Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Zojoji - Unexpected Discovery

I had to go to the Minato Ward office recently to change my residential status. It was a beautiful day so I decided to visit Zojoji across the street.

As you can see, the scale is quite impressive. It is the major temple of the Joudo Shu (Pure Land sect) of Buddhism, and was relocated to the present site in 1598 by Ieyasu Tokugawa, the first Tokugawa shogun.

Almost as soon as I walked in, I noticed something very unusual: along one side of the temple wall are rows and rows of little stone sculptures wearing colorful capes. On a closer look, they all seem like children and the plastic toy windmills stuck by almost every sculpture further confirmed my suspicion. Some of them have names written next to them, some of them don’t; some of their caps and capes look new and some look faded, denoting that they haven’t been visited in a while.

What could these statues mean? Are they for children that have passed away? I tried to look for a sign that explains this but found none. When I walked further inside, I found a shrine for a Kannon Buddha that’s responsible for child-rearing. So maybe these statues are guardian angels for living kids? But that just seems so weird that it simply cannot be true.

When I got home, I searched the official Japanese website of Zojoji but it didn’t give a satisfactory explanation so I had to resort to “less than reliable” sources, i.e. other gaijin’s take on this. And I found this which basically says that the statues are dedicated by the parents of unborn children (aborted, still-birth, etc) so that they’d be taken care of in the underworld. Apparently there’s the strange theory that the souls of these children will be tortured otherwise for bringing grief to their parents (what about the aborted one? Who’s causing grief to whom?).

There I thought I was just taking a stroll in the sun. Never did I expect to uncover this never-talked-about Japanese tradition. (If anyone knows otherwise, please let me know).

On a different note, I also found out that 2005 is a very bad year for me, this according to a giant placard hung above the entrance to an important-looking hall in Zojoji. It says I should donate lots of money to the temple in order to have an uneventful year. Yeah, right! Does donating to charities count?

See more pictures of Zojoji here.


Rachel said...

Hey Lynn,

I think people don't talk about these statues anymore because they're related to Buddhism and, well, religion in Japan seems to be waning a bit, doesn't it?

The Buddhists believe that it is a sin for a child to die before a parent, which is why their souls need protection. As you pointed out, pretty unfair for the aborted child.

Lynn said...

I see, so not just the *unborn* kids, but kids in general. That makes more sense in a way. So the cutoff line for a child is age 20, same as seijin shiki? Sorry, getting technical here.

Anonymous said...

I heard basically the same story in Kyoto -- the statues are for miscarriages.

Yes, I read your blog every now and then! Hope you are well.


Lynn said...

Hey Erich, what a pleasant surprise! Where are you nowadays? Any plans to re-visit Japan any time soon?