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Monday, February 7, 2011

Mizuko Kuyo

Jizo statue by Robin Noll.

Abortion has been legal in Japan since 1948.  Despite years of hounding by Western countries, especially the U.S., it has kept abortion legal.  Prior to 1948 it was illegal primarily to boost the population during WWII, and not because of right-to-life issues.  After the war years overpopulation was a concern to a country with limited economic resources, and there was a general consensus that small families were better.  The Japanese love children, and for them it seems to be an issue of quality of life for all family members.

Because the Japanese feel that the living are the key concern, there is not the stigma that we have here.  Here if a woman chooses to undergo an abortion, she has to be politically strong and assert herself at a time when what she needs the most is compassion and understanding.  In Japan, there is concern for the mother/parents.  To assuage her/their grief there is a ceremony called mizuko kuyo.
Jizo, guardian of Mizuko.

Jizo is one of the most beloved of all divinities in Japan.  He is a bodhisattva, one who reached enlightenment but chose to stick around until all sentient beings attain enlightenment.  He is a guardian of children.  For about forty years he has grown in popularity as primarily the guardian of the souls of mizuko - stillborn, miscarried, or aborted fetuses.  Mizuko literally means "water child".  Jizo takes care of all the mizuko, and is often depicted holding a child and surrounded by children and occasionally animals.  He is also sometimes shown with the features of a baby.

Some Japanese believe that mizuko are not fully human.  Fetuses are potential persons, but not complete because existence flows into a being slowly, like liquid. Children are regarded as treasures, and every child should come into this world greatly desired.  Which is not to say that abortion is regarded with a cavalier attitude.  It is a regrettable necessity for many that comes with persistent remorse.

Mini Jizo statues in a temple garden.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

A mizuko kuyo is a ritual of apology and rememberance.  It can be simple and inexpensive, or very elaborate and expensive.  It begins with a stone doll that looks like a baby.  This is often dressed, mostly in red, and placed in a cemetery or temple with other dolls.  Sometimes offerings are left, such as flowers, food and drink, or toys.  The ritual may be a one-time affair, or repeated monthly, annually, or whenever the mother/parents feel the need.

Sometimes wooden plaques are left for the mizuko.  They are heartfelt and sad. Some have messages like the following:  "We are sorry, but it couldn't be helped. We love you"; "There was no room.  Do not feel bad.  Come again into my womb in three years."; "Your mother and father love you.  Be at peace."

Wooden plaques similar to ones parent(s) write.
Image courtesy of japanbits.blogspot.com.

The mizuko kuyo has become a multi-million dollar business.  There are advertisements claiming, "We can bring your child peace."  They warn that an angry and restless child can bring bad luck or a curse.  There are even mail-order ceremonies, that once paid for provide the mother/parents with a memorial card by mail.  Temples make a lot of money from the ceremony, and even rent the mizuko dolls.  But before we label this as crass merchandizing, we have to ask whether temples are abusing the hopes and beliefs of the Japanese people, or are they meeting their needs?  Tough call.

Jizo statues at a cemetery at Zojoii Temple, Tokyo.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Doctors also make a good income from abortions.  The Pill was not introduced until 1999, and again there is a question of whether it was held back because of the potential loss of income from abortions, or the stated concerns of side effects and the legitimate fear that it would bring a decline of the use of condoms in the middle of a growing number of HIV patients and STDs.  The Pill that was initially tested was a high dose one and did have a lot of side effects.  While Western women found it liberating as there was really no alternative, Japanese women were more skeptical.  Most health insurance in Japan covers neither the cost of abortion or the Pill.  The Pill requires an initial check-up as well as follow-ups, plus the price of the prescriptions, which could make it costly for a lot of women.

Lots of pressure was put on Japan by the West.  Western women who wanted abortions and could afford the trip were going there, which did not sit easily on the predominantly male health, religious, and political sectors.  The Pill was then heavily advocated as an anti-abortion measure.  The West claimed that adoption of The Pill would "modernize" birth control in Japan.  Again, to whose benefit is this?
The Japanese attitude is that the woman concerned is the best one to make the decision, which seems far more "modern" than having strangers enforce their decision on you.

These Jizo figures are by Jan Chosen Bays.  They are available from
the Zen Community of Oregon, who offer remembrance rituals.

The "return" of a child to a temporary place until the right time by parent(s) who are currently unable to provide enough love, money, and proper attention without it being detrimental to a family makes as much sense as any religious philosophy. Perhaps even more as the focus is on quality of life.  There is evidence of mizuko kuyo all over, and seeing this must provide validation to parent(s) who go through it knowing they are not alone.

In the West, we, too, need to concentrate on healing the women who choose to undergo an abortion, instead of making them defensive.  But despite our laws guaranteeing certain freedoms, we as a whole find it hard to allow them, putting our own personal thoughts and ideas first and foremost.  Supporting women in their tough choices is the sign of an enlightened society.



  1. The real issue here is one of privacy. Roe vs. Wade stated that the government did not have the right to inquire into the status of a woman's body or tell her what to do with it. If the religious right takes privacy away they will have opened a can of worms that could affect all aspects of one's life in the United States.

  2. Can you imagine the U.S. telling Japan to change their birth control policies? Not only did they want to control U.S. women and their bodies, but Japanese women's as well!