Our somewhat Japanese sleeping arrangement

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I will start this by boldly disclosing that whenever my husband is not in Japan, and there is thus some space in our double bed, our 4- and 8-year old children (and an army of their soft toys) sleep with me.

This is not a public way to let my husband in on the fact that our children don’t sleep in their own beds (or that their soft toys have cracked our defences and occupied our bed). No. He is well aware of this slightly unconventional sleeping arrangement for Western families. Instead, ‘boldly disclosing’ refers to the fact that many Europeans, including us before we moved to Japan, think that children who have passed their early infancy are as ill placed in their parents’ beds as Donald Trump would be in the White House.

And because the typical sleeping arrangement of 4- and 8-year old children in most Western families is not in their parents’ bed, when I’ve told my European/American friends that I, as the norm, co-sleep with my children, I usually get one of the following five responses.

 

1. Once you let them in your bed, you’ll never get them back to their own beds!

I’m not too worried about this – when my children (or anyone’s children) hit puberty I don’t think us parents can persuade or even bribe them to co-sleep with us. For a 13-year old, co-sleeping with their parent(s) is nearly as embarrassing as their parent holding their hand, walking them to school and giving them a peck on the cheek or some age inappropriate advice like: ‘Go get them tiger!’ at the school gate. So, I really don’t think we’ll be stuck with them in our bed until they go to university.

2. Really?! You don’t come across as a hippie-type.

Maybe I don’t come across as a hippie-type because I am not a hippie (whatever that term refers to nowadays). But for clarity, we (a) vaccinate our kids, (b) believe that clear boundaries are good for children, (d) are not vegan, (e) don’t live in a commune, and (f) don’t homeschool our kids. Furthermore, (g) neither my husband nor I have dreadlocks and (h) both of us do wear deodorant. That is, we do not display any qualities (other than co-sleeping) that could potentially be associated with some non-mainstream child-rearing or life-style ethos.

3. Isn’t it a bit strange to share a bed with an 8-year old?

I suppose in some cultures it would be strange, but in the context of Japan it isn’t. Inner-city Japanese homes are often quite small – so small that there may only be one bedroom (tatami room) in the apartment. This means that urban Japanese parents and children often share one bedroom, on the floor of which the family sleeps on a row of futons (or on one bigger futon). Even if there was an extra bedroom, many Japanese parents still prefer to sleep in the same room as their children, at least until the children go to elementary school (i.e. until 6 years of age) or even until the children hit puberty.

I suppose it would not be completely strange to co-sleep with your parents in the Finnish context either (although this is not the norm in Finland). Like Japanese homes, Finnish summer cottages often have limited space. These extremely common holiday homes in the Finnish countryside may only have one big room in which the family not only sleeps, but also cooks, eats and spends time. This means that families may share one double bed whenever they go to their summer cottage. I recall having shared a bed with my sister(s) and/or cousin(s), and my granny, granddad or parent(s) at our family’s summer cottage when I was elementary school age, and there was nothing unusual about it. And when I took some of my British friends to my family’s summer cottage some years ago, due to limited space, me, my now husband and two of our (female) friends, in Finnish summer cottage style, shared a double bed (see photo).

 

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 4. Do you actually get any sleep when sharing a bed with your kids?

Ok, this can be a problem. You see, my daughter is a bit of a kicker, hitter and hugger while asleep; both of my children get hot easily and kick off the duvet – that one duvet that we share – every night; and my son grinds his teeth and mumbles in his sleep. Nevertheless, I sleep better when the kids are in my bed than if when they are in their own beds for the following reasons.

First, we have earthquakes in Japan, and so, I worry about the children’s bunk bed not coping well should a strong earthquake spin our apartment block like a mechanical bull spins a drunken wannabe cowboy. The wee hours between 2-4 am when I’ve lain in my bed awake worrying if the kids will be squashed under their bunk bed during an earthquake have convinced me that our double bed is a much safer choice for our kids than their bunk bed.

Second, our 4-year old daughter’s Type1 diabetes means that we have to keep an eye on her blood sugar levels day and night. Having her next to me at night means that I don’t have to get out of bed to check that she’s ok. And the level of sleep deprivation the last four years of our daughter’s illness has inflicted upon us means that I would happily sleep on a plank of wood next to a cross between a skunk and a hippo if it means I can just half open one eyelid for one second to check that the skunk-hippo is alive and breathing, and then drift off again.

So, even though it might seem crazy to most Western parents, due to our circumstances, I sleep better when the kids sleep next to me.

5. Why?!

The reason why I co-sleep with our children is not because of lack of space or because we have adopted some trendy child-rearing fad, whereby physical contact with your child 24-7 is imperative. Neither have we made a deliberate decision to adopt Japanese families’ sleeping arrangements in the name of cultural integration.

In addition to the reasons explained in section 4 (i.e. earthquakes and our daughter’s diabetes) I’ve come to realise that I simply love having them close to me during the night, I suppose partly because I can’t have them close to me during the day (as they go to school/nursery and I go to work).

 

It is a relatively short period of time when my children are willing to snuggle up next to me, after which those nights are gone forever. So, when at 2am my daughter elbows me in the eye and, whilst in his sleep, my son mumbles the melody to Village People’s YMCA, I smile to myself, think how lovely it is to co-sleep with my children and go back to sleep.

The 2011 Earthquake

It’s been five years today since the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake – I’m sure most of you remember it. It was a huge earthquake, one of the World’s strongest since records began. Below is a video clip giving, in my opinion, a good (but scary!) illustration as to how strong the earthquake was. The clip shows seismic activity in and around Japan in 2011, smallish earthquakes taking place daily (as they do over here). However, on the 11th March (around 1min 50sec mark into the clip) it all kicks off. If you watch it, make sure you have the volume on, as the strength of the earthquake is represented not only visually, but also in audio form.

 

I will not attempt to write about the 2011 earthquake, the aftermath, the current state of people who experienced it or Japan’s earthquake/tsunami defences post 2011, since there are thousands of people who are much better suited to write about it than me. You can probably find information and first-hand descriptions of the incident in your national (or even local) paper today, should you want to remind yourself what happened on that day when over 18 000 people lost their lives and when thousands of people lost their loved ones, homes and livelihoods. And maybe you – like me and millions of Japanese people – will spend a few moments today thinking about that day five years ago and the people whose lives that day ended or changed forever.

 

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Back in 2011 we didn’t live in Japan, we had little general interest in Japan and we didn’t then know that one day we would live in that country, known for its bad earthquakes. A couple of years after the Great East Japan Earthquake, I was offered a job in Osaka and we were considering a move to Japan. We were concerned not only about the nuclear disaster that followed the 2011 earthquake, but also that something similar to that earthquake might be repeated while we live in Japan. I assume this is something that most foreigners – in particular those who come to Japan with children – are likely to think about, at least occasionally. We decided to move to Japan regardless of the possibility of a big earthquake(s), but to be prepared for an occurrence of one, and hope for the best (you can read my earlier blog post as to how we prepare for earthquakes here).

This is Japan – our Home. We have Earthquakes.

 

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Most people know that the bedrock underneath Japan is roughly as steady as the stock market in Russia, due to Japan being located slap bang on the intersection of three tectonic plates.  Most of you probably remember the Tohoku (Fukushima) earthquake in 2011 (magnitude 9.0 – apparently the fifth biggest earthquake on this planet since records began). And some of you might even remember the bad earthquake in Kobe (magnitude 7.3), about 20 min train journey from Osaka, back in 1995 (see photos above and below of the memorial in Kobe). So, you can see why earthquakes were one major thing that worried me last year when we were thinking about moving to Japan. In fact they still worry me – a lot! Apparently 20% of the World’s earthquakes take place in Japan and not all of these are just some little tiddlers, but more like huge sumo wrestlers who can make the floor shake and spin you around as if you were as light as one coffee size pill of Canderel. Whether or not you are as petite as the Japanese or your body shape resembles more of a standard European person, these bad boys can make you feel like you are having the ride of a lifetime on a Waltzer, Rollercoaster or a quad-bike driven by Johnny Knoxville.

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One morning when doing a school drop-off I talked to one of the Japanese school mums about earthquakes. I told her that when the school had had an earthquake drill my son’s teacher had to have a private chat with me because my son had got upset about the drill. And on our way home from school my son explained in a distressed manner that he did not like the earthquake drill at school. When I asked ‘Why?’ he said (a) that he could not hold the brace position as long as the teacher wanted him to. It hurt his back. And (b) he agreed with the teacher that it is better that something falls on his arms (in the brace position) rather than on his head but that he would miss his arms if they were ‘destroyed’ during an earthquake. A fair point, I suppose – I wouldn’t want my arms being destroyed either. The school mum with whom I was talking said that earthquakes are dangerous and should be treated with respect and that children (and adults) should be scared of earthquakes. I asked why people chose to stay in Japan with its bad earthquakes, and didn’t move to safer countries. She pointed out that there are many other places on earth that are equally dangerous with all sorts of natural and man-made disasters and people live in those places (actually thinking about it, California has the same problem with earthquakes).  She continued:

This is Japan. It’s our home. We have many earthquakes here. We’ve always had them. There is nothing we can do about that. We have no choice but to wait for the next big one, but we are as prepared as we can be.

And the last clause of the last sentence is very true.

First, modern houses are built to be earthquake-proof. The building we live in was built in 2008 which means that it is not the latest technology, given that the Tohoku earthquake resulted in some new building guidelines being introduced for new builds – new standards with steel, new standards with the amount of concrete, etc. I am not an architect or structural engineer but I believe they build new buildings so that the foundations rest on a ball/balls or other moving parts which means that the structure will give and move rather than crack if there is an earthquake. In practice, this movement means that our building is likely to bend during an earthquake. Apparently, the more movement the higher up you live. Given that we live on the 24th floor, our apartment will be visited by one of those sumo wrestlers I mentioned above even on the occasion of just a medium sized earthquake. I hope we will not freak out and have to find a new apartment as soon as we experience our first proper earthquake, which apparently happens quite often with foreigners and, in fact, also with Japanese people who are silly enough to move to apartments high up in tall buildings.

We’ve already had several small earthquakes since we moved to Osaka 6 months ago, but no proper ones which would have, for instance, woken me up during the night. Our 3-year-old daughter having Type 1 diabetes means that I practically sleep with one eye open,and wake up with the slightest alarming noise. But the rocking movement created by a small earthquake during the night doesn’t seem to have the same effect on me. However, the movement does have an effect on things like crockery and glasses in the kitchen cupboards and on the TV. Even a relatively small earthquake can throw these out of the cupboards / off the TV stand. And in fact, one of the most common causes of death during earthquakes is people being hit by heavy household items. Because no-one wants to be hit or killed by their TV, PC or microwave oven, many Japanese shops sell a kind of adhesive with which you can use to ‘glue’ your TV and PC to the stand or desk (see photo below). I bought some of that stuff and glued the TV on its stand. But because our TV stand is as steady as a one legged camel, I also glued the TV stand on the floor (see photos below). That should do it. In fact, the TV is so tightly glued onto the stand, and the stand onto the floor that we might have to leave them where there are when we move out.

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There is one issue that we still need to get sorted, and that is our children’s bunk bed. Apparently, the bed is likely to fall over during an earthquake unless it is screwed to the wall. The problem is that we are renting this apartment. The landlord is unlikely to be very happy to find earthquake-proof bolts in his walls when we move out. So, what we need to do is to buy big bars and screw them on the floor and ceiling (the bed, not the children).

Second, most people I know in Osaka have a small bag packed in case they need to leave their home during an emergency – the general instruction is to leave buildings during an earthquake. And you should take your emergency bag with you. We have two sets of stairs in our building, breakable walls dividing balcony areas of different apartments (see photos below), so that we can get out of our apartment even if our apartment front door frame has been distorted badly. And if it is impossible to exit the building by going down the stairs, we have the option of going up. You see, there is a helipad on the roof of our building.

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My work colleagues encouraged me to pack an emergency bag for my family as well, and I did.  I think I’ve remembered all the essentials: clean underwear, towels, soap, toothbrushes and toothpaste, tissues, plasters, painkillers, dry shampoo, deodorant, etc. (and, of course, mascara) (see photo).  In addition to our emergency bag, I have packed something even more important than soap and clean underwear. You may recall that our 3-year-old daughter has Type 1 diabetes and needs her insulin, blood tests, and sugar regardless of whether or not half the city’s buildings are just a pile of rubble on the ground. We have decided not to rely on the hospitals having the capacity to cater for a small diabetic person during a crisis like a bad earthquake. So, we have a bag ready in which we’ve packed our daughter’s essential diabetes stuff and more sugar than can be found in a small sweet shop (see photo). The supply in the bag should keep our daughter going for at least 3 weeks.

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Third, my workplace has also considered earthquakes. Of course we have an emergency protocol and an allocated meeting place should there be an earthquake, just like my son’s school, but in addition, the first week of work they asked me to draw a map to show where we lived. I thought that it was so that they can calculate the cost of my commute – which my workplace covers – but they said that one reason for the map was earthquakes. They said, if there is a bad earthquake, they will come and find and help their employees. That’s one of the nicest things I think I’ve ever heard an employer say!

Fourth, it is not only by drills that schools over here prepare for earthquakes. They’ve asked for a supply of spare clothes in case the children need to stay at the school due to a natural disaster (earthquake, tsunami, typhoon). The instructions are that if the local government has issued a warning to people about leaving their homes, parents should not attempt to go and pick their children up from their school. Although, I feel that I would like to be with my children should there be a major natural disaster, I think the school is in a way much better prepared for these things than a novice like me.

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Fifth, not only do they run earthquake drills at schools and other public places in Japan, but they also run a schedule of drills for whole cities. We had a drill here in Osaka about a month ago. I was shopping in a big department store and I received a message on my mobile phone saying ‘Emergency drill’ in English with a page of other relevant information in Japanese. This is what happens in Japan. When there is a real natural disaster they broadcast information and warnings on TV, and also send everyone with a Japanese mobile phone a text message warning them of the imminent danger. People are advised to seek shelter in schools, hospitals and other government buildings, which are robust buildings and should tolerate even quite bad earthquakes. They are also positioned so that they should not be flooded during any tsunamis, which may follow earthquakes.

So, even us living on the 24th floor is not a good thing in terms of movement during earthquakes, a good thing about living on the 24th floor is that we should be high enough to be safe from any potential tsunamis. This is, of course, providing that the building is not on fire or badly damaged during the earthquake. To be prepared for spending a several day period in the apartment we have a stash of food and water in the cupboards – similarly to the ‘hätävara’ that you were supposed to have in Finnish homes during the cold war (see photo of our currently slightly puny reserves in our natural-disaster-cupboard, thinking about it, it seems to be missing the essential bottle of Vodka – I must stock up) . In fact, the sirens wailing during an earthquake/tsunami drill in Osaka are not too different from the testing of the alarms in my home town of Kotka the first Wednesday of every month at noon to urge people to go to the ‘safety’ of underground bunkers from the Russian nuclear missiles. In case you are wondering, yes, in Finland, there are bunkers under most public buildings, blocks of flats and some private homes.

In Finland we have a saying which roughly translates to ‘someone’s moped doing a wheelie’ (‘lähtee mopo käsistä’).  So, in the event of Putin’s moped doing a wheelie and deciding to try to change the Russian borders, the Finnish are well prepared with their bunkers (with or without vodka).

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So, we, like the rest of Japan, are relatively well prepared for earthquakes. Nevertheless, I am really hoping there won’t be a bad earthquake here during our stay in Japan. That last sentence sounded really selfish. I suppose what I could have said is: I really hope that there won’t be a bad earthquake in Japan ever again. But me saying that would be way too optimistic, unrealistic and completely ignoring the fact that there will be more earthquakes in Japan. We just don’t know when.