Special Buddhist temples memorialize the unborn dead in Japan, but they don’t solve the problem of post-abortion trauma
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KAMAKURA, Japan—Hasedera Temple leans against the slope of a wooded hill in Kamakura, a quiet coastal city about a two-hour train ride from Tokyo. I visited Hasedera on a drizzly, dreary November weekend: Water dripped everywhere—beads of liquid dribbled down the umbrellas of visitors, down tree branches, down the curved roofs of the medieval period Buddhist temple. A pond shimmered with the silvers and tangerines of koi.
Hasedera is not a familiar destination for foreign tourists. Its main historical asset is its 30-foot gilded wooden statue of Kannon, the goddess of mercy. On the steps up to Kannon, however, is a cemetery that outsiders can easily mistake for a pretty garden. To locals, that spot is a less trumpeted but more significant attraction of Hasedera: a site filled with hundreds of gray stone statues that represent the souls of dead unborn babies. Some were stillborn, some miscarried, but most were dead from abortion.
These 1-foot-tall statues, called mizuko-jizo, are shaped like bald monks with hands clasped in prayer. They surround the entire area in tiered rows carved into hills and rocks. Their eyes—tiny crescent-moon-shaped ridges—are half-closed, as though praying or resting; their lips are turned up slightly yet not quite smiling; their stance and their long robes are rigid. Some have fresh flowers before them; most don’t. Their innocent-looking, pacified faces can pass for either an infant’s or a god’s, neither living nor completely dead, like well-dressed, finely powdered corpses in open coffins.
Hasedera is one of the most famous and earliest temples in Japan to offer mizuko kuyo, a Buddhist memorial service for dead unborn babies that’s unique to Japan. Parents from all over the region travel to Hasedera, hoping that a mizuko kuyo would help alleviate their guilt, grief, and regret over their babies’ deaths. The temple estimates placing more than 50,000 mizuko-jizo statues on temple grounds since post–World War II—and still receives up to 20 requests a day for mizuko kuyo.
Nobody knows exactly when the practice of mizuko kuyo began, but for centuries, parents have been erecting roadside shrines dedicated to babies dead from miscarriages, abortions, and infanticide. Yet it wasn’t until the 1970s—after Japan legalized abortion in 1948 and abortion rates spiked thereafter as the main form of birth control—that public demand for mizuko kuyo grew, so much so that locals began to use the terms “abortion heaven” and “mizuko boom” to describe the phenomenon.
Unlike in Western countries, where pro-abortion groups minimize the psychological trauma of abortion and use words such as “fetus” and “unwelcome invasion” to try to hopscotch around the humanity of the unborn baby, in Japan abortion is accepted but not celebrated. In the United States, the pro-life and pro-abortion groups draw sharp lines between their views: One says the unborn child is a human life; therefore abortion is murder and should be illegal. The other says the personhood of a child in the womb is a subjective matter and that women should be able to choose. In Japan, these viewpoints coexist in one mind.
Most Japanese consider the unborn child a “life”—the Japanese start counting the baby’s age at conception, and even the law somewhat acknowledges the unborn child’s personhood: Babies aborted from 10 weeks and above must be registered with the local government as born-dead babies. Buddhism, a major religion in Japan, also teaches that life begins at conception, and its First Precept is that one should never willingly take the life of a living thing. A Buddhist priest’s wife in Tokyo wrote: “Of course we who are Buddhists will hold to the end that a fetus is ‘life.’ No matter what kind of conditions make abortion necessary, we cannot completely justify it.”
Buddhism teaches that life begins at conception, and its First Precept is that one should never willingly take the life of a living thing.
Yet the Japanese, including that Buddhist priest’s wife, accept abortion as an unfortunate necessity—and those who have an abortion seek for some way, any way, to assuage their guilt, pain, and fears about having willfully extinguished a life. Mizuko kuyo is the Japanese Buddhist’s creative way of reconciling these two contradictory beliefs by rearranging religious systems to fit his personal purposes. And as entrepreneurial temples caught on to rising public demand and advertised mizuko kuyo services in newspaper ads, many mainline Buddhist sects also reluctantly began offering the practice, fearful of losing parishioners who pay for their upkeep.
I visited two mizuko-jizo cemeteries in Japan—Hasedera in Kamakura is one, Zojoji in Tokyo the other. At Zojoji, the statues all wear bright red hand-knitted caps and red cloth bibs, some donning little pink dresses, some puffy parkas, one a navy track jacket. Their eyes are shut, their cheeks chubby, their lips small and pouty. Many have colorful pinwheels stuck in a vase before them, the plastic curls twirling and creaking lazily in the autumn breeze. Some have fresh or fake flowers in their vases, but the majority of the statues look worn with age, dust flaking off bibs and decomposed leaves dangling off caps. Trees cast shadows over the cemetery, yet the area popped with blobs and whirls of colors from the red caps and pinwheels. The overall mood seemed strangely both gloomy and kitschy, like a carnival blaring with musical rides but barren of people.
Meanwhile, the statues in Hasedera Temple are unadorned and uniform, with no accessories to distinguish one from the other. In the middle of the cemetery stands a shrine for Jizo, a divine figure that the Japanese believe protects the dead infants. There, parents placed offerings to their unborn babies in black wooden crates: squeeze bottle juices, cookies, clementines, rainbow-striped baby socks, tiny stuffed animals. A candle stand nearby offers candles for 200 yen ($2) and incense sticks for 100 yen ($1) apiece so that visitors can offer prayers for the mizukos.
Parents pay from 3,000 yen ($30) to 80,000 yen ($800) for a statue, depending on size and material. A priest then writes the mother’s name on the back of the statue and places it in the cemetery. After a few years, the priests remove and burn the old statues so that the children’s souls are free to join Buddha—out go the old statues, in come the new family of statues.
I wasn’t able to talk to any parents, but I found a priest who’s in charge of selling the statues. As I asked him questions (through an interpreter) about the significance of mizuko kuyo, he kept pausing and tilting his head to ponder, as though few have ever asked him such questions before. Abortion no longer has the bad public image it once had, he said. Still, the parents feel an instinctual need for absolution, so mizuko kuyo guides them in praying for the spirits of the deceased children.
“Does that mean that they believe the fetus is a life?” I asked. The priest paused again to think, then said, “It’s my personal belief, and the Buddhist teaching, that the fetus is a human life.” But he doesn’t condemn women for aborting their children, he added, nor does he ask many questions about it. The parents come, they pay, they pray, they leave. I wondered, “But does the mizuko kuyo help them get what they want?” The priest said he doesn’t know—again, he doesn’t ask. He just performs the rites.
If these Buddhist priests sense an incongruity between their teaching on the sanctity of life and their practice of providing guilt-relieving ceremonies for parents who have had abortions, they don’t talk about it. Mizuko kuyo has generated some controversy in Japan, but the contention isn’t over the morality of abortion but the morality of possible extortion by Buddhist temples. Many skeptics ask whether these temples are profiting off women’s guilt, particularly since many temples claim that if the parents don’t perform mizuko kuyo, the spirits of the aborted babies will wreak revenge on them (called tatari in Japanese). Yet even that belief of tatari acknowledges that these unborn children have a soul and feelings of anger, hatred, and jealousy.
Shokai Kanai, a semi-retired priest at the Nichiren Buddhist Kannon Temple of Nevada, has helped perform mizuko kuyo for many Japanese-American parents but uses strong words for abortion: “It’s very, very selfish. Abortion is killing a life—yes, a human life.” Now 75, Kanai was almost never born in 1942: His mother, then 29, had a difficult pregnancy and the doctors told her to choose between two options: Either she dies, or the baby dies. She chose to deliver Kanai and died a few days after his birth.
Today Kanai supports the legalization of abortion, though he calls abortion an “unnatural death”—and that’s why he does mizuko kuyo: The spirits of the aborted children, cut too early from life, might develop animosity toward their parents. Mizuko kuyo “eases this hatred and grudge,” Kanai said. It also helps the parents establish some sort of emotional intimacy with the deceased child through the bodily ritual of repentance, apology, and appreciation: “We have to save these suffering women who regret later on. If no regret, then no memorial service, you understand?”
“I’M SITTING IN MY ROOM with the drapes closed. I can’t eat. I can’t sleep. I can’t go out. What should I do?”
That’s a common question Cynthia Ruble and her team at Life Hope Network (LHN), a 14-volunteer group that counsels women with post-abortion issues and unplanned pregnancies, hear often. The voice is usually barely a whisper, sucked of energy and hope. Most of the post-abortion clients are unable to perform the normal functions of life: They cry constantly, suffer nightmares and flashbacks, and contemplate suicide. Some are teenagers, but some are in their 60s, still unable to forget or forgive themselves for what they did 20 or 30 years ago.
Ruble, an American missionary in Nagoya, Japan, founded LHN in 2005 when she realized there was no equivalent of a crisis pregnancy center in the entire country. She partnered with LIFE International, a Christian nonprofit in Michigan that helps start pro-life ministries throughout the world, and tailored LIFE’s post-abortion counseling curriculum to fit her Japanese clients’ needs. Three years later, she opened up a support line for women dealing with post-abortion trauma, and the phone has been ringing daily ever since.
Today LHN is still the sole post-abortion counseling center in Japan. Many of its clients turn to LHN as a last resort: They can’t go to their families for help, since many harbor deep resentment against the boyfriend, husband, or mother who pressured them into having an abortion; they can’t go to their friends, since abortion isn’t appropriate to discuss; and they don’t go to their Buddhist or Shinto priests for counseling. Most have sought mizuko kuyos or professional counselors—“but they find no comfort in it,” said Ruble: “They are really suffering, and nobody is telling them that abortion is a sin, that their reaction is moral, that it’s not odd, that it’s normal.”
Recently a group of nurses who staff the government-run prenatal support hotline in Tokyo visited Ruble in Nagoya, asking for training: These nurses have been receiving numerous phone calls from women dealing with post-abortion trauma, but they have no idea what to say to them. Ruble told them the one thing she knows: What these grieving women need and desire is forgiveness, and only the gospel can give them true, complete, liberating forgiveness.
And that’s what mizuko kuyo ultimately attempts and lacks: It addresses an innate recognition among the Japanese people that abortion is a moral problem—that it’s murder, an act against natural law, an injustice that demands retribution—and the whole ritual is a public expression of that awareness in bodily and verbal language. But mizuko kuyo also makes the practice of abortion more tolerable, removing it from the legal and political arena and placing it strictly in the realm of a religious institution that most Japanese people follow loosely. It’s an attempt toward retribution, but lacks restitution, said Ruble: “There is no Japanese solution to resolve guilt. There is no concept of forgiveness by God. So these women feel like they have to suffer until they die.”
This story has been updated to show the correct approximate cost in U.S. dollars for a mizuko-jizo statue.
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