Celebrating the ‘heavenly seal’ on Asian babies

Parents in Japan, China and other parts of Asia expect their children to be born with a dark spot on their skin. The birthmark is harmless and usually fades as the child grows. Historically, the pigmentation has been referred to as the “Mongolian Spot.” Yet to some people, that’s a problematic term, evoking old-fashioned ideas about race.

Text by Susan Usui. Illustrations by Yuka Morita.

I recently asked some of my Japanese friends: “What does the term ‘Mongolian Spot’ mean to you?” Most people answered: “It’s the dark mark that appears on the buttocks and lower backs of babies.”

The medical term for ‘Mongolian Spot’ is congenital dermal melanocytosis. Melanocytes are cells that produce melanin, or pigment, and the spots form on the skin of the baby while it is still in embryonic development.

The marks are usually blue but they can also be blue-grey, blue-black, or sometimes brown. They appear between birth and one year, occurring in more than 90% of babies in Japan. The marks are also common in places such as Korea, China and the Indian subcontinent but are rare among people who have lower amounts of melanin in their skin.

Usually, the marks completely fade away by the time a child reaches five years old but in some rare cases they continue as birthmarks into adulthood.

European ideas

The term ‘Mongolian Spot’ was originally coined by a German doctor, Erwin von Baelz, who arrived in Japan in 1876 to teach medicine at Tokyo University. At that time, he used terminology which had been developed in Europe to categorise the human species into five ‘races’. The so-called ‘Mongolian race’ was one of these and it was thought to include people from across Asia.

These days, of course, the idea of calling all Asian people ‘Mongolian’ is outdated and could be seen as problematic. When I read some discussions on this topic online, I noticed that some people who have Chinese or Indian heritage, living in countries such as Australia, the UK or the US, felt that in this context, ‘Mongolian’ was an out-and-out racist term. However, I did come across one blogger who lives in Mongolia who embraced the idea. According to the blogger, the blue marks a “heavenly seal.”

Surprising reaction

As the mother of mixed race children living in Japan, I have noticed considerable interest in my babies’ behinds. I was initially shocked at the reactions from doctors, nurses and relatives who exclaimed: “O-shiri ga kirei!” (What clean, pretty backsides!). It became clear to me that my kids were being singled out as distinct because of their lack of dark blue marks.

Some interesting idioms have grown out of the prevalence of babies with these dark spots in Japan. If you hear an older man say,  “O-shiri ga aoi” (Your backside is blue), he is probably being provocative. There are only a few situations where the phrase may be used: it could be an admonishment to someone who should know better or is acting childishly. In English we might say, “Oh, grow up!” or something similar. It can also be a put-down from someone with experience to a rookie, suggesting they still have much to learn.

These days this idiom is mostly confined to literature and manga, where it’s included in the dialogue of the older characters. It is rarely used by younger people in normal conversations. Nevertheless, it is a clever evocation of a visual phenomenon associated with early childhood. The idiom also plays on the word, aoi, which can represent a range of colour from blue through to green. In Japanese, like English, “green” can be used to describe immaturity and gullibility. Small though they may be, these points of similarity between different languages are endlessly fascinating and spur my interest in this many-faceted culture.