In Memorium: The Mizuko Kuyo Ritual in Japan and Canada
This paper will explore the Mizuko Koyo ritual in multiple contexts, including its historical origins and the social meaning that this ritual carries within Buddhist communities in both Japan and North America. More
There are multiple practices and rituals associated with death in Buddhism, many of which are dedicated to honouring the memory of the deceased while simultaneously offering comfort and solace to bereaved family members and friends. Although there is some degree of overlap amongst the ceremonies and funeral rites for the dead found in Tibetan, Chinese, Cambodian, Japanese, and Vietnamese communities, the Japanese Buddhist are unique in their practice of Mizuko Koyo, a ritual which seeks to bless the spirits of aborted foetuses and stillborn children. This ceremony, which translates as 'Water Babies' serves to both give meaning to a fetal loss while also providing parents, most especially mothers, with a means to expiate any guilt which may be felt over the decision to choose abortion in response to pregnancy.
While abortion has garnered a great deal of controversy in the Canada, the United States, and Japan, only Japan has approached this moral, legal, and ethical issue with an eye to the importance of ritual. As Grimes notes, "the first precept, to which all Buddhists subscribe, is a vow not to take the life of a sentient being, so there are moral controversies in Japan, but they have not displaced ritual means of handling abortion" (Grimes 310). Grimes argues that the Mizuko Koyo ritual is not inherently a Buddhist practice, but rather incorporates Buddhist and Shinto elements in order to create an entirely new ritual which is designed to meet the needs of grieving men and women in the 21st century, a period that has seen a marked increase in abortions throughout the world.
This paper will explore the Mizuko Koyo ritual in multiple contexts, including its historical origins and the social meaning that this ritual carries within Buddhist communities in both Japan and North America. As a ritual which is, in essence, an apology from parents to their unborn child, it differs from Buddhist ceremonies for the dead in that its purpose is, in part, to appease the potentially angry spirit of a child who was never allowed to be born. Thus, this research paper will explore the relationship between mizuko and their parents that is expressed through this ritual, and will also look at the symbolic statues of the Jizo which exist to both represent the mizuko and serve as their guardians. Although the Mizuko Koyo ritual has not gained widespread popularity within all Japanese-Buddhist communities, there are a number of scholarly articles and books which discuss this practice in Japanese, North American, and international contexts.
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