Archaeologist claims Nara site was ancient maternity ward

Mainichi Shimbun, Monday 10 May 1999

NARA—An ancient ditch excavated here and believed to have carried holy water may actually have been a toilet drain linked to a hut where noblewomen were secluded while giving birth, according to a leading archaeologist.

Tadashi Kurosaki, who heads the Nara National Research Institute of Cultural Properties' dig at the Asuka and Fujiwara palace site, believes the ditches held important religious significance for nobles in the sixth and seventh centuries.

But he suggests the sites had as much to do with childbirth as they did with sacred ritual ceremonies.

People used to believe that when they went to the toilet, they would mix with spirits from another world. They believed they became new people whenever they left the toilet, Kurosaki said. Toilets used to be a place that joined people and the gods. That's what makes me think [the ditches] were connected to the huts where women gave birth.

The gods were able to flow down the drains to the huts built for the women who were waiting for them and who would give birth to their child, he added.

Several ditches of similar structure and age to those that Kurosaki's team unearthed have been discovered in the past.

Sacred instruments used during religious rites have been found nearby, leading most archaeologists to believe that the ditches were used to carry holy water in which the instruments were washed and thus purified.

But Kurosaki noted that the ditches also had scaffolding that people could squat over and complete their business, so to speak. The scaffolding led him to believe the ditches actually served as drains for toilets.

His idea about the huts where women were hidden away while giving birth came from a passage in the Kojiki, eighth-century annals that give a legendary explanation of Japanese history until that time.

Kurosaki says the Kojiki mentions the story of a god's wife who was placed in a simple hut when she had to give birth to their child.