水子・Water Baby

Daikoku-ten Temple in Matsugasaki, Kyoto・大黒天、松ヶ崎、京都

I never had chances to visit my aunt’s house often, but she lives in a small prefab trailer with a lot of surrounding land. Even though the house is small, she fills it with things she knows will last a long time; expensive and rare things. I couldn’t understand it. As a child, I wondered, why live in a shitty trailer with a bunch of vases? (Ming-style vases were her specialty). Inside the vases were really random knick knack things. Even though I wasn’t supposed to be touching the vases, every single time, I asked her what was inside. She always said, “they’re gifts for children.”

This pissed me off, because 1. she had no kids; my sister and I were the only kids in her life, so where the hell were my gifts? And, 2. what a vague and indirect answer. Childhood me wasn’t thinking that exactly, but I always wished she’d tell me what she meant because the way she said it always had this sort of looming ominousness. There was something she wasn’t telling me, but looking back, I guess it was upaaya.

As I got older, things went downhill, and in March 2013 I was at a psychiatric facility. My parents called, yadda yadda, but it was my aunt who actually showed up. One day she came during our required outdoor time (that I usually spent under a gazebo).

“It’s so nice out, why don’t we go for a walk?”
I scoffed. A walk where? Around the playground?
“I want to tell you a story.”

My aunt had her first conception when she was 16. She really wanted to keep it. She was suffering from undiagnosed manic depression and sort of….wanted something to hold on to? My grandfather made her get an abortion. It was 1970 so you can be sure as shit those procedures weren’t safe. After that, she could never keep a child to full term.

Her first miscarriage was two years later in her aunt’s bathroom at a pool party. Marriage after marriage and pregnancy after pregnancy she always miscarried, and it always left her devastated.

She asked me if I remembered the ming vases.
(Of course I remembered the ming vases.) 

What’s inside of them? Gifts (offerings…?) for the children that were never born.

A small part of my world was…shattered, in a sense. Obviously, I had other things that occupied my mental capacity, but learning the way my family treated her and the trauma she was put through is something that has never left me. It’s something that devastates you yet you put it in the back of your mind to be passively reminded of later.

I think a large part of me was enchanted by the idea of Mizuko Kuyo because of the kanji (“water” and “child”) and the similarities to my aunt’s unborn child shrine.

水子。Water Child.

Articles coming from America about practicing Mizuko Kuyo typically tell a gentrified Happy Buddhism™ story about a god named Jizo that smuggles unborn babies into heaven in the sleeves of his robe. 

That’s, uh….not how Buddhism works.

In Buddhism, the spirits of Mizuko are stuck in….I guess as one Japanese student I talked to described it, the “River Styx.” Literally, it is a river separating your first and second judgment in Jigokudō (the lowest realm in Buddhism, aka Hell Realm). If you are judged fortunately, you can cross the river via the bridge. However, unborn children, having built up no karma, and maybe even accumulating bad karma from the grief they caused their parents, will usually be judged guilty here. That means they have to swim.

Do you know a baby that can swim?

Well, okay, Jizo does save babies, but only if you have faith in him. He carries them across the river, where they can move onto the second judgment. This is where the statue belief stems from. If you take good care of your Mizuko Jizo/Kannon statue and aid them in their journey, they may be aided by Jizo.

I visited Daikoku-ten temple in Kyoto in early December to visit Mizuko Jizo. I wouldn’t describe the scene as sad, or mournful, but rather….routine. Most of the visitors were elderly, suggesting they’ve been visiting this Jizo for a long time. In this part of the temple, there are no clapping or bells (a typical ritual in Japanese Buddhism). Instead, visitors throw water on the large Jizo statue and the little Kannon statues surrounding him (giving them water as nourishment), bow once, and pray with new ojuzu (beads) they buy from the main building. 

Jizo after being nourished by water thrown on him by those worshipping. The smaller statues are of Kannon, another Buddhist deity, and each represents an unborn child that priests have held a service for.

For 500 ¥ you can buy a pinwheel with a prayer on it as a sort of ema (a prayer tablet). I bought one for my aunt.

(I didn’t take pictures of anyone paying respects. That felt too invasive and distasteful.)

I think what surprised me the most was that I saw more lone men visiting than women. Many came as couples, but I only saw about three women by themselves, and at least six men by themselves. It shocked me a little that men would care (perhaps more than women?) about the unborn child they were complicit in creating. This could be the result of coming from an American perspective, where parenthood doesn’t require or even expect the father to care or take part in the aftermath of the conception of what may be an “accidental” child.

Could it be that men suffer a greater sense of loss? Or that men feel less guilt, more grief, whereas women feel so much guilt they can’t visit? Or perhaps the fact that they’re physically removed from the act (they weren’t the ones who had the fetus inside them) makes it easier for them to visit and express their grief? This perplexes me as (from a Western perspective) I would expect the mother to feel stronger emotions toward the fetus as it was inside her and she (usually) has to take the initiative to abort.

I also saw children pray with their mothers, which to many may seem like a macabre practice. As mentioned in a piece on abortion in Japan, “Apology,” mothers often introduce their children to Mizuko Jizo to give Mizuko a greater sense of belonging in both its “life” and in the family.

According to Peggy Orenstein, the Japanese traditionally believe that “existence flowed into a being slowly, like liquid.” In other words, fetuses are potential persons, not full persons. Abortion has been practiced in Japan as means of population control for centuries. As such, abortion obviously isn’t considered murder (as many Americans might call it), but to end even a potential life is no small matter to Japanese people.

In “Apology,” the author says:

Apology can overlap with gratitude. There is no great need to determine whether one is addressing a guilt presupposing ‘apology’ to a mizuko or simply expressing thanks to it for having vacated its place in the body of a woman and having moved on, leaving her – and her family – relatively free of its physical presence.

I find that most English articles written about Mizuko Kuyo have a pretty Euro-American-centric (that is, “Judeo-Christian”) view of guilt vs. shame in regards to abortion. Like the American articles on Mizuko Kuyo, the authors shy away from the sense of loss felt in abortion (as opposed to miscarriage) and instead focus on guilt or shame (especially the fact that Japan is a “shame-based society”), which totally misses the objective of their piece. 

To me, most articles come off as critical of the notion that one can feel guilty for abortion (which is implied as an intentionally evil act that you cannot be sorry for), and that Japanese people rely on this sort of moralistic therapeutic deism based in rituals that will give them reassurance that they’re not bad people (despite doing what is considered a “bad deed”).

I don’t think women (and men) perform Mizuko Kuyo for a reassurance or acknowledgment that they’re still good and human (like many academic pieces suggest). It’s a memorial service for someone you’ve lost. What started out as a “regrettable necessity” often turns into unrelenting, sometimes haunting culpability. There’s still a feeling of loss (and, of course, guilt) in “abandoning” an unborn child via abortion. 

To many mothers, it simply wasn’t the right time. When you’re a single university student, abortion is a very logical option. Just because you didn’t want (or couldn’t take care of) a baby then doesn’t mean you don’t want one in the future. There’s a feeling of loss for that child that you couldn’t afford to keep. Or, in my aunt’s case, the child you weren’t allowed to keep and the subsequent lost children thereafter.

I hope that I can do some more research and fieldwork on Mizuko Kuyo as it’s really a fascinating subject and the reading I’ve done so far doesn’t really do it justice. I also hope that this maybe piqued your interest in Japanese Buddhism and attitudes toward abortion so that you might look into it yourself.