In April this year, at the height of the cherry-blossom-viewing season, my wife, Susan, and I went to Kyoto, Japan. We saw the budding and bursting of the blossoms. We saw the petals scattering from the branches and settling on moss, stone and pond. We saw the Japanese people out strolling, out picnicking, out partying, in celebration of the blossoms that are so emblematic of their history and culture.
We visited the grave in Gichuji Temple in Otsu of one of my poetry mentors, Matsuo Basho, the grandmaster of the smallest poetic form in the world, the 3-lined 17-syllable haiku. We walked by Lake Biwa, where another haiku grandmaster once wrote a haiku likening the whitecaps in the moonlight to rabbits scampering on the water. We caught the train to Nara and wandered among deer in the parks on the outskirts of the city. We talked about Jesus to schoolgirls who approached us outside Todaiji Temple to ask us to help them with their English assignment. (A deer—taking its Shinto status as a messenger of the gods a bit too seriously—distracted us during one conversation by snatching away a girl’s workbook.)
Back in Kyoto, Susan (unwisely, in my view) ate a skewered octopus smaller than a ping-pong ball, as red as a saveloy, and as ugly as ET. We viewed the cherry blossoms at Nijo Castle by floodlight at night, and got as a bonus a performance of koto music by three women in kimonos. We strolled along The Philosopher’s Path, a walkway beside a canal once used for transport, running between temples and lined with cherry trees in the last of their springtime beauty. After attending a church service (where we recognised the tunes of two hymns, but nothing else) at the Kyoto Women’s University, we ambled along the Kamo River, perhaps passing the spot where in 1619 fifty-two Christians (including a pregnant woman and her five born children) were martyred by fire for their faith.1
We visited Buddhist temples and Shinto Shrines and were awed by their strangeness and beauty. And we felt (though doubtless not enough) the sorrow of Paul at Mars Hill over the pervasive ignorance and idolatry of the Japanese people. All this strangeness, all this loveliness, among people with whom we shared no language or heritage, and who courteously left us to ourselves or kindly helped us when we needed it!
Unrelated to cherry blossoms or spring, there was one strangely moving thing that we encountered repeatedly throughout our stay in Japan. At temples and shrines, by roadsides and riversides, in building recesses and open spaces—everywhere we went we came upon small stone idols adorned with red bibs. These bib-wearing statues and statuettes were representations of Jizo, a Buddhist godlike being known as a bodhisattva.
All of the stone idols represented Jizo as a Buddhist monk, sometimes with a staff, sometimes with cute features like a child. Some of the idols were “round”, free-standing, three-dimensional sculptures, either life-size or quarter life-size. However, the majority were relief sculptures, with the image of Jizo emerging from and framed by a flat, leaf-shaped background. Many of these relief sculptures were ancient and so weatherworn that their raised Jizo figures had been partly or completely chiselled away by wind and rain. These ancient “Jizo stones” were also quite small, under 30 centimetres tall, so that the red cloths tied on their fronts looked more like aprons than bibs.
In our wanderings, Susan and I chanced upon two dozen Jizos, arranged in two rows on a covered ironwork stand, at the junction of a busy road and railway line in Otsu—all severely weatherworn and all painted with white faces and black eyes where the heads of the bodhisattva once bulged from the flat stones. We saw one in a small shrine under a tree off the walking path beside the Kamo River. We discovered 300 on a small patch of hillside outside Kyoto’s famous Buddhist temple, Kiyomizu-dera. Inside the temple precincts we came upon a company of fourteen Jizos staring across the bitumen walking path at several stone foxes (kitsune) around a small Shinto shrine.
In Nara, close to Kofukuji Temple’s three-storey pagoda, we came across a life-size statue of Jizo with a young child standing beside him, clinging to his robes. Before the statue stood a granite basin with two ladles lying across its brimming rim and behind it stood two dozen relief-sculptured Jizos, arrayed like small headstones on the grass. While we stood contemplating this scene, some deer pushed through a nearby hedge and several women stopped in passing to pray to the large bodhisattva and to douse it with water from the stone basin. It was only then that we took in that the large idol had been wet when we arrived, its polished granite glistening in the afternoon sun and its sopping bib plastered to its chest.
The sight of all these red-bibbed Jizos was unsettling, for they are connected to the practice of abortion in Japan.
Abortion has effectively been lawful in Japan since 1948. For nearly seven decades prior to that it was outlawed, as Japan strove to build its birth rate to build its military might. For centuries prior to 1880, it was widely practiced (along with infanticide) but seldom officially condoned.
Post World War II, Japan has been known as an “abortion heaven”. A few statistics show why. In 1955, for example, there were an estimated one million, two hundred thousand abortions performed in Japan. In that year 41% of all pregnancies ended in abortion. In 1970, when abortion was still outlawed in virtually all but the Nordic and communist countries, there were an estimated two million, five hundred and fifty thousand abortions in Japan. That year 57% of all pregnancies were terminated by abortion. While the abortion rate has been steadily declining since 1970, there are still over two hundred thousand abortions performed each year.2
All these killings have filled Japan with a multitude of sorrows as women who have procured abortions struggle to come to terms with what they have done. The choice that they thought would free them from responsibility has in fact enslaved them to remorse. For such women, “abortion heaven” has turned into abortion hell. And this is where Jizo comes in.
In Buddhist teaching, Jizo is a bodhisattva (or, in Japanese, a bosatsu). A bodhisattva is an enlightened being who has essentially reached the point of Buddhahood, but who delays becoming a Buddha and entering Nirvana in order to help other sentient beings gain enlightenment and salvation.
Jizo is venerated in Japan as the bodhisattva who has (among other things) a special concern for the unborn dead. He is the guardian of babies who have been aborted, miscarried or stillborn.
These babies are known as mizuko, “water children”. They are children who existed briefly in the in-between state in the womb, children who lived and died before birth.
Unlike Western women, Japanese women seem generally not to lie to themselves or to others about the humanity of the foetuses they abort. They justify their abortions on pragmatic grounds (it has to be done because now is not the right time because …), but they do not try to pretend that they are merely getting rid of “a lump of tissue” or “the products of conception”. They accept that they are destroying the life of their own children and they do not pretend that this destruction is right or good. They simply maintain that it is necessary and therefore justified. As one Japanese woman told Western researchers, “abortion is fundamentally a sin (tsumi), but there are times when it cannot be helped”. The same pro-abortion, feminist researchers observe with a mixture of mystification and admiration that in Japan, “An interesting process of accommodation allows women to accept the rhetoric of sin while pragmatically advocating the necessity of that sin.”3In their pragmatism, Japanese women may deceive themselves about the necessity of having abortions, but they generally do not deceive themselves about the fact that by having them they are killing their own children.
In addition to but arising from this, Japanese women believe that an aborted child lives on in spirit form. An abortion removes a child from this life and this world, but it does not remove him or her from existence. The spirit-child lives on in another realm, conscious of itself, its present circumstances and its past mistreatment.
These beliefs held by post-abortion mothers are fed by and feed into Buddhist teachings, scriptures and legends. One Buddhist legend that is widely and deeply believed concerns Sai-no-kawara, “the riverbank in the land of Sai”, which is a kind of purgatory for children.
Children on the Riverbank of Sai exist in a wretched state. They are stripped naked and suffer exposure. They are lonely and long for the comfort of their mothers and fathers. They spend their days collecting pebbles and piling them up to make merit-towers (stupas), and in so doing they perform penance and entertain the hope of escape from their purgatory. The ancient Buddhist “Psalm to Jizo” (written as early as the tenth century AD) pictures the plight of the children in these terms:
In the Sai-no-Kawara are they gathered together.
And the voice of their longing for their parents,
The voice of their crying for their mothers and their fathers …
Is never as the voice of the crying of children in this world,
But [is] a crying so pitiful to hear
That the sound of it would pierce through flesh and bone.
And sorrowful indeed the task which they perform.
Gathering the stones of the bed of the river,
Therewith to heap the tower of prayers.
Alas, the children’s work is futile because demons come at the end of each day and topple the towers and scatter the stones, so the next morning they must start all over again.
It is into this hopeless situation that Jizo appears. The psalm continues:
All gently he comes, and says to the weeping infants:
Be not afraid, dears! be never fearful!
Poor little souls, your lives were brief indeed!
Too soon you were forced to make the weary journey to the Meido
[the dark underworld],
The long journey to the region of the dead!
Trust to me! I am your father and mother in the Meido,
Father of all children in the region of the dead.
And he folds the skirt of his shining robe about them;
So graciously takes he pity on the infants.
To those who cannot walk he stretches forth his strong shakujo [staff];
And he pets the little ones, caresses them, takes them to his loving bosom
So graciously he takes pity on the infants.4
In the last sixty years, with the enormous accumulation of abortion-related grief and guilt, the worship of Jizo has intensified and the practice of conducting memorial services for aborted children has become widespread. These services are known as mizuko kuyo.
Explaining this term, William LaFleur, states, “The Japanese word most commonly used today for a foetus that is being aborted is Mizuko. Mizu means water, Ko means child. It’s a water-child in the sense that it is a child who is not going to ever be in a sense what we might call solidly here … The other word is Kuyo, and Kuyo is a very generic word for saying thanks and [expressing] gratitude in a ritualised form.”5
Through these mizuko kuyo, these foetus memorial services, women who have had abortions solicit Jizo’s help in a range of matters. They want Jizo immediately to comfort their children in purgatory and they want him ultimately to deliver their children from that place of misery. They also hope to express an apology to their children and to make amends. The memorial service and related rituals are intended to reassure their children that they have not been forgotten by their mothers (and fathers).
There is also a darker concern. Many mothers fear that their aborted children want revenge for their mistreatment. They fear that misfortune will befall them and the children they have birthed unless they placate the children they have aborted.
All these notions increase the anxiety felt by women who have had abortions and spur them on to even greater devotion to Jizo, the compassionate bodhisattva who is able to save them from their children and their children from purgatory.
Many Buddhist temples offer mizuko kuyo, and some temples have been established solely for the purpose of conducting these foetus memorial services. One such temple is Shiun-zan Jizo-ji, “The Temple of Jizo on the Mountain of the Purple Cloud”, in the city of Chichibu. An extract from its promotional brochure, “The Way to Memorialise One’s Mizuko”, reads:
1. The mizuko resulting from a terminated pregnancy is a child existing in the realm of darkness. The principal things that have to be done for its sake are the making of a full apology and the making of amends to such a child.
In contrast to the child in darkness because of an ordinary miscarriage or by natural death after being born, the [aborted] child here discussed is in its present location because its parents took active steps to prevent it from being born alive in our world. If the parents merely carry out ordinary memorial rites but fail to make a full apology to their child, their mizuko will never be able to accept their act.
Think for a moment how even birds and beasts, when about to be killed, show a good deal of anger and distress. Then how much more must be the shock and hurt felt by a foetus when its parent or parents have decided to abort it? And on top of that it does not even yet have a voice with which to make complaint about what is happening.
It often happens that the living children of persons who have repeatedly had abortions will in the middle of the night cry out “Father, help!” or “Help me, Mummy!” because of nightmares. Uncontrollable weeping or cries of “I’m scared! I’m scared!” on the part of children are really caused by dreams through which their aborted siblings deep in the realm of darkness give expression to their own distress and anger. …
2. The next thing to do in remembering the mizuko is to set up an image of Jizo on the Buddhist altar in one’s own home. That will serve as a substitute for a memorial tablet for the mizuko. Such a Jizo can do double service. On one hand it can represent the soul of the mizuko for parents doing rites of apology to it. Simultaneously, however, the Jizo is the one to whom can be made an appeal in prayer to guide the foetus through the realm of departed souls. …
4. The next thing of importance is to set up a stone Jizo image either in the cemetery of the Mizuko Jizo Temple or at one’s own family temple. Such will serve as substitute for a grave-stone for the aborted child and will constitute an eternal, ongoing ritual of apology and remembrance. Such action will undoubtably [sic] have a good effect …
6. When at your home altar you are giving a daily portion of rice and water offering to your deceased ancestors be sure to include the mizuko too—and let them know of their inclusion. Also pray for the well-being of your mizuko in the other world. Do this by standing before the Buddhas there and reciting either the Heart Sutra or the Psalm to Jizo … In addition to that, if as an ongoing remembrance of your mizuko you write out in longhand a copy of the Heart Sutra once a day, you will at some point along the way receive the assurance that your child has most certainly reached Buddhahood. Until you receive such an assurance you should continue to perform these rites of apology and remembrance.
7. To make amends for the fact that you never had to pay anything for the upbringing and education of a mizuko you should give to the Buddha every day an offering of 100 yen for each of your mizuko. … This is an expression of apology to the child for not having given it a love-filled upbringing. Therefore, you should put your love into these acts of remembrance, not being stingy with your time and resources. …
10. Households whose members think about the seriousness of karmic laws related to abortion are also households which can take advantage of such occasions in order to deepen the faith of those within them. By continuing to perform adequate rites of apology and memorial, such persons later are blessed with the birth of fine, healthy children. Or, as an extension of good fortune, there are many instances of people really thriving. Some persons find that their own severe heart diseases are cured or that the rebelliousness of children or neuroses go away. …6
This is dizzying, distressing stuff. It is bewildering and shocking to think that Japanese women would give themselves over to the lifelong slavery of such futile beliefs and rituals in an effort to get free from post-abortion grief and guilt. Yet their willingness to do so demonstrates the reality and the power of the destructive emotions they experience as a result of abortion. Wider than this, it also shows the willingness of people generally to believe anything when they are ignorant of or resistant to the truth as found in Jesus Christ.
During our stay in Japan, as already noted, Susan and I encountered bib-wearing idols of Jizo wherever we went. And these idols were mute statements in stone that the Japanese are both widely accepting of abortion and widely troubled by it. They are not prepared to stop the practice but nor are they prepared to gloss over its harmful impact on (at least) the women concerned.
As for Susan and me, every red-bibbed Jizo we saw in Kyoto and Nara reminded us of the fascinating-but-futile beliefs and hopes that have lodged in the hearts of Japanese women (and men) because of their complicity in abortion and their confidence in Buddhism. And every red-bibbed Jizo we saw reminded us not only of the uncounted unborn babies who have been killed by abortion in Japan but also of the countless mothers who are enslaved by sorrow and remorse because of the killings.
Post-abortion mothers in Japan are trapped between the bodhisattva and the babies; and the name of that trap is mizuko kuyo. If only these women knew about Jesus and would turn from Jizo to him!
But Jesus and Jizo must be the subject of another essay. God willing, I will write again about abortion guilt and grief in Japan and when I do I will explore the differences between the historical Immanuel of Christianity and the mythical bodhisattva of Buddhism.
1. John Dougill, In Search of Japan’s Hidden Christians (Tokyo, Tuttle Publishing, 2012), pp. 105-106
2. “Historical abortion statistics, Japan” compiled by Wm. Robert Johnston (last updated 24 March 2013) – http://www.johnstonsarchive.net/policy/abortion/ab-japan.html
3. Richard W. Anderson & Elaine Martin, “Rethinking the Practice of Mizuko Kuyõ in Contemporary Japan: Interviews with Practitioners at a Buddhist Temple in Tokyo”, Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 1997 24/1-2 – http://enlight.lib.ntu.edu.tw/FULLTEXT/JR-MAG/mag88684.pdf
4. “The Legend of the Humming of the Sai-no-Kawara”, a Jizo Wasan (Hymn or Psalm), quoted by Mark Schumacher, Onmarkproductions.com, from “Glimpses of an Unfamiliar Japan” by Lafcadio Hearn, first published in 1894 – http://www.onmarkproductions.com/html/sai-no-kawara.html#wasan
An alternative translation of this Jizo Psalm can be found in the book Liquid Life by William R. LaFleur.
5. William R. LaFleur interviewed in “Buddhism and Abortion”, an Encounter program broadcast by ABC Radio National onBroadcast: 27 September 2009. Transcript available at http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/encounter/buddhism-and-abortion/3058012#transcript
6. “The Way to Memorialise One’s Mizuko”, Translation of Promotional Brochure of Shiun-zan Jizo-ji, translated by William R. LaFleur and included as an Appendix in his book, Liquid Life: Abortion and Buddhism in Japan (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992), pp.221-223.