A ritual in Buddhist Japan has emerged to memorialize babies killed by abortion and assuage mothers’ shame and guilt.
In Japan, the spirits of the dead never seem far away. Indeed, reverence for those who have died is a distinctive characteristic of all Japanese. There is a feeling of deep gratitude to those who have gone before us and a sense of duty to keep their memory alive. Funerals, memorial rites and prayers for the dead, in addition to being a source of consolation for the bereaved, also provide assurance that the spirit of the departed will look benevolently on the living.
In Japanese thought, the soul or spirit departs the body at death, but it does not go far away, at least not for a considerable period of time. They inhabit their own world, but they continue to take a keen interest in their former family and in their native place.
They are believed to return home on certain occasions throughout the year: at a mid-summer festival that corresponds to our All Souls Day and at the vernal and autumnal equinoxes. Cemeteries are spruced up, and individual graves are cleaned to welcome them.
In the Catholic Church, we follow this Japanese custom by celebrating a Memorial Eucharist in cemeteries on those days. Anniversaries of death can be commemorated for as many as 33 years, even for 50 years. After that time, the deceased enter the realm of the ancestors who will now look favorably on the fortunes of the family.
In the Japanese language and Buddhist terminology, the anniversary of death day is called meinichi (“life day”). We Christians see this as a beautiful expression of our belief that the day of death is truly the day on which a new life begins.
A Tragic Form Of ‘Population Control’
In Japanese Buddhism, the spirits of human beings live on, of course, but also the spirits of animals and inanimate objects, particularly those that have contributed in a special way to human well-being. These spirits may need to be placated from time to time.
This concept was brought home to me one evening when the proprietor of a poultry farm came to visit me. He had been suffering of late from a painful shoulder and suspected that the spirits of the chickens he had killed to supply the local stores had become vindictive. Being a Catholic, he could not go to the Buddhist temple, so he brought an offering of two dozen eggs to the church by way of atonement.
While there are funerals and memorial rites for adults and children, including the stillborn, there are neither funerals nor prayer ceremonies for those killed by abortion. Over many centuries, abortion and infanticide were common in Japan as a sporadic means of population control, particularly following calamities and natural disasters such as plagues and famines.
This custom became known as mabiki, which is a word I would use to describe my work on my father’s farm when as a youngster I would thin turnips and vegetables. Many shoots are uprooted and discarded so the remaining ones will grow healthy and vigorously.
In post-World War II Japan, the cities became overcrowded. The concentration of industry attracted more and more Japanese to urban areas, and conditions grew even worse. Living space was incredibly restricted: Individual houses were small, and apartments were even smaller. There was no room for large families.
Birth control, against which there were few ethical or moral restrictions, and abortion became the means of population control. Since that time, Japan continues to have one of the highest abortion rates in the world.
A New Type Of Memorial
A baby killed by abortion is called mizuko. The Buddhists, seeing that no memorial rights for aborted babies existed, established a temple service called mizuko kuyo; literally, a memorial service for abortion victims. In time, temples began to manufacture small statues of Jizo, one of the deities in the Buddhist pantheon. These were used as part of the memorial services and then kept in the temple.
Single statues of Jizo can be seen in shrines both in towns and the countryside throughout Japan. They can be regarded as the guardian deity of the village or community and, by extension, are the protector of the children who are the community’s future. The statues used in the memorial services for those killed by abortion are known as mizuko jizo, and hundreds are displayed in Buddhist temples.
The mizuko jizo statues are a stark reminder of the high incidence of abortion in Japan. And the proliferation of temples offering such services is a reminder of the grief and sense of responsibility felt by mothers of aborted children and of their efforts to atone for the destruction of the innocent life growing within them.
The popularity of these services must mean they provide some relief from the pain, grief, guilt and shame associated with abortion. There’s also belief that the unrequited spirit of the deceased child, denied the blessing of life, could become vindictive.
An Angel In Disguise
In a surprising way, this Buddhist right solved an unusual problem for me one day when four young Filipino women arrived at my door. One of the women had given birth to a stillborn baby and didn’t know where to turn. They placed a jar of formaldehyde holding the baby on my table.
I learned that the baby could not be buried or cremated without a permit, which could be issued only when a doctor presented a death certificate. Since no doctor was present at the birth, an autopsy was needed to determine if the baby was, indeed, stillborn.
There were many other complications. The teen-age mother was in Japan on an entertainment visa and worked as a club hostess.
Her contract stipulated that she would be paid a lump sum after the contract was fulfilled and was living on her tips plus a small weekly allowance from her employer. If her pregnancy became known, she would be repatriated in disgrace and without her earnings.
Furthermore, being underage, she had come to Japan under an assumed name and falsified passport. Clearly, ordinary procedures were not an option.
Eventually, a Japanese solution was found. A Japanese member of our parish with connections contacted a medial clinic that had arrangements with a Buddhist temple to provide memorial rites for victims of abortions. For a fee, he agreed to include the stillborn baby among the remains to be cremated.
The young mother and her friends went to the temple and were given a statue of mizuko jizo for the child she had named Angel. Best of all, she herself received excellent medical attention in strictest confidence.
She returned to the temple a few times. I imagine that, among the rows of mizuko jizo statues, she saw her Angel in one quiet, secluded corner of that ancient temple.
Columban Father Michael Molloy of Ireland serves a Columban parish in Kumamoto City. He was ordained in 1960 and has been a missionary in Japan, China and the United States.