In International Babywearing Conference 2016 in Atlanta, I made presentations about onbu. I would like to write here the contents of my presentations and answer the questions I had after IBC. I will introduce you onbu from another viewpoint.

Onbu is a concept.

FAQ I have had not only in IBC but also before is “What is exactly onbu (or onbuhimo)?” Ordinary Japanese people will answer that it is putting and carrying a baby (sometimes an adult) on one’s back.
In Japan, onbu has been a universal and natural behavior in parenting. When a baby starts crying or looks sleepy, Japanese do onbu. When they go shopping and to an amusement park with their baby, they do onbu.
What is onbu?

An action that achieves both parenting and carrying.

A Portuguese missionary, Froise reported the parenting in Japan in details. He wrote in his book, “In Japan, young girls always put a baby on their back.” Girls were not carrying a baby, but were looking after as they were asked to. They did onbu for taking care of babies. A child culture researcher, Shoichiro Kami said this.

Onbu achieves parenting and carrying at the same time and it was the most efficient way in daily life.

上 笙一郎(Shoichiro KAMI)著『日本子育て物語 育児の社会史』1991/筑摩書房

Baby Age published in 1975 by Fujin Seikatsusha introduced holding a baby in front as “ onbu in front”.

Using Kami’s explanation, the mother in the magazine was taking care of her baby, though she was just holding the baby in front of her chest. “Taking care” might be an exaggerated expression, but I assume that the word “onbu” means “I am conscious of the existence of my baby”. There must be a lot of method to archive both parenting and carrying in each culture. Japanese onbu’s characteristic is that a mother and a baby are close to each other, and they can see same objects. It can be seen in historical record that people put a baby in kimono and touched each other skin to skin until early modern ages.

Until the 1930s or so, people in rural Japan used to Onbu without wear nappies. The child could tell when it was time to defecate and the caregiver could feel it.

Inuit also carries a baby putting in their coat close to their skin. The practice of putting babies in clothing has long been practised by both the Japanese and the Inuit. In Japan, however, placing babies in clothes was a custom in colder climates.

This photo from BABIES CELEBRATED (1998).

I’d like to expect mothers and babies to communicate through touching skin and being close. This might be related to baby massage and Craniosacral therapy.

Japanese parenting in which people tried not to get a baby crying as much as possible.

Japanese custom, which had many events to celebrate the growth of children until 7 years old, tells that Japanese people had raised their children with great care. This doesn’t mean they spent much money to their children, but they loved and cherished their children. Many events seem to be related to the custom in which people treated their children as “children of God” until 7 years old. In other words, because the death rate until 7 years old was high, they regarded they had custody of the God’s children and they might have controlled their feeling when they lost their children.
Not only Froise but also other foreign people who came to Japan in 1800’s were surprised at that “there were no baby crying”. I know it is not true they couldn’t find only a single baby crying, but they hardly saw crying babies on streets. They are also very impressed that Japanese children were very smart and were able to act with common sense like adults.

In any case, travel journals in those days told us many children raised with great care could act sensibly as they grew.

Babies who were raised with onbu understood rules and reason, watching nursing older sisters and brothers playing. When they were put on adults’ back, they could see adults’ work and world. While being on someone’s back, they didn’t get bored and they got immediately pacified with bouncing, cradling and singing songs. They could sleep if they were sleepy, and could get breast-feeding just at the moment they wanted. That’s why foreign people might have thought, “ There is no baby crying in Japan.”

Advantages and disadvantages of onbu

I am giving advantages and disadvantages of Japanese traditional onbu. So-called “Japanese onbu” requires that the position of a baby’s face is higher than carrier’s shoulders, and a baby is put on high back.

First, I’ll tell you the disadvantages.
Heavy because baby’s weight put on wearer’s body.
This is the only disadvantage of Japanese onbu.
As Professor Junzo Kawada said in his research about physical techniques, each ethic has each way to use their body and each body motion range. Japanese people, who sit on floor and have been mainly engaged in agriculture and handicraft, seem to be good at exercise to take balance at waist. When they do onbu, they carry a baby on high back around shoulders, then in fact, they support baby’s weight on their waist and walk bending their knees.
However, because contemporary Japanese people do not always do such posture, many mothers are not used to do the posture of traditional onbu. Nowadays, household appliance is designed not to need to bend waist. (The height of kitchens became higher than before according to Japanese average heights.)
In so-called ideal standing posture, it must be hard to keep doing high-position onbu. In order to do it, some tips are needed, but it’s difficult to tell you them.

Then, what are the advantages that defeat the disadvantages?

Can see the same objects and landscape. Can share time and life.

The action two people see the same objects is called joint attention.
It enables babies to understand what their parents see, how to deal with occurrences and what exactly the objects are. It is very important for babies to see and know human behavior and social system to grow up as human beings. High-position onbu enables it easily.

Can share space and action.

Babies on mother’s back don’t always see the same objects with their mother. Sometimes they are asleep, and sometimes they see other direction. However, sharing the space, the baby and the mother feel the same atmosphere and experience to the same degree.
Babies see:
Mom always says “Hello!” cheerily when she meets girl friends.
Mom cooks dinner with a sigh.
Mom vacuums floor, humming a song.
Mom steps lightly after chatting with girl friends.
We have various situation and feelings in our lives. By sharing some of these with your baby, your personality (as a mother) will be certainly conveyed to your baby.
The other way around, they can create other space by not making eye contact even if they are close to each other. When you feel tired from parenting,
you can cry by yourself without showing tears to your baby.

Can get much information through appressed bodies.

Some middle-aged people who listen to my talk about onbu say “ Your talk reminded me the time when I had been put on my parents’ back.” The memories are the smell of mother’s nape, mother’s smoggy voice through skin and so on. These memories remind the people that they were cherished when they were small. These are very happy memories.
Because of not only these kinds of memories but also the connection of each other’s bodies, babies can perceive how mothers use their body.

“Himo” and tools.

There are various kinds of himo.

We Japanese people image “himo” means thin and long things. When it comes to “obi”, we image wider things than himo. Himo is a flat thing, not same as rope, but as long as it is not too wide, it is called himo even if it is in a rope shape. (ex. electris light code) Obi is flat but not round.
Mei Tai in China includes “obi” in its name in kanji and it is made with flat cloth.
I don’t know why in Japan the names of baby carriers separated into “komoriobi( which means baby carrier)” and “onbuhimo”, but I am sure that himo for onbu is not round-rope-shaped.
In that kind of meaning, when I see onbuhimo with thick shoulder pads, I feel it is different from original onbuhimo.

We, Hokkyoku Shirokumado, have found the actual stencils that were used around 1960 and we make our products based on them, faithfully reproducing them.
See our products here.

We have also commercialised Obi, which was used before Onbuhimo. This tool is called the Heko-Obi and can be imagined as a narrow Baby Wrap. The narrow width limits what you can do, but it works well for holding your baby in front of your chest and onbu. See our products here.

Flexibility because of inexistence of dedicated tools for onbu.

Dedicated tools for onbu started to be sold after 1930’s. Until then, people did onbu as they liked without onbuhimo. People in Photo1 do onbu by a method called “kesagake,” in which a garment is suspended diagonally from one shoulder. Babied don’t fall down because they are supported by kimono.
People in these old photos used quite thin himo. How did they feel it?

I don’t know what the original use for himo is in these photos, but in the past it was said that some kinds of obi (called hekoobi, sanjakuobi and kakuobi)
were useful for onbu. Until 1970’s, corduroy or velvet was used for onbuhimo in order to make shoulder straps less slippery. Raised fabric is strong because its surface yam is cut and woven tightly.

Posture in onbu.

Nowadays, Japanese mothers have a good figure, and their posture is beautiful. However, until the Early-Modern times, Japanese people didn’t have such a good posture. Old (sometimes contemporary) Japanese people’s walking was different from Westerns’ in that they walked with their knees suspended and with heels drag. They also walked in slightly forward bending posture and put a baby on their bending high back. This posture was comfortable for them to do onbu.

This photo from Isamu Suto(1977) 運ぶーフォークロアの眼3ー須藤功 国書刊行会(1977).
A view of the Japanese countryside in the late 1960s.

But now, Japanese life style is quite westernized and their body shape seems to be changed.
When Western people carry burdens on their back, they also put and fix them in high position as same as Japanese. What is important for Westerners is how upright they can stand. They don’t suspend their knees, but fix burdens tightly on their shoulders. I feel “it’s western style!” when I see people wrapping a baby tightly with a baby wrap. In Japanese onbu, people carried a baby on their back, putting baby’s arms on carrier’s shoulders. They made slightly extra space between a baby and a carrier to let a baby move as he/she liked. I think mothers (or caregivers) and babies spent their time together, adjusting their adhesion with moderate and comfortable slack.

Today, the concept of onbu is becoming obscure in Japan. Previous generation hasn’t told the advantages to the next generation. After WW2, the time when people regarded onbu was unfashionable and western culture was cool lasted, and that kind of trend were becoming popular also in the world of childcare products especially after the middle of 1980’s. Today’s parents who were born in the late 1980’s were the first-generation babies who were raised mainly by being held, not by onbu. It is natural for them to hesitate doing onbu, because they haven’t seen how to do it. That’s why today’s parents are confused with onbu. They hear that onbu is good for babies, but they don’t know how to do it. This is as it should be.


Japanese onbu was high position, and had various kinds of ways. Originally, we Japanese people regard that onbu is not only putting a baby on back, but also is composed of the posture and relationship between mothers and babies. So, when Japanese older people see double hummock with baby wrap, they would say “It’s not enough to let a baby see forward.”  
Onbu is very profound.