Floating it away

Thomas Crump

  • Liquid Life: Abortion and Buddhism in Japan by William LaFleur
    Princeton, 252 pp, £24.95, January 1993, ISBN 0 691 07405 4

The casual visitor to Japan does not have to wander very far from the beaten tourist track to discover two distinctive but contrasting phenomena of the country’s material culture. The first consists of a row of small stone statues, apparently of dwarfs, each with a red bib tied round its neck; such rows are to be found somewhere in the precinct of almost any Buddhist temple. The second is decidedly part of the modern rather than the traditional aspect of Japanese culture. In its most usual form it is a characterless concrete building, which could be a small block of flats, but whose clinical appearance makes it clear that it is a hospital. The Japanese themselves are left in no doubt: a large notice board invariably gives the names of the doctors who own and operate it.

Both Buddhism and abortion flourish in modern Japan: the link between them is death. William LaFleur explains how this has come about, and in doing so provides an unusual insight into the character of modern Japan, where death is a big-money operation both for medicine and for religion. The questions to be considered are: what sort of death is abortion? And what sort of life has an unborn foetus? In the West these questions are at the heart of the pro-choice/pro-life conflict; but in the context of Japanese Buddhism they have a different dimension. What is more, the resistance of the Japanese medical profession to the use of the Pill means that abortion is for many Japanese women the ordinary means of birth control. This suits not only the doctors who perform the operation, but also the Buddhist clergy, who offer the mothers of aborted children a religious ritual.

LaFleur’s discussion of these issues focuses on the relationship between mizuko, the aborted foetus, and Jizô, the manifestation of the Buddha with special responsibility for the souls of deceased children. The dwarf statues with their red bibs represent not only Jizô, but also the children he redeems. These, the mizuko, are literally ‘water children’.

The problem is simple enough. In Japan Buddhism is the religion of funerals. This is simply stated in the words, ‘born Shinto ... die Buddhist.’ Kuyô, the memorial services that provide the ritual connection between Jizô and mizuko, are Buddhist. Primordial Buddhism, however, has no water symbolism – according to LaFleur, because ‘Buddhists held that religion ... was unconnected to fecundity and reproductivity.’ Buddhism can only deal with an aborted foetus by borrowing from outside sources. In Japan the main source proves to be the Kojiki, the country’s most ancient chronicle, where the story is told of the primal couple, Izanagi and Izanami who, ‘while in a progeny-producing phase, happened to make a ritual mistake: “Nevertheless, they commenced procreation and gave birth to a leech-child. They placed this child into a boat made of reeds and floated it away.” ’ The logic is simple: the foetus to be aborted is the result of a mistake. It is a mizuko, or ‘water child’ because the way to dispose of it is to ‘float it away’.

The prescribed ritual for the dead, which can last as long as fifty years, is offered as a package by the Buddhist temple to which the deceased was affiliated: it costs a million yen (£5000). In the end the deceased becomes a hotoke, which also means a Buddha or enlightened being. But it is equally important to become an ancestor, with a special place in the rituals to be performed at the family altar; and the secular trend in Japan has been to efface the distinction between ancestors and hotoke. This trend has now reached the point where all deceased may achieve the status of hotoke, so that the household (whose ritual life is focused on the family altar), not only consists of its present, living members, but also incorporates all those who have given life to it in the past, or who will do so in the future.

This is a pretty generous definition of salvation, but with the best will in the world it still excludes the mizuko. Their problem is that they never had the chance, as living beings, to make a contribution to the life of the household. What then is their fate? The stillborn, miscarried or aborted child starts on a journey which inherent vice prevents it from ever completing. The Japanese folk tradition of tatari, or supernatural vengeance, makes it natural to see the child manifested in a spirit which disrupts the life of the household into which it was destined to be born. Its frustration is born of its entering into a sort of limbo, represented by a bank (kawa-ra) of a river, in the land of Sai, that it cannot cross. This Sai-no-kawara is a gathering place for children, who, quite literally, have come to a dead end. In a number of remote corners of Japan this gathering place becomes manifest as a row of small stones, in a vaguely human form. These forlorn sites prefigure the rows of Jizô statues to be found in Buddhist temple precincts.

The secret of Jizô’s success as it is presented by popular Buddhism is summed up in either of two words, kaeru or modoru, which may be taken to be synonymous. Both mean ‘returning’, in the sense of going back to the point of departure. (Someone returning to his home will be greeted with the words, o-kaeri-nasai.) In eschatological terms, the implication of the terms is ‘back to square one’; for the mother of the aborted foetus, it implies a new start, the conception of a new child, who may be none other than the aborted child reborn. In old Japan, when the status of hotoke was beyond the reach of young children, it was always possible that a dead child would come into the world again as the result of such a rebirth. Lafcadio Hearn, in The Rebirth of Katsugorô, gives an instance of this, which LaFleur unfortunately misses.

The cult of Jizô extends the prospect of rebirth from the traditional instances of kaeru, the intransitive verb, to the corresponding transitive form, kaesu, ‘to cause to return’ – that is, ‘to send back’. This covers abortion very nicely. Folk tradition then offers a convenient moral justification in the practice of mabiki, the culling of rice seedlings in order to ensure a good harvest. LaFleur gives the form of the ritual action as it is now prescribed in an appendix, ‘The Way to Memorialise One’s Mizuko’. This is taken from a promotional brochure offered by the Shiunzan Jizô-ji, a modern temple built solely for the Jizô cult. It left me wondering whether or not some Japanese reincarnation of Evelyn Waugh will one day get hold of it – but then I remembered how Juzo Itami’s film Osôshiki has already demonstrated that Japanese funerals provide more than enough material for satire.

It is possible to see the Jizô cult as operating at the same moral level as the Catholic Church did when it sold indulgences. Buddhism in modern Japan is undoubtedly big business, although there is no sign of a Japanese Martin Luther waiting in the wings to denounce abuses. The main focus of criticism should, however, be the doctors who grow rich by promoting a type of birth control which, to say the least, is far from optimal. LaFleur’s fascinating book shows how two major institutions of modern Japan, the medical profession and the Buddhist clergy, both dominated by men, combine to deny women control over their own sexuality, and so drive them into a state of trauma, for which one side then provides physical and the other emotional relief, making a vast profit in the process.