Only minutes away from one of Japan's largest tourist attractions, the Tokyo Tower, lies the Zojōji Temple. One of the most striking aspects of this otherwise normal temple is the vast number of small child-like statues placed neatly in rows along the street, visible to any passers-by. These little stone people are not at all unique to this temple, but are found throughout Japan. Known as mizuko Jizō, each of these little guys represents a dead child, more often than not the product of abortion, though may also be representative of a child who has died through miscarriage, stillbirth, or who has died shortly after birth. By dressing it in a little red knitted hat and a bib, giving it a pinwheel and flowers, the mother or family is miniaturizing the child who never was. What is also important is that this child is given a name, sometimes a Buddhist name, and others a name which the purchaser of this Jizō has chosen. This being said, the more one dresses it up like one would a child, the more the statue looks like a child and less like a monk, however the statue is supposed to be both of these entities simultaneously. William Lafleur, in his text entitled “Abortion in Japan”, explains this simultaneous imagery is of utmost importance, calling the Jizō a “stand-in for both the dead infant and the savior figure who supposedly takes care of it in its otherworld journey. The double-take effect—one moment a child and the next a Buddhist saviour in monkish robes—is intentional.” (LaFleur 75)
The term mizuko, written with the characters for ‘water’, ‘水’, and ‘child’, ‘子’, literally means ‘water child’, and there are a couple of speculations as to why this is so. In the womb the fetus is not yet solidified and is thus somewhat watery. This being said, by it being aborted it does not have to travel too far to return to the land of the dead as it has yet to become a concrete human being, because at this point in time it is more liquid than solid. Another interpretation is that the term is directly related to water into which the leech-child that Izanami and Izanagi conceived is sent, once they decide that they no longer want it. (LaFleur 78-79)
The reason for buying one of these dolls is not entirely unlike the bear sending back ceremony or the exorcism of a goryo spirit. The mizuko kuyō, which is the ceremony in which the mizuko Jizō is involved, is done in order to both thank the child for going back as well as wish that this child will return once the couple is ready to have the child. (Harrison 251) When such a ceremony is not performed the spirit may become vengeful and cause problems for the mother or her family. Likewise, by doing it the child may become a protective kami or mamorigami (守り神). (Harrison 264)
Another reason for the creation of the mizuko Jizō, which is a relatively new concept, emerging after World War II, is to enable the woman to acknowledge the child she never had, as well as the fact that she was, at one point or another, a mother, even if only for a brief moment. (Harrison 261) By having given the child a name, this is further acknowledging its presence in the universe, and thus the need for it to be remembered as though it were any other member of the family who had perished. (Harrison 110-111)
Some fun links: Anything and everything you want to know about Jizō. Directions to the Zojōji Temple, home of the Mizuko Jizō photographed here.
~guest blogger, Christina Bucci