Nobody knows exactly when the practice of mizuko kuyo began, but for centuries, parents have been erecting roadside shrines dedicated to babies dead from miscarriages, abortions, and infanticide. Yet it wasn’t until the 1970s—after Japan legalized abortion in 1948 and abortion rates spiked thereafter as the main form of birth control—that public demand for mizuko kuyo grew, so much so that locals began to use the terms “abortion heaven” and “mizuko boom” to describe the phenomenon.
Unlike in Western countries, where pro-abortion groups minimize the psychological trauma of abortion and use words such as “fetus” and “unwelcome invasion” to try to hopscotch around the humanity of the unborn baby, in Japan abortion is accepted but not celebrated. In the United States, the pro-life and pro-abortion groups draw sharp lines between their views: One says the unborn child is a human life; therefore abortion is murder and should be illegal. The other says the personhood of a child in the womb is a subjective matter and that women should be able to choose. In Japan, these viewpoints coexist in one mind.
Most Japanese consider the unborn child a “life”—the Japanese start counting the baby’s age at conception, and even the law somewhat acknowledges the unborn child’s personhood: Babies aborted from 10 weeks and above must be registered with the local government as born-dead babies. Buddhism, a major religion in Japan, also teaches that life begins at conception, and its First Precept is that one should never willingly take the life of a living thing. A Buddhist priest’s wife in Tokyo wrote: “Of course we who are Buddhists will hold to the end that a fetus is ‘life.’ No matter what kind of conditions make abortion necessary, we cannot completely justify it.”
Buddhism teaches that life begins at conception, and its First Precept is that one should never willingly take the life of a living thing.
Yet the Japanese, including that Buddhist priest’s wife, accept abortion as an unfortunate necessity—and those who have an abortion seek for some way, any way, to assuage their guilt, pain, and fears about having willfully extinguished a life. Mizuko kuyo is the Japanese Buddhist’s creative way of reconciling these two contradictory beliefs by rearranging religious systems to fit his personal purposes. And as entrepreneurial temples caught on to rising public demand and advertised mizuko kuyo services in newspaper ads, many mainline Buddhist sects also reluctantly began offering the practice, fearful of losing parishioners who pay for their upkeep.
I visited two mizuko-jizo cemeteries in Japan—Hasedera in Kamakura is one, Zojoji in Tokyo the other. At Zojoji, the statues all wear bright red hand-knitted caps and red cloth bibs, some donning little pink dresses, some puffy parkas, one a navy track jacket. Their eyes are shut, their cheeks chubby, their lips small and pouty. Many have colorful pinwheels stuck in a vase before them, the plastic curls twirling and creaking lazily in the autumn breeze. Some have fresh or fake flowers in their vases, but the majority of the statues look worn with age, dust flaking off bibs and decomposed leaves dangling off caps. Trees cast shadows over the cemetery, yet the area popped with blobs and whirls of colors from the red caps and pinwheels. The overall mood seemed strangely both gloomy and kitschy, like a carnival blaring with musical rides but barren of people.