Playing with Dolls

The Anchoress recently had this short but poignant post titled A Doll Can’t Love You Back. You’ll want to read her short post and then click on her link to the article. IT won’t take long, and we’ll wait right here until you come back.

Don’t cheat- go read.

All done? Good. This sad story reminded me of another Japanese practice I’ve read about from time to time- the Mizuko Jizo. Jizo refers to a Buddhist deity considered the guardian of unborn, aborted, miscarried, and stillborn babies. Grieving mothers will buy little statues or Jizo dolls and dress them up as they would their lost babies. They will visit the Hase Dera Temple in Kamakura on holidays to remember their miscarried, aborted, and stillborn children. Another term for these lost little ones is translated ‘water children,’ no connection with the Kingsley story Water Babies.

In actual use, the term “mizuko” includes not only fetuses and the newly born, but also infants up to one or two years of age whose hold on life in the human realm is still tenuous.

In Japan young children are regarded as “other worldly” and not fully anchored in human life. Fetuses are still referred to as kami no ko or “child of the gods” and also as “Buddha”. Before the twentieth century, the probability that a child would survive to age five or seven was often less than 50 percent. Only after that age were they “counted” in a census and could they be “counted upon” to participate in the adult world.

…Both the Mizuko Jizo and the mizuko ceremony arose in Japan in the 1960s in response to a human need, to relieve the suffering emerging from the experience of a large number of women who had undergone abortions after World War II

Their parents will leave gifts for their dead babies with the statues, thinks like bottles of baby juice, small toys, and bibs.
From this article

Grieving ceremonies” (mizuko kuyo) have become a major business, operated competitively and efficiently, like department stores, airports, and bullet trains. For glamour, Tokyoites may apply at Zojoji temple, where the monks also conduct high class funerals for the elite whose mourners come in tuxedos and sable. Previous arrangements having been made, the grieving parents are welcomed with bows and ushered into one of the waiting booths. The monk chants his sutra, burns incense, rings bells, soothes the deceased with ritual prayer, and assures the parents that the child is now at peace. They may arrange to rent one of the available stone “Jizo” statues on temple grounds (about $700 per year when I last inquired) to commemorate their child. The small statues, roughly hewn of stone, have full moon faces, eyes closed, mouths pouting their undeserved fate. Parents may put a scarlet wool cap over the head, a bib over the shoulders, and a name with perhaps the due-date on a plaque. A vase allows parents to bring flowers occasionally to show their love, and a pinwheel spinning in the wind should amuse the beloved child.

For a modest price, visiting parents may also write messages on wood plaques purchased at the temple. When hung on a nearby tree, the message is guaranteed to reach the child. Simple bulletins read: “Your father and mother love you. Be at peace.” Or: “We are sorry, but it couldn’t be helped. We love you.” Or: “There was no room. Do not feel bad. Come again into my womb in three years.”

The Zojoji temple limits the number of available stone Jizo statues to only several thousand, but the Hase Kannon temple at Kamakura, some thirty miles out of Tokyo, has at least 50,000. Smaller temples may have only a few dozen, but there is hardly a temple in Japan now which does not accommodate parents who apply to grieve their miscarried or aborted child. Wooden memorial slats are cheaper than stone statues, and are set up by the thousands. These are burnt ceremonially after some time. Even neighborhood shops sometimes get into the business. A maker of Japanese seals at a near-by Nagoya street corner rents out Jizo statues set up in the back yard, and advertises special seals which bring consolation to the aborted baby every time the parents press the seal on required documents. Cute kokeshi dolls are also popular; pieces of beauty and art, they can also serve discreetly as ambiguous substitute memorials to facilitate grieving.

This website has a simple, matter of fact explanation:

Jizo is believed to be a guardian deity of children, both alive and dead, including stillborn babies and aborted fetuses. Sorrowing parents who lost children dedicate the statuettes and pray that the god may protect the poor little ones wandering in the netherworld. Usually, the parents offer dolls and baby clothes to the statuettes.

And messages. They leave notes sometimes, like this one:

“Oh my child, please come back to me at another time, in another body, when I can take care of you.” —-Prayer left at the foot of a Jizo-bo-sama in Kyoto

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7 Comments

  1. Posted July 13, 2005 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    Oh, goodness. I haven’t gotten past her paragraph quotation, and tears are coming to my eyes. :(

  2. Posted July 13, 2005 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    I’m now tempted to leave work and go hug my baby. :(

  3. adrian
    Posted July 13, 2005 at 7:07 pm | Permalink

    Jizo statues are for children (even older ones) who died generally also, such as in accidents. Some of the statues are for that, also there are some for the children killed in the war, separate from “mizukokuyou” which as the one page quoted is newer. Sometimes you’ll see them on the side of the road.

    On a happier note, if you ever do go to Hase-dera, it is also famous for the wonderful Ajisai flowers (hydrangea) that bloom in June. They are on a hill above the main buildings, with a path leading through, also you have a nice view of the ocean from up there.

  4. Posted July 13, 2005 at 7:47 pm | Permalink

    It is sad for me to think that Japanese mothers would even have an abortion when it obviously weighs so heavily on their hearts. We had some Chinese neighbors that moved here just so they wouldn’t have to abort their second child. The grandfather moved here with them and he would take the chubby little baby out into the yard with him every day while he did his exercises. I never saw a baby so loved. I can only imagine what the family had to leave behind to come here, but I do know what they refused to leave behind by staying in China.

  5. Posted July 13, 2005 at 7:49 pm | Permalink

    And I know one grandfather slept well.

  6. adrian
    Posted July 14, 2005 at 12:05 am | Permalink

    In Japan currently the government is trying to encourage people to have more children, considering tax incentives for it.

    Mostly the low birthrate isn’t just from people having a certain number of children but more from younger people not having them at all. There are issues of people having children and work, and there are women who want to work and so they do not have children, unlike the US where it is more common for people who have children to work. There are many changes in the economy recently which have made work more unstable, also, compared to previous ages.

    However there is a TV show that focuses on the joys of a large family, there are families with many children, up to 9 even, living in the capital in very small apartments of one or two rooms (in other areas houses are much larger), and the show is focusing on the joys (and yet craziness!) of having a traditionally large family.

    I hear that in China the policy varies widely depending on what region you are from, but I do not know firsthand.

  7. Posted July 14, 2005 at 2:03 am | Permalink

    Adrian, thanks for the additional information. We lived in Japan for five years, but we lived in Okinawa, which is rather different, and, of course, we were associated with a military base, which made for some dilution of the experience.
    Have you read The Birth Dearth? It refers to several of the issues you mention.

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