Llewellyn’s 2004 Magical Almanac

Mizuko Kuyo: The Japanese Rite for the Unborn
by S Y Zenith


Stone statues resembling children are found in abundance across Japan at temples, shrine, crossroads, roadsides, mountain passes and graveyards. These states are images of the Bodhisattva Jizo, unto is one of the most beloved Japanese divinities. He is esteemed as a protector of travelers- both on the physical world or in unseen realms. Also known as Mizuko Jizo Buddha, he is both guardian and representation of aborted and miscarried fetuses, still born babies and prematurely deceased children.

Jizo also protects expectant mothers. He is the benevolent deity who ensures the safety of fetuses during their underworld journeys and who guides them toward birth. Myths and Beliefs According to one Japanese legend, fetuses or children who die prematurely are sent to the underworld to be punished for causing irreparable sorrow to parents due to their deaths. These children are deposited in a purgatorial dry bed in the “River of Souls” where they are subject to hard labors of piling stones to erect monuments to Buddha in order to receive his blessings. Tormenting demons scatters the stones and beat the children with iron clubs. It is thus common to find piles of stones laid around Jizo statues. These are offerings from compassionate humans wishing to assist the children in performing their rock-piling penance in the underworld. Rite of Passage In comparison with certain Eastern cultures, Western societies bestow little or no symbolic acknowledgment of miscarriage, aborted fetuses and still born children. In the English language there is no word for a miscarried or aborted fetuses. There are no Western memorial services for this form of loss- no rituals to say farewell or to cleanse and assuage grief. The Japanese are perhaps the most devoutly meticulous in their reverence for babies who remain forever unborn.

In Japan, they are conferred a solemn social person hood and called Mizuko or “water child”. The word Kuyo means “vibe”. Mizuko Kuyo then is a ritual of remembrance, honoring these spirits. Jizo’s forms There are innumerable images of Jizo in Japan. Over the centuries, his personifications have undergone many transformations-from a dignified adult figure to a serene child-monk. The child-monk looks about three years old and has a shaven head and gentle smile. Usually in his right hand he holds a stick with six rings. The jingles from the rings are to awake mortals from deluded dreams or warn animals of his approach. His left hand holds the bright jewel of dharma truth.

The shining light from this jewel banishes all fear, and liberates people who are helplessly enmeshed in darkness. Mizuko Kuyo observances There are many ways to perform Mizuko Kuyo. Women passing by Jizo statues may pause for a few moments of silence. Others may make personal offerings they feel the need at shrines or other locations. These offerings consist of flowers, clothing, hats, toys, sweets, food and so on. Rituals are generally performed during summer and spring. Certain temples provide sections where women can purchase tombs for their Mizuko and have a Kaimyo, or a posthumous Buddhist name, inscribed upon it. The tombs are rendered from stone with a carved figure of Jizo on top. He generally wears a red bib and carries a staff with six rings or a stick with bells. To some these temples parts are not glum graveyards but rather “happy places”. Some are even outfitted with children’s playgrounds. Women and sometimes men bow and ladle water over Bodhisattva in an act of ritual cleansing. Whether male or female, some light candles, incense sticks, and they adorn the tombs and dress Jizo in garments. Another ritual makes use of ema, or wooden plagues with roof-shaped tops. Plague is suspended by a string. Many are inscribed with prayers and personal messages to aborted or miscarried fetuses. The plagues are usually signed with the word “mother”, but some fathers and entire families sign the ema to honor what they consider to be a departed family member. A grieving mother may perform Mizoko Kuyo in the privacy of her home through a visit from a priest. The priest inscribes a posthumous Buddhist name for the unborn child on a memorial tablet or panel. This is then placed on the family altar and honored along with other ancestors.

Creating an Alternative Personal Rite Although Jizo statues are not readily available in the West, this should not deter anyone from connecting with the Bodhisattva and honoring unborn children. Pictures of Jizo can be found in books or from Japanese Buddhist sources. The image can be copied, sketched or etched onto suitable materials. Handicraft enthusiasts may try their hand at making a Jizo statue in clay. Parents who feel compelled to erect a shrine to Jizo may do so. In honoring unborn children, parents who prefer simplicity can carve a small piece of wood in the shape of a house or plague. Attach a sting to the top of the wood, then write personal messages before suspending them in a special part of the home. Alternatively these may be placed in a home altar. Whichever method an individual chooses, what matters most is the sincere intent of acknowledgment towards a precious human life that could have been, but that did not physically manifest in the living world. Those who spend time in creating personal rituals are likely to find comfort, healing and for some, a sense of closure through Mizuko Kuyo.