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Japan has been called “abortion heaven.” The Ministry of Health and Welfare reported 364,350 abortions in 1994, though that figure does not include abortions by the private physicians whose lucrative business has reportedly blocked distribution of the birth control pill. In a 1982 survey conducted by the Kyodo News Service, about 60 percent of women in their forties with college degrees and executive-level husbands admitted having had one or more abortions.

No one in Japan seems willing to speak about the moral brutality of the Japanese custom of abortion used as birth control. Even a Jesuit missionary, residing there for half a century, cannot recall a single homily on the subject. Japan’s abortion industry appears to drift along by itself, an anomaly in a relatively nonviolent society, graced by intact families and safe streets.

And yet, though there is no public debate, the unborn have not been forgotten. With no prompting, Japanese couples have begun acknowledging their role in the death of their own unborn child. They have done this not through talk-show therapy, but in a ritualized, thoroughly Japanese, manner. While couples bow to the necessity of abortion—saying, shikata ganai, “there’s nothing to be done”—millions have been drawn to a Buddhist cult devoted to Jizo, the protector of aborted, miscarried, and stillborn children. Once a minor bodhisattva in the Buddhist pantheon, Jizo has revived the fortunes of local temples that perform mizuko kuyo, the ritual designed to assist in the peaceful resettlement of “returned” children who cannot pass alone across the river separating the living from the dead.

The Jizo figurines crowd hillside cemeteries, coastal promontories, and city temples. In Kamakura, just to the side of the famous Hasedera Temple, is an area devoted to a flourishing Jizo cult, with a large covered statue of the bodhisattva surrounded by a battalion of small Jizo figures, some of them decorated with traditional red capes or bibs, a few even accompanied by toys. A message board stands next to the bodhisattva, allowing parents to leave signed apologies and prayers. The Jizo figurines (which cost about $80), fresh flowers, and other gifts can be purchased at the main temple. The statues remain in place for some time, after which a formal offering is made for the soul of the aborted child. At the site, a short, printed explanation of the plight of “returned” souls—known as mizuko, or water children—suggests that they will remain in limbo if parents neglect their religious obligations.

There is just a hint of coercion here, but it is enough to provoke accusations of extortion from feminists and others who believe the cult manipulates guilt-ridden parents. The Hasedera Temple skirts the threat of tatari, or retribution, from the souls of aborted children. But some new temples and cemeteries devoted to the Jizo cult have gained a reputation for both questionable theology (the mizuko kuyo ritual becoming an implicit kind of exorcism), and, occasionally, even criminal blackmail for money to forestall bad luck.

Buddhist scholars, too, are uncomfortable with the Jizo phenomenon, which borrows heavily from medieval Japanese folk practices and Shinto beliefs. But it is significant that Buddhist thinkers avoid the moral issues that preoccupy Western societies. Rather, scholars bemoan the cult’s accommodation of tatari, as well as the garish commercial trappings. Within Buddhism, few seem prepared to address the ambiguous, even mysterious motives of Jizo devotees. Yet Buddhist leaders have not blocked the cult. Temple priests understand that this grassroots movement plays an essential role in Japanese culture, filling the moral vacuum that organized religion has left untouched.

Jizo began to attract followers in the 1970s, after a decade of steadily rising abortion rates. The cult defies simple explanations, and Westerners should not shrug off this memorial service as a peculiar, if haunting, foreign custom. Its importance lies in its revelation of the damaging consequences of abortion. Despite the lack of moral guidance, Japanese parents want to admit wrongdoing. At the same time, however, 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 the past, even when abortion was officially illegal, the Japanese exhibited a pragmatic approach to new life that threatened the survival or prosperity of the family. Many feudal peasants-along with wealthier Japanese-practiced infanticide as a method of “spacing” children in medieval times. And while Japanese Buddhism officially frowned on such practices, local monks sympathized with the plight of overburdened peasants. The thorough penetration of Confucianism and Shintoism into Japanese Buddhism produced a patchwork religion that shrank from moral absolutes, including the commandment against killing. It may be true that infanticide was occasionally practiced in medieval Europe, but Catholic theology never condoned the destruction of developing human life. In contrast to medieval Catholicism, writes William LaFleur—author of an important, if partisan, study, Liquid Life: Abortion and Buddhism in Japan—Japan’s Buddhists “saw life as a kind of ontological chess; its movements could be forward, lateral, or backward on the board. This opened up a wider range of possibilities.”

The moral force of Japanese Buddhism was also stunted by another trend in the nation’s development: organized religion’s submission to political power. This pattern of church-state relations eventually resulted in the ascendance of “Japanism” (described by Karel van Wolferen in The Enigma of Japanese Power as a “surrogate religious force”). As secular authority became fundamental, Buddhism lost its moral force. Today most Japanese view Buddhism as a funerary component of an undifferentiated Japanese religion, characterized by a preference for ritual activity over transcendent spiritual and moral beliefs.

During the early modern era, political leaders, not temple priests, challenged the “culling” of unwanted children. The Meiji Restoration of the 1860s paved the way for the criminalization of abortion, though a penal code largely imported from France could not dislodge the feudal vision of human life as ontological chess. Much later, in the years preceding the Second World War, Tokyo sought to increase birth rates to fuel its war effort. Abortion was viewed as a political crime, and state Shintoism applauded parents who produced large numbers of children. After the war, a baby boom spurred a dramatic return to illegal abortions, leading the government to introduce the 1948 Eugenic Protection Laws that opened the door to abortion-on-demand by the following year.

The democratic, affluent Japan of the 1990s has moved beyond the political and economic conditions that shaped the nation during the thirties and forties. Yet, wartime and even medieval Japan surface in unpredictable and surprising ways. Certainly the past has tainted any attempt to carve out a political solution to the problem of abortion. While Catholics quietly provide anti-abortion counseling and services for unwed mothers, only the neo-Shintoists occasionally denounce abortion publicly—and Japan’s steeply declining birth rate may be the prime reason for this concern.

While political-legal intervention remains unlikely, the Jizo cult has emerged as a stopgap response to abortion. Some observers contend that Japanese parents participate in the ritual as a way of affirming their essential goodness. According to LaFleur, prayers, gifts, and financial donations reverse the impression that one’s child has been treated summarily and dehumanized. Possibly, the affluence of modern Japan has deepened distaste for abortion, which can no longer be explained away as a necessity for family survival. Or perhaps Japanese women want to move beyond both the moral passivity and the childlike dependence on physicians’ directives that have fed the high abortion rate. Whatever the reasons, the number of abortions is falling among younger married women.

Abroad, the popularity of the Jizo cult has provoked a mixed response from activists on both sides of the abortion debate. Citing the cult, American pro-lifers argue that even non-Christian cultures recognize that abortion involves the destruction of human life. But feminist writer Naomi Wolf, in a 1995 New Republic cover story, “Our Bodies, Our Souls,” noted the Jizo ritual and seemed to imply that a Westernized form of the memorial service might soothe consciences troubled by abortion guilt. The appearance of mizuko kuyo in Wolf’s article seems a sign of desperation within pro-choice ranks. Most Americans, whatever their view of abortion, have been shaped by a notion of developing human life as unique and unrepeatable. Even if a Westernized memorial service shed the original Buddhist trappings, few participants could consciously embrace two colliding positions: the acknowledgment of abortion as the killing of an unborn child, and the decision to abort one’s own child.

In Japan, the landscape is quite different. The nation’s guiding ethical principles remain largely situational, and almost infinitely pliable, tranquilizing the conscience while providing an easy target for political manipulation. The weakness of organized religion has permitted a hodge-podge system of morality and ritual to establish itself, one that provides a primitive form of consolation despite its internal contradictions.

Joan Frawley Desmond is a writer and teacher who recently returned to the United States after four years in Japan.