Memorial Services for Aborted Children in Japan

Anthony Zimmerman
ALL about Issues Magazine
April 1989
Reproduced with Permission

Buddhist memorial services for aborted children have become a major business in Japan; mothers everywhere demand such services at their temples. A few years ago services were not yet available at convenient locations in parts of Shikoku Island, for example, but the people got together and requested such services. By now they are available almost everywhere. I have heard estimates that the total amount of money paid by mothers for such services per year now exceeds $550 million. The temples are therefore reaping a spin-off profit from the abortion industry, which may be worth about $1 billion annually.

"Sent from Dark to Dark"

There are many reasons why Japanese mothers today want memorial services for the children they "sent from dark to dark," as the Japanese expression goes. Temple priests and alert laymen sense that the sorrow of the mothers, and their wish to make up to their children, is keen enough to bear a good market tag: stiff prices help to assuage the pain. At one temple I visited one could borrow a stone statue for a year, and have a mizuko kuyo (memorial for unborn children) service performed by a Buddhist priest for $500. The contract is renewable each year. At another the price is $3,300.

Superstition is mixed with feelings of regret, and temples become quite inventive with advertising, suiting exactly the needs felt by mothers. Recently I visited the Great Kanon Temple of Sakakibara in Mie Prefecture. In their advertising they hinted at the ancient folklore about children who died before they could be of any service to their parents or community. They cannot find rest in the next world until rescued by Jizo, a favorite deity to help in just such situations.

The hapless children, when they arrive in the next world, according to this folklore, are stranded on the banks of the River Sai. Devils force them to pile up stone stupas, goading them and leaving them no rest. But when parents pray for their children and make offerings for them, the Jizo deity will protect them, give them rest, and bring them into the state of contentment. In this state they will not trouble their families on earth, but become protectors, according to this advertising.

Parents who aborted their children may fear revenge. At the Zojoji temple near our office in Tokyo there are 1200 stone statues memorializing dead babies, next to which parents sometimes leave written messages to their babies: "Forgive your foolish father." "Come back into my womb after five years." "Please find rest and peace." "I'm very sorry. I love you, but couldn't help it."

Not all the statues in the temple yard, nor all the tablets and slats in the temples, are for aborted fetuses. Some are for miscarriages, others for babies who died of sickness or accident. This helps to preserve confidentiality. But performance of these services for aborted children increased dramatically since 1975 when an actual rite appeared on television. At Adashino Nenbutsuji in Kyoto, from 10,000 to 20,000 memorial slats are erected, and then burnt at the end of the year.

Slick Advertising

A large ad in newspapers for memorial services in the Great Kanon Temple weaves together the superstitions with practical considerations very appealingly. This ad features a large Buddhist Kanon goddess holding one child lovingly in the arm, and gazing down devotedly to children at her feet. The ad states in part:

Everybody wants happiness and prosperity for himself and for the children. Why do we forget only these water children [mizuko, meaning aborted children]? These children were destined to be born like any other, and it was only by some mischance that they were not born into this world. Does human compassion not urge us to seek happiness and heavenly bliss for these children? Can a family expect to be happy if it abandons them to their fate?


Beware lest what you did brings misfortune to your family, like divorce, all kinds of family troubles; what you did was to consider only your own convenience, while you did away with this child, burying it into terminal darkness and misfortune. 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, to become a hotoke.Ask the Mizuko Kanon [goddess] to drive away the evil spirits from your water child, to bring it happiness instead of this sadness. That is for you yourself the shortest road to your own happiness.

The ad instructs the people that this Kanon goddess is really better equipped than the deity Jizo to take care of the water babies. Jizo, it says, can handle the ordinary run of children who are without complications, children who were actually born but died early by accident or sickness. Jizo can indeed rescue them from the devils who goad them on the banks of the River Sai.

But nowadays, continues the ad, the children come in sad shape: their heads are smashed to pieces, and their bodies are shredded into bits. When Jizo tries to rescue them they just flow through his hands. He can't help.

Not so with the Mizuko Kanon:

She has large hands, and between her fingers are webs. So she saves these children, holds them tenderly, gives them a mother's love, treats them with reverence.

This temple will conduct a memorial service for you, with the prayers and incense and a memorial tablet which is filled out according to your specifications. We give two tablets for each water child soul, one to be set up in the temple for perpetualmemory, and the other is sent to your home so that you can set it up on your altar and do your service there. When you pray at this altar before this tablet, your child can actually hear your voice. And for your convenience, the tablet can be neatly folded and tucked away so that no one else in the house will notice. [The envelope from the temple comes without a visible return address on the outside.] If you specify, no future notice win be sent to your home from this temple, so you can be absolutely assured about complete confidentiality.

The ad has the text of the prayer on the memorial card; also a convenient application form for ordering the memorial service and tablet by mail. There is a place for entry for up to five water children to be given the service; the cost is 10,000 yen each ($83): if for five water baby souls, 50,000yen ($415).

Reparations for Sin

"Superstition," some will say. But when we look deeper, there is a service here tailored to fill the needs of mothers who feel sorrow and remorse over their aborted children. We need not believe that the mothers will refrain from abortion in the future. They feel trapped in the Japanese world, where only two or at most three children are acceptable.

Public opinion and economic expectations have hardened around the two-child family like a flint-hard mold. To be "good Japanese" the mothers must abort-so they feel. But to also be themselves, mothers with feelings, they seek a way to apologize to their child, and to bring it joy, and to protect themselves. They seek communication with the child too. Young women are not so concerned about all this, but as they grow older, and especially as they pass through menopause, the memories of their aborted children call them to temples for memorial services.

We who are Catholics-we are strangely silent about reparation for the injustice done to our children whom we aborted, and to God whose commandment we broke. Mothers keep the pain in their hearts, without opportunity to express it in prayer, and in making offerings. Is it right?

Theologians had many controversies in past ages about the eternal condition of infants and preborn children who died without Baptism. I remember how we argued for three days in our seminary dogma class, always unsatisfied with any solution given. The term "Limbo" is a theological construct designed to meet the specifications of the needs of theologians. Maybe we think that we educated Catholics have real theological sophistication in constructing a "Limbo" for water children, or in expecting that God gives them eternal bliss despite our cruelty.

But when all is said, Limbo is not so far away from the River Sai. Both are constructs. God has not revealed to us how He relates to the people who depart from this life as infants without Baptism, but we know that they live for eternity. Since they did no evil, they are not punished. No child ever comes into this world by accident; God creates each single one, special, with love, forever. Maybe there was violence, rape, illicit sex, but then it was God's turn to create the soul to enliven the tiny body. He is never violent; He always loves when He creates, and will never forget this dear child for eternity.

I think Mother Teresa is correct in saying that these aborted children are with God, are happy, and that they pray for their parents who gave them life that they too will join them in the happy life with God. Maybe we Catholics should look past the superstition, and learn from the Japanese to do a little penance for our sins in killing the preborn. When will we have a corner in our churches to honor the "water children"? When will priests offer Masses for the water children of the city, state, and nation, accepting offerings in a box which protects confidentiality; offerings which would be used to help pro-life causes and to finance birth costs for unwed mothers, and adoption costs for their children?

Postscript to All About Issues, also printed in the April 1989 issue:

Let me add that Mother Teresa spoke earnestly to the people of Japan when she visited here several times. Her words have blessed the nation.

Fr. Paul Marx, OSB, will remember how extremely thoughtful women became in Tokyo, Osaka, Nagasaki, Fukuoka and everywhere, when Mother Teresa asked them not to kill their children by abortion. At NHK- TV stations, while 20 million pairs of eyes were fixed on the console as Mother Teresa spoke for an hour, telephone lines to the stations began to glow; they went full course until after midnight; tearful women had to tell their stories of grief to anyone with a sympathetic ear. Mothers took courage. Doctors state that abortions have decreased.

Mother Teresa asked the 230 legislators at the Tokyo Hilton on April 23, 1982, at a prayer breakfast, to change the law: instead of aborting, troubled mothers should give their children up for adoption. The legislators did actually change the law after Mother Teresa had spoken to them so powerfully. Adopted children can now have all the rights of born children, and the public registry does not reveal the fact of adoption. Discrimination should gradually become a thing of the past. But it will take time in this tradition bound society.

Mother Teresa composed a special prayer on that occasion for mothers who had aborted a child. Asahi Daily, whose circulation is 7,000,000, gratefully featured the prayer translated into Japanese for the readers.

Before they did so, one learned theologian had some scruples: "This theology of Mother Teresa, I don't know about that! Then what about Baptism?" So I went to the Archbishop of Tokyo as well as to the Apostolic Pro Nuncio to get their approval. Both said: "Print it." Here is what she wrote for them, despite anxieties of a theologian:

My dear Japanese mothers,

This brings my blessing, love and prayer for each one of you; that each one or you in your home be a cause of joy to your family. Remember-the family that prays together stays together. And If you stay together you will love each other as God loves each one of you.

It is true, some of you have done the wrong thing in killing the unborn child in your womb, through abortion. But turn to God and say: "My God, I am very sorry for killing my unborn child. Please forgive me, I will never do it again." And God, being our loving Father, will forgive you. Never do it again and - believe me - God has forgiven you.

Also remember your little one is with God for all eternity. It is not true that the child can punish you or your family. The child is with God. Your child loves you, has forgiven you, and is praying for you. He is with God, so cannot do any harm. He can only love you.

I am praying for you all and I hope to come again to Japan; we will meet together. I love you all because God loves you.

Mother Teresa, M.C.