You have finally made that trip to Japan! Strolling along the streets of Tokyo, you walk jaw-dropped at the sights of lively Harajuku and the pure geekdom of Akihabara. But then, you stumble onto a sight where you aren’t sure what to make of it. Rows upon rows of little baby statues, where some, if not all, are adorned with little red outfits.
Briefly analyzing the situation, you think to yourself, how cute and creepy these statues are. What is the purpose of them? Why are there so many of them? WHY ARE THEY STARING SOULLESSLY INTO MY EYES.
What you have stumbled upon is the ever-so-popular Mizuko Kuyō 水子供養, or better known as the memorial service for dead children, specifically the miscarriaged, aborted, and still-birthed kind. Paints a pretty picture, doesn’t it?
Mizuko Kuyō has been around for centuries and is unique to Japan, however the participation and displays of the statues have become more prominent in the last three decades. The popularity of the service has brought it into the spotlight of controversial conversation, not because it deals with dead children, but because of the claim that temples are taking advantage of grieving parents by charging services to ensure their dead child is taken care of when they go through their journey into hell. More on that later.
The purpose of the practice varies. Some of the reasons are to ensure the child’s soul is comforted in the afterlife and/or to ward off vengeful spirits. The little statues themselves are representations of Mizuko Jizō, the Buddhist monk guardian of aborted and prematurely dead children. Mizuko Jizō is often depicted as a staff-welding monk with children in arm or under his robe. I’m sure you all have sleepless nights wondering, “why the statues?” How exactly do they protect and comfort the dead children? Glad you asked.
Lack of good karma? Off to the sandy beaches of hell with you!
Mizuko Kuyō is tied with Buddhism and its reincarnation system. Leaving out a lot of the details, when one dies and is reborn, where and what they are reborn as is based on their past behavior or karma. For all living beings, there are six different realms of possible rebirth, aptly named the “Six Paths” by Japanese Buddhists. The cycle of death and rebirth into one of these realms is an endless cycle, unless one obtains bodhi or enlightenment. The paths and their very brief explanations are as follows (in ascending order of appeal):
- Jigokudō 地獄道 (Realm of Hell) – Let’s just say you don’t want to be a part of this realm, unless you are into torture/BDSM.
- Gakidō 餓鬼道 (Realm of Hungry Spirits) – You might want to give this realm a try if the Atkins or Paleo diet isn’t working out for you. This realm blesses you with non-stop cravings and eternal starvation.
- Chikushōdō 畜生道 (Realm of Animals) – If you ever wondered what living the life of your favorite animal might be like, this is the realm for you. The realm is characterized by stupidity and servitude. Although considered a downgrade from the next two realms, there is a possibility you might hit the jackpot and be born as Tajima cattle.
- Ashuradō 阿修羅道 (Realm of Constant War) – I hope your Call of Duty or Battlefield skills are up to snuff. This realm is filled with anger and jealousy.
- Nindō 人道 (Realm of Humans) – The realm we all belong to! Greed and desire is what characterizes this realm.
- Tendō 天道 (Realm of the “Gods”) – Opposite of the Hell, this realm is filled with pleasure. The beings in this realm hold godlike powers and live long lives. However, just like any other living being in the six paths, they have faults, consisting of pride and obliviousness to the sufferings of those around them.
With the knowledge of the Six Paths in mind, which realm do you think the dead children end up in? With not a single bit of good karma built up in their very short lives (babies don’t really do much, do they?), they are sent to the Hell realm to receive their judgement from the Juo (Ten Kings of Hell). The sad part is that not only have they not built up any good karma, but chances are they’ve built up bad karma by bringing grief to their parents and relatives! How selfish of them.
In order to get out, the children must travel to each king and receive their judgements. That, as you can probably imagine, isn’t all that easy to do.
Judging Babies In Hell
Between the first and second judgement kings lies a river called the Sanzu River. You can think of it as the Eastern equivalent of the Styx River of Western mythology. Beings judged by the first King as innocent are given access to the bridge that crosses the river. However, those deemed guilty must swim across the river. This is unfortunate for the guilty children, since they don’t have the strength and endurance to overcome the river.
It seems as though these poor kids are destined to stay in the Hell realm forever :(
These children resort to moping around the riverbed building stone towers as a sign of penance. However, their attempt at penance is often interrupted by club wielding demons.
It is believed that if the living parents and relatives had faith in Mizuko Jizō, such as displaying and maintaining a shrine, he’d come to the aid of the children, shooing off demons and assisting those that needed help crossing the river.
Although the Japanese aren’t super strong practitioners of Buddhism, the image of the possibility of having your children stuck and suffering in Hell is just something you can’t leave to chance.
So, just know that wherever you go in Japan you’ll be surrounded by shrines and statues dedicated to getting children out of Hell. I for one think that Jizo is there to get just enough children out so that there can never be too many in one place. If there’s enough of them, they’ll surely have the numbers to break out and take over the Realm Of Humans. Babies are terrifying, especially Hell Babies. I’m glad Jizo’s doing what he can to keep the Hell Baby population in check.