Mizuko Kuyō (abortion)

During my recent perambulations through various sacred texts searching out how major spiritual traditions claim to handle violence I ran onto a short report on a Japanese Buddhist ritual called mizuko kuyō. This is something of a memorial service for aborted children. There are about a million abortions each year in Japan. For purposes of comparison, I think there are about 1.5 million abortions each year in the U.S., while our population is about double that of Japan.

Since most Buddhist sources hold that life begins at conception, abortion means that a child has been lost. More traditional Buddhist societies, such as Thailand and Sri Lanka, allow abortion only under limited conditions. Elsewhere, I believe that the law varies.

The basic elements of mizuko kuyō are quite simple. An image of the bodhisattva Jizō is dressed in a child’s bib and toys are placed nearby. The image itself might be in the home, or it might be in a roadside shine. In some places, there are even small temples that offer services of various degrees of complexity

Participants in the ceremony include the parents and perhaps other members of the family. A candle is lit and the participants pay their respects to the spirit by bowing. The ceremony may be repeated on anniversaries as the family comes to grips with its loss.

On a personal level I find pictures such as the one to the left disturbing. The scholar Bible dork in me wonders about the public nature of this sort of thing, though. What effect did this have on the community as it began in the 1970s or so? I have also heard that there are folks who are doing this sort of thing in the U.S. now, so I wonder how that will play out.

13 Replies to “Mizuko Kuyō (abortion)”

  1. It seems the Japanese have ritualized their national suicide. From the Yomiuri Shimbun, March 14, 2011:

    if we assume that the fertility and mortality rates are unchanged and there is no further international maigration, then according to this estimation the population would dip below 1000 people by A.D. 3000.

  2. Are the people who get these abortions (and then morn the loss) compelled to get an abortion in some fashion (legally or social norms or something)?

  3. Just as an historical aside, this likely developed out of naturalistic folk practices as opposed to any particular point of buddhist doctrine. In prior times, dead babies were buried behind certain Shinto shrines but, as the boddhisatva Jizo increasingly became identified as a protector of children in general, buddhist ritual may have been adapted to meet the need. It doesn’t hurt that this and other rituals are very profitable for the buddhist temples.

    I could be wrong, but I believe that the mizuko kuyo ritual is used for miscarriages, death of the baby during childbirth, and maybe even death very soon after childbirth, as well as abortions, without distinction between any of these. So the focus is on the loss of a baby more than why it happened. Also, since Jizo is a protector of children (and travelers) broadly defined, it is not necessarily so that each of the dressed up statues in the picture represent an abortion per se, although it is possible that many of them do (which isn’t any less disturbing). For instance, families are as likely to dedicate a statue when their child was saved from danger or disease as when a child died, and sometimes local grandmothers like to dress some or all of the statues for no particular reason, etc.

  4. Abortions in Japan are not forced and can be carried out for socioeconomic reasons as well as more traditional concerns. The consent of a spouse, if available, is required.

    I have to confess my need for modesty is talking about the motivations for this service, though, and to urge compassion and a similar modesty in those who read this. I am just getting into the secondary literature. Moreover, I am limited to secondary literature because I cannot read Japanese. That said, there does seem to be an effort to show respect to the spirit of the aborted child, and there does seem to be some mourning.

    However, I am not entirely sure I understand the precise source of this mourning. Personally, I don’t support what we call abortion on demand, but it does seem possible to me that one could be in a position where there were no good choices, and then mourn the results of making what one considers the best possible choice between a variety of undesirable results. It is not always easy to judge these matters rightly, and all the more so when world views are not well-aligned.

    Edited to add: This ritual can be used for the death of a fetus through means other than abortion, as DSL points out. I am [so far] not aware of it being used much for other purposes, though it does seem to have been so used earlier, and as far as I know each statue represents a fetus, but there could be more to the story. It is possibly an outgrowth of a traditional custom, but there seems to be some debate about authenticity [so far as I know]. And as is always the case, lived religion is sometimes not as logical as it is portrayed through a formal theological lens.

    See, there’s always more to info to run down! Not enough time in the day!

  5. It’s probably just me, and I have a very limited cultural awareness of Buddhism other than the South-Asian communities living in South Philly. But I find the picture very beautiful. “Disturbing” doesn’t even come to mind if I force it.

  6. My husband and I lived in Japan for three years. I remember visiting a shrine (or a temple, it’s been awhile so I forget which it was) and seeing a young woman dressing up a Jizo statue and bowing to it. I was a little creeped out by the thought of all the babies those statues could represent but I like the whole concept much better than the Western “products of conception are not babies” approach.

    On the other hand, hormonal birth-control is still very hard to get in Japan and the Abortion Lobby (now there’s a thought that ought to make us pause in our tracks!) is quite interested in keeping it that way.

  7. The practice is done for children lost in utero, or soon after child birth.

    A scholarly monograph on the subject is Liquid Life: Abortion and Buddhism in Japan, by William R. LaFleur. A review in Monumena Nipponica said, “The schematization of the life-cycle as conceptualized in medieval Japan accounts for the ‘fluid return’, or the ease with which a child was believed to pass from the realm of the kami and buddhas into the realm of the living and back again in the event of a premature death. . . . The death of the very young was interpreted this way when the high rate of infant mortality seemed inexplicable in the absence of a scientific etiology of illness. . . Younger children were considered ‘so close to the sacred realm that they could with ease s;lip back into it.'”

  8. As I remember it (13 years in Japan, ended 10 years ago), mizuko kuyoo is for all lost embryos/babies/infants/ including aborted babies. My understanding was the practice is much older than dating from the 1970s. I’d say the 1700s seems more likely. I can’t find the photos creepy either, but I didn’t like Buddhist statuary at first either.

  9. What an interesting post. I live in Tunisia, and this reminds me of visiting Tophet, the ancient Punic Carthaginian cemetery of sacrificed children. It is a chilling place, and your photo really reminded me of the stelae there, each meant to represent a child.

  10. > On the other hand, hormonal birth-control is still very hard to get in Japan

    I’d be interested in more information about this. I don’t have any data other than anecdotal, but I had heard this claim and thus was somewhat surprised in 1990 to find myself in the waiting room of a GYN in Tokyo watching young women walk in off the street and purchase BC pills from the receptionist, with no visible sign of an appointment, a prescription, or anything.

    As for the jizo statues, it can be a bit creepy to visit temples where tens of thousands of these statues are lined up, knowing what they represent.

    As a final anecdote, my sister-in-law delivered a stillborn baby. I don’t know if they did mizuko kuyou, but they interred the baby in the family cemetary plot and memorialized him with a butsudan.

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