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On Faith


Saturday, May 26, 2001

Buddhist rite gives
solace for abortions

ONE OF THE MOST popular figures in Japanese Buddhism is the deity Jizo. Statues of Jizo can be seen at many Buddhist temples, where he is often standing outside, bald, holding a staff and sporting a red bib.

Charged with the task of saving people from all walks of life, Jizo provides protection and compassion in numerous ways.

Stories abound of Jizo relieving the pain of those suffering from various physical ailments, offering protection and guidance to children, and improving the looks of children born with physical imperfections.

Salvation is even extended to those who did not quite make it to this world, namely the spirits of aborted fetuses.

In recent decades a popular if controversial practice in Japan that has made its way to the islands is the rite known as mizuko kuyo.

Mizuko kuyo is a memorial ritual for those who have died young, but it is especially associated with abortions.

While there are various and sometimes conflicting interpretations of the ritual, it is generally believed that mizuko kuyo provides succor to the spirits of the unborn suffering in the spiritual world and solace to its living relatives in this world.

Toward this end, family members may often dress a statue of Jizo in baby clothes (mittens, cap, bib) or place stuffed animals and toys in his arms to assist him in finding and saving the spirit of the aborted fetus.

The ritual is conducted at Buddhist temples, and family members may observe the rite on a continuing basis for years.

Critics say mizuko kuyo is exploitative, exacting high prices for the ritual while playing on the fear and sorrow of women who have had abortions.

Certain mizuko kuyo advertisements in Japan, for example, imply that bad luck will follow parents and family members if the rite is not performed to pacify the anguished spirits.

Supporters, on the other hand, view mizuko kuyo as a way to come to terms with a traumatic event and help parents and siblings maintain a meaningful relationship with a deceased family member.

While the popularity, and controversy, of mizuko kuyo has not reached the same level here as in Japan, the rite can be performed for anyone requesting it at a number of temples on the island.

Utilizing gods and deities to address social trends is not something unique to Japanese Buddhism.

Students say other religious groups on the island use surfing ministries, dance ministries and singles' ministries to attract followers and promote their gods.

Are surfing ministries and mizuko kuyo acts of saving compassion or simply exploitation?

As is often the case with such issues, the line between the two is not clearly drawn.

Jay Sakashita teaches religion at University of Hawaii,
Leeward Community College and Chaminade University.

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