Learning from the Japanese. (pro-life rituals in Buddhism an Shinto) (Cover Story)

by Gary L. Chamberlain


Vol.171 No.7


Sept 17, 1994

COPYRIGHT America Press Inc. 1994

            AS THE BUS NEARED PURPLE CLOUD TEMPLE, two long miles by train and 
            bus from Tokyo, loudspeakers were already blaring in the early 
            morning sunshine. From the bits of Japanese I know, I could make out 
            words like "sorrow," "sadness," "water child" and others, which told 
            me that I had arrived at a unique Buddhist temple devoted 
            exclusively to prayers and rituals for aborted fetuses. But beyond 
            the sounds of chants, music and rhythmic phrases, I was overwhelmed 
            by the sight before me. On every side of the mountains surrounding 
            the temple, small statues of the god Jizo, special protector of 
            children, stretched out as far as the eye could see. Row after row 
            of small, concrete statues climbed up the terraced heights. The jizo 
            were decorated in bright colors, surrounded by yen coins, small sake 
            bottles, children's toys and occasional pinwheels spinning in the 
            morning breeze. 
            I had come to this spot nestled in the mountains as part of my own 
            work on abortion and family planning in Japan and the response of 
            the Roman Catholic Church. In the process, I had seen jizo statues 
            from Sendai in the north, to Zogoji temple in Tokyo, along the river 
            bank of Nikko, in the flowing waters of the cemetery in the temple 
            city of Koyasan, high in the mountains near Nara, at Hasedera temple 
            in Kamakura, again in small, out of the way temples in Kyoto, 
            Hiroshima, Nagasaki and near the hot, volcanic waters in Unzen 
            National Park on the Sea of Japan. 
            What all these statues, temples and rituals had in common was a set 
            of practices dating from the 17th century to help women deal with 
            the anguish and sadness surrounding the deaths of fetuses and young 
            children, whether from miscarriages, stillbirths, infancy deaths or 
            abortions. Today these rituals serve at least two purposes. They 
            provide an outlet and expression of personal loss, and they provide 
            a ritualized, public policy that replaces our Western reliance upon 
            law to resolve our anguish about abortion. I believe that such 
            rituals not only can teach us a great deal about how to deal with 
            abortion but also, if adopted by Christian communities, can absorb 
            the divisions and tensions created by the political climate 
            surrounding abortion in the United States. 
            Abortion and Mizuko Rituals in Japan. 
            There has always been some form of opposition to abortion in Japan. 
            Abortion is not regarded as a "good," but rather as a regrettable or 
            necessary evil. Because of Shinto's strong emphasis upon life, 
            Shinto rituals are generally associated with joyous occasions, such 
            as birth, weddings and seasonal celebrations. Life is given by the 
            kami or gods themselves and is enshrined in the spirit of the 
            family's ancestors who provide the seed for new life. Abortion, 
            then, is the ending of a long string of "life" and an affront to the 
            kami who gave the seed. Abortion is an aberration, a temporary 
            affliction of spirit. The healing of such an affliction and 
            unification with the kami can take place only through the proper 
            Buddhism's strong opposition to any form of killing would seem to 
            support opposition to abortion. However, like Shinto, Buddhism 
            cannot be expressed in doctrines nor can conclusions be argued from 
            rational premises, as in Western religious arguments against 
            abortion. Buddhism, especially in Japan, deals with life as 
            ambiguous; birthing and dying are processes through stages rather 
            than fixed events. Even the fetus, more often called "child" in 
            Japan, is not restricted to a linear development, but can "return" 
            to be reborn at a later time. Precisely out of compassion for a 
            woman's or a family's difficult situation, then, Buddhism also 
            tolerates abortion. 
            Buddhist practices reflect both concern for the aborted spirit and 
            compassion for the woman who, constrained by difficult 
            circumstances, has by necessity resorted to induced abortion. 
            Because of its belief in transmigration, Buddhism does not view 
            abortion as the ending of life. Rather, in this unfortunate 
            instance, the spirit must be returned to the Buddhas for birth at a 
            later time. In a vein similar to the Shinto fear of retribution from 
            the kami for the aborted fetus, the Buddhist also stresses the need 
            to placate this living spirit. 
            At some time in the 18th century, the practice arose of erecting 
            statues to the aborted spirits. In his extensive study of abortion 
            and Buddhism, Liquid Life, William LaFleur argues that these mizuko 
            practices started as informal rites by women with no priests. The 
            women simply erected small statues of the Buddhist god Jizo for 
            mizuko souls. The aborted spirit itself is called mizuko, literally 
            "child of the water (womb)," or in another meaning of mizo, 
            "unseeing child," who does not see the mother's face nor the light 
            of day. This water-child could be considered 
            "water-which-has-just-begun to take shape as a becoming-human." 
            Mizuko rituals also refer to miscarriages, early child deaths and 
            other sufferings of children. 
            In the period after World War II, when abortion was again legalized, 
            mizuko devotions began in some enterprises that called themselves 
            temples. The popularity of such devotions led more traditional 
            Buddhist temples to offer similar devotions; and now several 
            temples, such as the Hasedera temple in Nara or the Zogoji in Tokyo, 
            house thousands of small jizo statues. 
            The Buddhist and Shinto mizuko rituals are memorial services for the 
            souls of unborn embryos who wander unhappily, unable to be reborn. 
            The small sign near the wayside temple I visited in Kyoto captures 
            this view: 
            The unborn child is a very miserable and sad being. They are 
            abandoned by those people who are to be responsible parents in the 
            due course of time. These unfortunate children are abandoned without 
            being given the bliss of coming into the world and without any 
            offering of water and flowers to comfort their souls, without any 
            prayers to make them sleep in peace. 
            These words are designed as much to elicit a sense of guilt and the 
            need to go through the ritual by "responsible parents," as to 
            describe the state of the unborn child. Prices for such services can 
            range from $300 to $2,100. And the demand for them has increased 
            dramatically since 1975, when a rite was shown on television. A 
            sample advertisement in a Tokyo newspaper reflects the mixture of 
            fear of retribution as well as grief over the loss of life: 
            Everybody wants happiness and prosperity for himself and for the 
            children. Why then do we forget only these water children? Does 
            human compassion not urge us to seek happiness and heavenly bliss 
            for these children? Turn misfortune into bliss! Beware lest what you 
            did brings misfortune to your family, like divorce.... Apologize for 
            what you did to this water child just as soon as you can by doing 
            the memorial service; help this water child to become peaceful. 
            Although these sentiments in Shinto and Buddhism have not developed 
            into a movement of opposition to abortion in the period after World 
            War II, they do add a further indication that abortion is not a 
            preferred option for the Japanese. More importantly, the rituals 
            offer the Japanese a way to allay the feelings surrounding abortion, 
            thereby avoiding much of the recrimination, hatred, violence and 
            even murder that the passions surrounding abortion trigger among us. 
            The Catholic Church and Abortion in Japan. 
            The very ambiguity surrounding life issues in Japan finds its 
            reflection in the attempts of the church in Japan to respond to the 
            abortion question. In their 1984 pastoral letter on abortion, "Life, 
            a Gift of God: the Catholic Position on the Dignity of the Life of 
            the Unborn Child," the Catholic bishops recognize the tensions 
            created by the church's official position on abortion in a society 
            characterized by strong efforts at population control and methods of 
            birth control with high failure rates, namely condoms and a form of 
            rhythm. While fully supporting the Vatican's position on abortion as 
            against the will of God, the Japanese bishops do not argue that the 
            fetus is a person from the moment of conception, as American bishops 
            do. Rather the Japanese bishops state: "Now, from the moment the 
            ovum is fertilized, a new living body, distinct from its parents, is 
            created...but there is controversy over when the living body 
            acquires a personality. Rather than drawing a line somewhere and 
            arguing about the presence or absence of a personality, we wish to 
            recognize and emphasize the right to life of the living body which 
            is in the process of acquiring a personality." 
            The bishops then recognize that "in the concrete situation, the 
            solution to this problem can be very difficult." Except "where life 
            is mindlessly terminated simply because it is inconvenient," the 
            bishops address cases "where an abortion was performed after 
            considerable doubt and suffering." Indeed, in such cases, say the 
            bishops, people "may have their own reasons with which we can 
            sympathize," but nevertheless "must make an appeal to hold human 
            life dear." The bishops then state the two principles which should 
            guide all family planning procedures: "(a) Abortion must not be used 
            by a family or the state as a means of birth control; (b) In the 
            interests of responsible family planning, methods of birth control 
            other than artificial should be learned." 
            THE BISHOPS have recognized the complexities and ambiguities 
            surrounding abortion. Finally, they address their concerns to the 
            general public and examine the abortion issue within the limited 
            context from which they can speak as Roman Catholic leaders. That 
            is, barring any overt support for artificial forms of contraception 
            of any kind, the bishops call for raising the moral consciousness of 
            the people and for the reform of social conditions that constitute 
            the causes of abortion through assistance to families, unwed mothers 
            and families without mothers; through needed improvements in housing 
            policy; by revision of the limited laws on adoption; by amelioration 
            of the status of women, and through welfare benefits for the 
            handicapped, many of whom are rejected at birth for their lack of 
            In addition, the possibility, acknowledged in the Roman Catholic 
            tradition, that the fetus develops into a person over a period of 
            time, as the Japanese bishops mention, leads many Japnese 
            theologians and theologians working in Japan to support positions 
            developed by several Western theologians such as Karl Rahner, S.J., 
            and Joseph Donceel, S.J., that the embryo is not a person in the 
            early stages of pregnancy and that, given serious reasons, abortion 
            could be morally justified during this time. Thus Juan Masia, S.J., 
            in a commentary on the Japanese bishops' statement, wrote that "the 
            Church's declaration of 'protection of life from the time of 
            conception' most certainly does not mean that the reason for this is 
            because this is a person from the time of conception." Rather, he 
            argues, the church adopts the viewpoint of protecting the process 
            from its inception, and thus it may be possible to apply the 
            position of the theologians mentioned above "with prudent 
            flexibility also to exceptional cases." 
            This latter approach, which views the fetus as developing toward a 
            person, resembles the notions of a gradual, developing passage into 
            life among the Japanese religions. This similarity alone would 
            provide the basis for an exploration of mizuko type rituals in 
            Christianity. In addition, even among the pro-life Western and 
            Japanese people with whom I spoke in Japan, I found strong support 
            for the incorporation of such rituals into Christianity and Roman 
            Catholicism in particular. Likewise LaFleur in his study notes that 
            Christians in Japan "have increasingly come to the view that there 
            is an appreciable level of psychological and spiritual sanity in the 
            practices of mizuko, and that aspects of these practices should be 
            introduced into Westen society and the ambit of the West's religious 
            modalities." Furthermore, he notes that Roman Catholics and clergy 
            likewise share that interest. 
            If such a conversation has begun in Japan, then perhaps it is time 
            for a similar conversation to begin here in the United States. In 
            our secular society we look to law rather than religion to resolve 
            our most acute dilemmas of life--abortion, euthanasia, capital 
            punishment, war itself. It is time for the churches, and those such 
            as the Catholic Church who are most opposed to abortion, to propose 
            religious approaches to these complex dilemmas. An equivalent of a 
            mizuko ritual would not "solve" the abortion battles in America. Yet 
            such an approach might offer emotional solace to those women and men 
            who suffer through the realities of abortion, who experience the 
            deep regret and sense of loss of life. And, just as importantly, 
            such rituals and practices might lead to compassion and pragmatic 
            compromise in the public as well as the private areas of our lives. 
            IF RICHARD NIXON, the Quaker warrior, could open the American door 
            to China, then perhaps the Roman Catholic Church, as a voice of 
            opposition to abortion, could open the hearts of a divided public. 
            In Japan rituals often substitute for laws in guiding behaviro. In 
            the United States such rituals could at least provide alternatives 
            to the legal morass of abortion. Perhaps now is the time to give 
            birth to such an idea.