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Mizuko Kuyo: The Japanese Ritual of Mourning The Unborn

Losing a child can be very painful, even if that child is yet to be born. In fact, many parents who experienced miscarriages feel the pain is deeper because there is very little to acknowledge the loss. There is no body, so no funeral, and no ritual to cleanse the grief or placate the disturbed souls. In cultures across the world, mourning rites and rituals are often elaborate, but only for deaths, not for lost motherhoods.

But things are different in Japan, where there is a traditional Buddhist ceremony to grieve miscarriages, stillbirths, and even willful abortions. This ritual is called mizuko kuyō, literally “water child memorial service”, and it is practiced in temples across Japan and also in private in people’s homes.

jizo statues

A Jizo statue wearing a red bib in the garden at Sanzenin Temple in Kyoto, Japan. Photo credit: jukurae / Shutterstock.com

According to Buddhist belief, a baby who dies before it is born cannot go to heaven because it never had the opportunity to accrue good karma. So the child is sent to a place called sai no kawara on the banks of the mythical Sanzu River, where they must endlessly stack stone towers in order to atone for the pain they caused their parents. Jizo, a bodhisattva, or an enlightened being, is the guardian of these children. He watches over these dead children, protects them from the demons and helps them make the journey to paradise by smuggling them in his robe.

Mourning parents who have lost a child due to miscarriage or abortion, therefore honor Jizo to ensure that their aborted fetus successfully makes it to the other world. Jizo statues are a common sight in temples and graveyards and even the roadside. The stone statues are clothed with tiny children clothing, usually red bibs and red caps. Grieving parents also leave toys, candy and other offering at the base of the Jizo statues. Sometimes little stone towers are erected alongside the statues, in the hope that they would lessen the sufferings their children have to endure while they wait for Jizo to deliver them to heaven.

Although the mizuko kuyō tradition dates back to centuries, it only gained prominence after the Second World War. In the face of acute poverty, following the end of the six-year war, and with no system of adoption, many parents chose to limit the size of their families by terminating unwanted pregnancies, but not without guilt and grief. Mizuko kuyō arose as a response to this dilemma. In recent years, the practice has been adopted by many American couples.

Today, abortion is culturally and legally accepted in Japan, with over 300,000 abortions being carried out every year.

jizo statues

Jizo statues at Zojoji Temple, Tokyo. Photo credit: Blanscape/Shutterstock.com

jizo statues

A mountain of stacked stones and Jizo statues at Oku-no-in. Photo credit: Maarten Heerlien/Flickr

jizo statues

Jizo statues in the volcanic mountains of Nasu Sessho-seki Rock ,Tochigi, Japan. Photo credit: nosonjai/Shutterstock.com

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