Apologies to aborted babies

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.