Julia McCarthy on Atttitudes Toward Abortion in Japan

By: Julia McCarthy

December 1, 2006

Julia McCarthy on Atttitudes Toward Abortion in Japan Carved into a cliff overlooking the Pacific, Hasedera pulses with life. Children tease the wide-eyed carp greedily surfacing, their mouths opening and shutting like trapdoors on the surface of the water. Friends call out to each other as they duck into crevices of the temple's caves, their voices bouncing off the carved stone walls. The sea breeze frolics through the hydrangea bushes that tumble down the hillside, pausing briefly to snatch the sunhats and fortune papers of the temple's visitors; Hasedera seems the picture of vivacity. And yet, from the rocky crags, from under the brush of the brilliant bushes, the hollow eyes of Mizuko Jizo peek out, serving as a constant reminder of death.
At Hasedera, the stone Jizo figures represent the souls of those whose chance to live was stripped from them in the womb. Though Jizo acts as the guardian to children, expecting mothers, firemen, and travelers, Mizuko Jizo in particular protect the souls of the unborn. Thousands of these statues line the stairs, the walls—the entire perimeter of this stunning temple, each signifying an aborted or miscarried baby. Each acts as a unsettling physical reminder of this tragedy.

The Japanese attitude towards abortion differs greatly from the American. Until the introduction of oral contraceptive in the last century, Japanese used abortion as the primary means of birth control. Because of the prevalence of this practice, a comparable stigma does not exist in Japan as it does in America, despite Japanese Buddhists believing that life begins at the moment of conception.

In the case of abortions, the Japanese generally do not blame the same party as Westerners. In Japanese Buddhist belief, it is the children, not the parents, to whom the blame falls. For causing their parents great suffering, the souls of the prematurely deceased are sent to the underworld, a sort of limbo "river." To regain Buddha's favor, these "water children" erect small stone pillars, while fending off underworld demons.

protects the infants' souls, easing their suffering and sentences. Armed with a six-ring staff, to guide souls along the right path in the six realms of reincarnation, and a wish-granting jewel, Jizo are believed to hide the children from these demons. For this reason, parents often erect small stone pillars in front of the Jizo. Despite never knowing the children whom the Jizo guard, parents honor their memory by caring for individual Jizo. They dress Jizo in Mickey Mouse bibs, hand-knit baby hats, and sweaters of baby blue and light pink and place toy trains, teddy bears, and good luck charms in their arms. Worn by time and the weather, these carefully selected presents gray with age, creating moving memorials.

Despite the forlorn appearance of these Jizo, there is something hopeful and redeeming in their existence. They are the public acknowledgement of a painful experience; they are the rerouting of the emotion parents feel—a healthy means to recovery in the grieving process.

The Japanese do not respond to abortion with aggressive and accusatory demonstrations found so often in America. Though these parents may have denied a life, their peers do not deny them the right to grieve. Rather, parents are able to immerse themselves in a supportive community who instead of judging the parents' actions offers them a peaceful place to mourn. In this tradition, there are no protests; there is no shame. Instead, there is recognition of loss. The laughing children and sea view of Hasedera seems a healthier alternative to the riotous and sometimes violent protests at American abortion clinics.

That abortion is not a politically contentious issue in Japan raises serious questions about Americans' religious and political views. Though Americans claim to support the separation of church and state, religiously-rooted views concerning abortion continue to play a divisive role in the American politic forum. If one of America's primary allies can offer a civil and humane solution to an arguably inhumane practice, then why can't America do the same? After all, it was only after World War II that Mizuko Jizo evolved in response to a problem that was both Japanese and American in nature.

1. Hasedera is a temple primarily concerned with women's issues, and is located in Kamakura, Japan
2. Jizo is a Bosatsu, one who is enlightened but delays Buddhahood to ease the suffering of the unenlightened
3. Stigma regarding the performing of an abortion does not exist to the same degree as in America. However, one could argue that the deep-seated Japanese stigma of failure drives the execution of an abortion
—that the possible failure to provide for a child, the failure to have met certain social expectations, creates the pressure for an abortion.

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