Human Flower Project
A Buddhist deity, patron of pilgrims and pregnant women, has become the modern day guardian of the unborn in Japan.
Offerings dress and decorate Mizuko jizo
Kimimasa Mayama’s photographs today come from a Tokyo temple. On a hillside there, hundreds of chubby statuettes (or is it literally sentai —a thousand?) stand in rows amid offerings of pinwheels and flowers.
These are the Mizuko jizo. Jizo, a spiritual guardian, works to comfort the suffering “and shorten the sentence of those serving time in hell.” “Mizuko” translates to “water child” and refers to the unborn—those who were aborted, miscarried, or stillborn, “beings who float in a watery world awaiting birth.”
Formerly, Mizuko Jizo was depicted as a monk holding a child and revered as the protector of children, expectant mothers and pilgrims, all somehow beings-in-progress. But over the past forty years, the form of Mizuko Jizo in Japan has changed to represent an infant. And the guardian’s role has changed too. Chozen Roshi writes: “Both the Mizuko Jizo and the mizuko ceremony arose in Japan in the 1960s in response to a human need, to relieve the suffering emerging from the experience of a large number of women who had undergone abortions after World War II.”
To effect that spiritual change, the Japanese observe a rite called Mizuko Kuyo, in which offerings are made to this deity: prayers, toys, and of course, flowers. Adults may bring crocheted caps or cloaks to dress the Jizo statue.
In the U.S. where abortion has devolved from a decision and a reality into an “issue,” attitudes toward this Japanese custom zigzag with emotionalism, even ire. This commentator voices a wish that Americans could find some similar ceremony of reconciliation for those who have aborted or lost babies.
“In Japan, abortion is seen as a necessary sorrow, a painful social necessity, and a means for protecting what are felt to be ‘family values.’ Some Buddhists worry that abortions could become trivialized, which would lead to a hardening of people’s hearts. The mizuko kuyo serves a positive, therapeutic role, keeping people in touch with their emotions and their loss.”
Mizuko Jizo; Photo: Pleasing Silver Life
Others find the Mizuko Kuyo, in its endeavor to bring peace and comfort after an abortion, patently offensive. “The narrow scope of the ritual (which promises purification without conversion of the heart) serves as a warning of what the West could become: a society that goes on without a thought of redemption.”
In our view it’s not possible to know from the outside when a “conversion of the heart” occurs or what keeps people “in touch” with which feelings. Rather, the presence of flowers suggests people have encountered something in themselves and the world about them that exceeds yes or no.