TANABE, Wakayama Prefecture--During a four-hour delivery at a two-story maternity clinic here on Oct. 14, midwife Fujie Sakamoto continued encouraging the mother, saying, “The pain is caused by labor contractions, so there is no problem.”

“Her helping me intimately made me relaxed,” said the 38-year-old mother.

When the 95-year-old Sakamoto assisted in delivering her last baby on Oct. 20 after 70 years, she quietly but emotionally described it as “nice and peaceful.”

“I feel a slight sense of regret but I am rather surprised that I could continue working until I became so old,” said Sakamoto.

Sakamoto started working as a midwife around Japan’s defeat in World War II.

She has since assisted in 5,000 births, until the oldest active birthing nurse in Japan retired in October this year.

“Babies receive affection from people around them and represent divinity,” said Sakamoto, looking back on her 70-year career. “I am happy that I could help in the childbearing of all of them.”

MIDWIFE AT 21

Born in Minabe next to Tanabe, Sakamoto moved to Osaka in her teens to enroll in a nursing and obstetrics school while working at a dental clinic. When the war ended in 1945, she returned to her hometown.

At 21, Sakamoto began her career as a midwife in Kamihaya (present-day Tanabe). As mothers more frequently gave birth at home around that time, Sakamoto then had to rush to pregnant women’s houses by bicycle even late at night.

Sakamoto was so busy within 10 years following the end of the war that she once assisted in deliveries for five days in a row.

She opened a maternity clinic in 1976 as fewer people decided to give birth at home. It was relocated in 1997 to a residential area near the central part of Tanabe, 500 meters east of JR Kii-Tanabe Station.

The two-story maternity clinic had a sign saying “open throughout the year."

On its first floor are a childbearing chamber and a Japanese-style room where the mother and child stay following birth.

According to Sakamoto, what is important in childbearing is to bring babies into the world in “a natural fashion.” In line with the philosophy, Sakamoto patiently waits for newborns to come out of the wombs spontaneously, no matter how long it takes.

“Babies go out when they like to do so,” Sakamoto said. “I leave it to the natural way of things just as tides naturally become high and low.”

When the mother is suffering from terrible labor pains, Sakamoto continuously rubs her lower back while reassuring her, “It’s OK, OK,” to help ease the pain.

BUILT BUSINESS BY WORD OF MOUTH

At her clinic, the mother and child are allowed to spend time in the same room for five days after the birth, because Sakamoto believes that infants’ minds become filled with love when they are repeatedly held and breastfed by their mothers.

“Babies can read mothers’ feelings through the warmth of their skin,” said Sakamoto.

Her accumulated experience, skills and cheerful personality spread through word of mouth, attracting many pregnant women around Tanabe. One of babies whom she helped deliver has turned 70, while Sakamoto assisted in childbearing of a family over four generations.

Sakamoto has also helped deliver all her six grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

After her husband, who was a former bank employee, died when she was 87, Sakamoto lived in her clinic alone to manage it.

With fewer people having children in Tanabe and elsewhere across the country, only two to three deliveries are made a month at Sakamoto’s maternity clinic, around half that of 10 years ago.

DECLINING CHILDBIRTHS ACROSS JAPAN

According to the health ministry, the number of children born at maternity clinics fell to 5,410 in 2017 from 10,610 in 2007. Whereas there are 366 such facilities across the nation at the end of fiscal 2017, the figure is 100 lower than that for the end of fiscal 2011.

Under such circumstances, Sakamoto decided to end her business after holding talks with an assistant midwife and other staff members, although she still feels healthy enough to continue working.

Kazuyo Kamiya, 61, chairperson of the Wakayama prefectural midwife association, said she is sorry about Sakamoto’s retirement.

“Sakamoto is a landmark midwife who has been active since the era when birthing nurses still went by the traditional name of ‘sanba,’ ” said Kamiya. “One of our challenges is preserving maternity clinics as their numbers shrink.”

Sakamoto said she will continue offering advice on health and child care following her retirement as a midwife.

“They (mothers today) appear to try hastily to make children stand on their own for no reason,” Sakamoto noted. “They should do things slower. Each child has his or her own exceptional personality, so mothers just need to respect it.”