Grieving the Unborn in Japan

Anthony Zimmerman
Published in The Catholic World Report
February 1996
Reproduced with Permission

The ideology of "choice" which rationalizes abortion in America blocks out social acceptance of mourning for the deceased child. A less rigid rationale in Japan facilitates the expression of grief by parents for their hapless little ones; the ritual Mizuko Kuyo (literally "water-child ceremony") is not only an elixir that aids the psychic healing of the parents, especially the mother, but doubles as a lucrative windfall for obliging temples.

In the USA a rigid dogma which canonizes "choice" may encourage its adherents to march into abortuaries with heads held high in disdain for motherhood. "Choice" encourages the young woman to suppress her motherly instinct to grieve over the loss of her child; she must be strong. She incarnates manly symbols of power and control, submerging womanly instincts of nurturing and altruism. Years may pass before she relaxes her guard, to become herself again.

A sense of defeat

In Japan, quite to the contrary, abortion is not glamorized. Women slip into the doctor's office as unobtrusively as possible, sorry because "it can't be helped" (shikataga nai). No one claims that abortion is good. Public opinion looks aside, allowing the recognized evil only because it appears to be unavoidable; no one boasts about it. Respectable doctors do not advertise the service, although they may perform it on request.

Women yield their bodies to the operation in a spirit of fatalism. Far from defending their decision to abort, they visit an obliging gynecologist with a sense of defeat. The qualified doctor understands, and routinely runs down the printed page of prescribed questions. She nods as he circles with his ball point the reason: economic hardship. (She may have left her mink at the receptionist.) She pays out in cash the standard fee (abortion is not covered by health insurance), and the staff provides all the frills and niceties of sterile clinical care. Crude methods like saline solutions have long ago been abandoned in Japan, and a 24-week cap is observed; pregnancies which have advanced beyond that term are not aborted. But once the woman has faithfully paid her karmic duty to society, public opinion now concedes to the Japanese mother a right to grieve for her departed child. Her husband may typically accompany her to the temple to set the ritual of grieving into motion.

The Grief Industry

"Grieving ceremonies called Mizuko Kuyo, have become a major business, operated competitively and efficiently, like department stores, airports, and bullet trains. For glamour, Tokyo residents may apply at Zojoji temple, where the monks also conduct high-class funerals for the elite whose mourners arrive clad in tuxedos and sable coats.

Previous arrangements having been made, the grieving parents are welcomed with bows and ushered into one of the waiting booths. The monk chants his sutra, burns incense, rings bells, soothes the deceased with ritual prayer, and assures the parents that the child is now at peace. They may arrange to rent one of the available stone "Jizo" statues on temple grounds (at a price of $700 per year when I last inquired) to commemorate their child. The small statues, roughly hewn of stone, have full moon faces, eyes closed, mouths pouting their undeserved fate. Parents may put a scarlet wool cap over the head, a bib over the shoulders, and a name with perhaps the due-date on a plaque. A vase allows parents to bring flowers occasionally to show their love, and a pinwheel spinning in the wind should amuse the beloved child.

For a modest price, visiting parents may also write messages on wood plaques purchased at the temple. When hung on a nearby tree, the message is "guaranteed" to reach the child. Simple bulletins read: "Your father and mother love you. Be at peace." Or: "We are sorry, but it couldn't be helped. We love you." Or: "There was no room. Do not feel bad. Come again into my womb in three years."

The Zojoji temple limits the number of available stone Jizo statues to only several thousand, but the Hase Kannon temple at Kamakura, some thirty miles out of Tokyo, has at least 50,000. Smaller temples may have only a few dozen, but there is hardly a temple in Japan today which does not accommodate parents who apply to grieve their miscarried or aborted children. Wooden memorial slats are cheaper than stone statues, and are set up by the thousands. These are burnt ceremonially after some time.

Even neighborhood shops sometimes get into the business. A maker of Japanese seals at a nearby Nagoya street corner rents out Jizo statues to be set up in the back yard, and advertises special seals which bring consolation to the aborted baby every time the parents press the seal on required documents. Cute kokeshi dolls are also popular; pieces of beauty and art, they can also serve discreetly as ambiguous substitute memorials to facilitate grieving.

"Fewer Is Better"

Japanese iron-clad social rules, though unwritten, indicate to mothers that they have a social "duty" to abort "surplus" children. Public opinion is centered around a two-child family, and questions about that attitude are not encouraged. Families are shoe-horned into two-child apartments; mothers need to find a part-time job to supplement income, so that the two darlings can be pampered and dressed and over-educated to keep up with the fashion. Surprisingly, however, not all families bow to the de rigueur expectations of the public consensus. One out of six families, even in today's Japan, includes more than two children. In 1992, 203,221 children were born into families which already had two, three, four, and up to ten previous births.

But even including all the larger families, national birth statistics indicate an average of only 1.5 children born for every two parents-a figure that leaves Japan 25 percent short of the number of births required simply to replace the current adult population. "Fewer births is better," was the message which national leaders blared across the nation in 1946, and the nation has not shut off that loudspeaker even today (1996); most mothers toe the line, as they did in 1946.

Japanese society, however, in contrast to that of America, allows mothers to grieve for what they do to their unscheduled children; to sympathize with their lost treasures, dispatched from the darkness of the womb to the darkness of the nether world. The ritual grieving brings to the surface the bitter sorrow of lost motherhood and helps them to deal with this trauma.

A Threatened Curse

The Sakakibara "Great Kannon Temple" in Mie Prefecture caters to grieving parents as its mainline business. Its 90 foot high gold-covered statue of the Kannon goddess attracts visitors from far and wide, and its remote location permits parents to grieve without danger of being seen by the neighbors. To drum up business some years ago, this and other temples resorted to questionable advertising. Modern Japanese may make a public show of having risen above ancient folklore, but astute promoters of the temple's business ignored the pretext of immunity to superstition. Instinctively they went for the jugular vein of psychic unrest, and gnawed at the vitals of submerged and unresolved fears. Some hinted darkly at tatari, a curse which a restless child in the other world can bring upon a family because of an abortion; the curse can lead to divorce, an automobile accident, a loss of job, or failure in an entrance exam. "We can bring your child to peace" so guaranteed a typical ad. Here is a translation of an ad:

Bring peace to your child, abandoned now and alone on the banks of the River Sai; demons bully him there, making him pile up stone stupas, which the demons kick down again. Our Kannon is equipped to save your child. She has large hands, with webbing between the fingers; she can pick up your shredded and smashed child whole, press him to her bosom tenderly and reverently, then convey him across the River Sai; family ancestors will meet him there and admit him to their company. There at last, the child will be peaceful, and you are safe from its avenging anger.

For greater convenience, the ad offered mail-order ceremonies. An order blank included lines on which to record the due-date of the child; it provided for up to five aborted children, at $100 each. Upon receipt of payment, a priest will perform the ceremony, and the applicant will receive a memorial card by return mail. Should the petitioner wish, the return envelope will be without the temple's address, to guard secrecy. The mailman need not know. The memorial card can be tucked into a hidden place of the house altar, advises the ad, and when parents hold the card in their hands, they can speak directly to the child, who will then learn about the parents' care and love.

The multi-million dollar success of the mizuko kuyoprayer industry in Japan indicates that grieving for an aborted child is an abiding need felt by parents. Although the folklore, if taken literally, defies credulity, it is perhaps little more than camouflage spread over the real fears and genuine feelings which tug at the parents' heartstrings.