes, which had been emptied of their contents but then REFILLED with a fistfull of rice- representing continuity and the hope that more children will be conceived in the future.
One thing about this custom is that it shows consideration for the family- which is surely very busy around the time a baby is born. Instead of having people dropping by at any hour, all the neighbors go at ONE TIME, greet the baby, give their gift, and leave the family in peace.
The rice, of course, has for the Japanese always represented fertility and even TREASURE, (as the root of the Japanese for that word TAKARA is TA GARA (田柄)- from the rice fields), and I guess there could be no more auspicious gift.
Looking into the possible etymology of the word OBOTOGI, I found that is Ibaraki dialect ( Ibaraki-Ben) the word OBO means child, while TOGI, a word used in standard Japanese, means to stay with and comfort.
In some other neighborhoods of Tsukuba ( and in some other parts of Japan) there are also special events held by neighbors on the thrid day after a birth.
In my former neighborhood in Tsukuba, Konda , which was part of what was called Sakura Village ( OMONOI was formerly part of Yatabe Town) a new mother is given rice balls covered with azuki beans or soy bean powder. These are called BOTAMOCHI and it is believed that they help stimulate the flow of mothers milk.
The OBOTOGI of OMONOI, is a simpler more beautiful tradition. On the internet I have found reflections of it in certain websites which promote the idea of celebrating the birth of a child with uncooked rice. They suggest that the same weight in rice as that of the child at the time of birth should be given to the happy family !
Read about some more of the ways the Japanese have traditionally celebrated a child`s growth:
At one year- the Issho-Mochi Celebratio (一升餅)
and at one hundred days- the Kuizome (お食い初め):