The tragedy of Japanese ‘water babies’

By Marisa Martin

Jizō statues, Zojoii Temple, Tokyo
Jizō statues, Zojoii Temple, Tokyo

Japan: Land of manga, gold-plated Buddhas, robotic romance … and Rachel weeping for her children? I could have sworn that was from another religion and a foreigner’s book. But that was before I discovered the culture of “mizuko kuyo,” their ritual of mourning and apologizing for abortion.

From a sea of shrines and graveyards dotting the islands, some of the busiest are dedicated to Japan’s dead babies. Ceremonies and attendance is consistent at these spots, even with a less religious culture than earlier generations. Of all those infants, the vast majority lost their lives by abortion, at least since the 1970s, when rates peaked. But the graveyard scene is bustling, thanks to abortion and its fallout in Japan.

Recognized by their omnipresent and slightly creepy ‘Jizō’ statues, some shrines exist for this purpose alone. “Mizuko” translates as “water children” or the untimely dead infants. Some Buddhists believe those unjustly-lost ones exist in a state of spiritual flux. Mizuko Jizō is their guardian of dead babies, fending off demons and helping little ones cross hellish underworlds. Some Mizuko Jizō statues show him tenderly cradling babies to safety. It’s easy to see similarities with our depictions of Jesus or various saints of protection.

Mizuko Jizō, guardian of dead babies
Mizuko Jizō, guardian of dead babies

Standing armies of this baby-faced monk glut many shrines, and each one stands for a lost child, an uneasy mother and sometimes a father. Grief comes for different reasons. Some mourn loss of companionship and benefits the child would have brought to the earth and family. There may be a sense of shame over failure, irresponsibility or neglect.

Others fear retaliation for causing premature death and hope to make peace with their dead child who may haunt or curse them in the future. These unhappy ones are translated “hungry ghosts” with an illusion to karma or punishment. Disembodied and bitter over injustice, they are similar to demonic tormentors in Christian thought.

Even some Japanese doctors who perform abortion have special rites of purification. One “curse” they are already feeling – a seriously aging population and the lowest birthrate ever recorded.

Contrary to Western “tradition,” the majority of the aborted aren’t considered a mistake to be lightly dismissed or erased by time and denial. With huge segments of the population in long-term mourning, it is almost a national observance.

Great Vow Zen Monastery
Great Vow Zen Monastery

Hiromi, a young Baptist (yes, in Tokyo) first revealed for me how her nation grapples with the ethics of abortion. Yet it’s contentious in the West to even suggest a moral dimension to abortion, much less imply that women should worry their pretty little heads over it.

Buddhism doesn’t directly weigh in against abortion; however it traditionally ascribes human life and value to a fetus of any age. This belief far precedes modern science but is common sense, which is quite passé in the U.S. and Europe. Intentionally killing persons is a sin, just as for Christianity. Theoretically “mizukos” could range from fertilized eggs to young children. A semi- canonical text even describes a river in Buddhist hell, created to snare abortionists and other evil-doers in its treacherous waters.

Political debate over abortion is virtually non-existent in Japan, and the operation is legal and easily available. Legality doesn’t change a woman’s innately maternal soul, though, which recoils from killing her own child. These are fighting words in the West, but this issue is a lot older than Roe vs. Wade. “Mizuko Kuyo” is a personal communication between dead child and family, although there are social components to their obviously-conflicted feelings.

Jizō statues, South Korea
Jizō statues, South Korea

Heavy pressure falls on Japanese women to conform to social norms, which may include limiting children or avoiding difficulties for husband or family. Abortions were traditionally seen as a necessary evil, hard sacrifices for the living. Yet they were still forbidden – a dichotomy. Our abortion champions use some of the same reasoning.

Carefully tending to custom didn’t bring millions of Japanese women peace over their little mizukos. When American women are allowed to speak honestly, the rationale behind their abortions doesn’t make much difference in the long run, either.

Enter the Mizuko Kuyo ceremony.

At least half of Japanese women prepare a “mizuko-kuyo” after an abortion. Ranging from formal, priest-led memorials to scrawled notes, any type of offering is acceptable. Apparently this isn’t a new Asian construct. Shrines to dead children existed for centuries, often as private roadside or household memorials by individuals.

Candles, prayers, flowers, incense are left at shrines. Apologies are common and notes expressing grief and regret: “I miss you.” “Please come back.” “Forgive us and be safe.”

Most striking are tens of thousands of Jizō statues purchased by parents, and they don’t come cheap. Identical images are lovingly dressed and tended like little dolls, some in handmade seasonal clothing or with umbrellas. Tomb-like stones are inscribed with the parent’s names, and toys may be left as symbols of a good life. Muzuko kuyo observation may continue up to 50 years, so the departed child can remain in peace.

Entire families sometimes attend these odd tributes, but generally it’s just mom. She may come only once, monthly or yearly. She may fill boxes with coins as penance. Of course this brings money to the temples, which is seen by some as exploitation. Damien Keown, an expert on Buddhist ethics, notes that these rituals were developed and practiced by women alone for their own emotional needs. This is as feminist as it gets.

More often than not, critics are Western academics, who seem fascinated by the practice. Do they marvel at the sense of death and mourning? After all, this is only “fetal tissue” in the minds of so many here. Yet Japan isn’t a moralizing, backwater burg. They have Nobel-winning scientists, lots of discretionary money and even vending machines for panties.

Hardly a secret, mizuko kuyo was noted in the New York Times in 1996 and again in 2002. It’s viewed as an anomaly, a curiosity in this hemisphere. But Buddhist proscription against abortion is ancient and unapologetic.

Straight from the “Buddha’s” mouth, we get his take on particularly heinous evils: “There are five kinds of Evil Karma which are difficult to extinguish, even if one were to repent of them. What are the five kinds of offences? The first one is killing the father, the second one is killing the mother, the third one is abortion …”

Hmmm. For those who attribute all opposition to abortion to the church, what will do they do with this?

Textile art by Shelly Goldsmith, inspired by Japan's mizuko jizo graveyard images
Textile art by Shelly Goldsmith, inspired by Japan’s mizuko jizo graveyard images

Even the Dalai Lama concluded abortion is generally wrong, at least in statements in 1993. He may have “evolved” on that, however, as it will cost him dearly in the liberal West where most of his support hails from.

True believer Buddhists are encouraged to take full personal responsibility for their actions and for the consequences. But they do this without a savior and expiator like our Christ.

In this, Japan eclipses what passes for Judeo-Christian culture now. They have the courage to admit abortion is, in fact, a murder. From the lost tribes of Christendom we stubbornly refuse to do this, in defiance not only of the church but our own conscience.

Perhaps it was this sensitivity to the realities of abortion that caused Japanese Buddhists to heed the appeals of Mother Teresa, while we rejected her message. In Tokyo in 1982, Mother Teresa asked 230 legislators to change their laws to promote adoption – and they did. She begged women not to kill their children, campaigning openly against the deaths to an audience of more than 27 million.

The famous nun’s prayer of repentance and hope was printed in several papers. Here are a few excerpts: “It is true, some of you have done the wrong thing in killing the unborn child in your womb, through abortion. But turn to God and say: ‘My God, I am very sorry for killing my unborn child. Please forgive me, I will never do it again.’ And God will forgive you. … Also remember your little one is with God for all eternity. It is not true that the child can punish you or your family. … Your child loves you, has forgiven you, and is praying for you. – Mother Teresa, M.C.”

This was a welcome alternative to vengeful, homeless spirits, and many heeded her message. Abortion numbers have continued to fall there, even till now.

As Buddhists tenderly mark the anniversaries of their lost children, they innately tend the ground fundamental Christianity once claimed as its own. Few churches observe anything close to the ceremonies of these Japanese mothers. It isn’t an important meme or sermon topic.

Our national schizophrenia over abortion is evidence we’ve sped far past the marker of “post-Christianity.” Even “pagans” are looking morally superior. Try putting up a little doll and note regretting abortion in a park somewhere here, and then watch the fireworks.

They won’t be pretty.


Interview with Hiromi M., Tokyo 2015

William R. Lafleur. Contestation and Consensus: the Morality of Abortion in Japan, Philosophy East and West, Vol. 40, 1990

Father Michael Malloy. “The Healing of Mizuko Jizo.” May 21, 2005

Law, B.C. The History of the Buddha’s Religion, the (Sasanavamsa) Bibliotheca Indo-Buddhica Sri Satguru Publications, 1986.

Keown, Damien. Contemporary Buddhist Ethics. Anthony Zimmerman, 2000.

Zimmerman, Anthony. Memorial Services for Aborted Children in Japan. (Originally printed in All about Issues magazine, April 1989.)

WuDunn, Sheryl. “In Japan, a ritual of mourning for abortions.” New York Times, January 25, 1996.

Marianne Wan-Hay Chow. Coping With Silence: Comparative analysis on post-abortion grief in Japan & the United States. Doctural dissertation, Tufts University, 2003.

Dharani Sutra, a Buddhist Holy book: The extinction of offenses and the protection of young children

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