Illustration of a doula helping a woman give birth (Shutterstock/Ken Tackett)
Japan is seeing an increase in the number of non-medical professionals known as doulas who provide emotional and physical support to women before, during or after childbirth amid a rise in nuclear families and mothers coping with solo parenting.
The tasks performed by a doula -- modern Greek for female helper -- range from offering advice and comfort to taking care of household chores. About 180 doulas are active in 26 of Japan's 47 prefectures, according to an association of such women.
"Family lifestyles have become more diverse and so have the concerns of family members," said Kimiko Nishi, a 53-year-old doula and former childcare worker.
With more couples working, and their parents too, Nishi has come across many mothers who don't know how they will cope with child raising.
One such is Mami Tanaka, a pseudonym for a 36-year-old mother of two in Tokyo. Once a week for three hours, Nishi takes care of Tanaka's 2-year-old son and 5-month-old daughter and cooks while the art teacher paints in a different room.
Tanaka sought help from a doula after returning to her job two month after giving birth. She could not expect her husband's help with housework, childcare and applying to nursery school because he works at a restaurant until midnight.
Her mother, who lives in western Japan, did not wish to get involved in childcare duties and in any case she and Tanaka are always fighting. "If I'd had my mother to help me, I think both us would have gone nuts," Tanaka said, who says she feels a sense of calm when she holds her paintbrushes.
"We are like 'escort runners' for child rearing," Nishi said, alluding to the guide runners who encourage and support visually impaired athletes. "Creating a situation where a mother can be herself will bring smiles to the whole family," Nishi said.
Doulas have already taken root in Europe and the United States and were fully introduced to Japan in 2012, when the Japan Doula Association was established, providing classes and certification training.
About 360 women have taken the courses to learn about the physical and emotional changes associated with pregnancy, childbirth and the postpartum period, as well as hone their household chores.
Doulas charge 2,000 to 3,000 yen ($18-26) per hour for their services and some local governments in the Tokyo metropolitan area subsidize the cost.
"We want to create a system that helps someone who wants to rely on others to do so, which we are doing by cooperating with municipalities and businesses," said Kasumi Ushida, a director of the association.