Ojizo Sama statues in Okunoin Cemetery, Japan. All photos by Andrea Schaffer.
In the wooded hills and mountains of Mount Koya, Wakayama, lies the largest cemetery in the whole of Japan.
Established over 1,200 years ago, the temple grounds of Okunoin contain more than 200,000 graves, surrounded by tall, dark evergreens and carpeted with thick moss. Through the calm green of the mountainside graveyard, you might catch glimpses of red through the tree branches. Among the tall Japanese tombstones, small, baby-faced statues stand in rows, draped in red bibs and hats. Who are they?
Common to Okunoin and cemeteries across Japan, these are statues of Ojizo Sama, also called Jizo for short. Often with smiling faces and round cheeks, these colorfully-dressed figures might look cheerful, but there’s a heartbreaking story behind each stone statue.
Okunoin Cemetery in Mount Koya and small Jizo statues with red bibs.
Parents in Japan turn to Ojizo Sama when they fear the worst or when the worst has already happened. If a child is seriously ill, a Jizo statue can be a way to make offerings for their protection. When a baby dies, or a family experiences miscarriage or stillbirth, it’s a comfort to believe that the little red-robed figures can help protect their spirit in the afterlife.
With Jizo statues becoming ever more popular in Japan, could something similar help parents here in the U.S. too?
Ojizo Sama, protector of children
Ojizo Sama is a sacred figure in East Asian Buddhism. Legend has it that he was a Buddhist monk who vowed to look after all beings in the six realms of the Buddhist universe, in life and death.
A representation of Ojizo Sama painted between 900 and 1300 A.D.
He is also known as Ksitigarbha in Sanskrit and can be found in Hindu beliefs. His name may be translated as Earth Treasury or Earth Womb.
Ojizo Sama is usually depicted with a shaven head and traditional robes. He holds a staff called a shakujo, used in Buddhist prayer. The staves are also used to shoo away small animals and insects, so that monks can avoid stepping on them and causing harm to a living creature. In the other hand, he holds a wish-granting jewel that lights up the darkness.
Because of his role as protector of all beings, Ojizo Sama is believed to look after the souls of babies and children who have died. In the afterlife, he protects them from demons and mischievous spirits by hiding them in his robes and reciting mantras to them.
Offerings to the water children
Although Ojizo Sama has been an important figure in Buddhism for hundreds of years, it was only during the 20th Century that the practice of dressing his statues in clothing became more popular. Like many old religious traditions, it’s hard to say when and where the idea started, but it is believed that placing a red bib on the statue was seen as a symbol of protection.
A row of Jizo statues in Okuonin Cemetery, dressed in red bibs.
Sometimes parents dress their Jizo in baby clothes, or leave food, incense and coins by the statue. This may be a way of giving thanks if a child has recovered from a serious illness, or an offering to ask Jizo to protect their spirit in the afterlife.
These rituals are called mizuko kuyo. Kuyo means memorial service, while mizuko literally means ‘water child’ – referring to unborn children and babies who have died. Parents and relatives who are grieving for a child may gather to perform mizuko kuyo on special days, much like a memorial service.
As well as being a type of prayer, it’s a way for the family to acknowledge that they are missing a child, whether they were lost through miscarriage, stillbirth, neonatal death or later in life.
Grief and Ojizo Sama
A statue of Ojizo Sama, holding the jewel and shakujo, and the spirit of a child.
In Japan, Ojizo Sama statues allow families to honor and acknowledge their child, even when a pregnancy was in the early stages, or when they experienced a stillbirth. In the U.S., people can still find it hard to talk about the grief they may suffer after miscarriage or pregnancy loss.
“Unfortunately, society in general and friends and relatives in particular often do not acknowledge that this wished-for child, regardless of gestational age, was a unique individual and an important part of your future,” says The Compassionate Friends, a bereavement support organization which helps parents grieving the death of a child.
“The fact that your baby was carried in the womb or held in your arms for such a short while, and thus known by so few people, may add to the pain of losing the child and make grief even more isolating.”
As many grieving parents already know, in the case of a miscarriage, there is usually no funeral and memorial services are uncommon. Even after a stillbirth, parents may find that their grief is ignored or they feel pressured to move on.
Jizo statues with bibs and hats in Okuonin Cemetery.
That’s why Angela Elson decided to adopt the Japanese tradition of Ojiza Sama statues when she had a miscarriage at 10 weeks. Writing for the New York Times, Angela described how keeping the Jizo statue in her house helped her and her partner Brady come to terms with the loss.
“Without a prescribed course for mourning, I didn’t know what else to do besides mother this lump of concrete as if he could actually transfer my love to the afterlife,” she wrote.
After caring for the statue for a few weeks, the couple created a special garden for him in their backyard, where they can visit him on special days and times of sadness.
“On the anniversary of the miscarriage, I replaced the statue’s sun-bleached clothes with fresh ones, gave him a bath, kissed him on the head and put him back outside.”
If this Japanese tradition can help one couple cope with grief after losing their baby, perhaps there’s a chance that many more can draw inspiration from the little red-robed figures. Even for those who don’t believe that Jizo waits in the afterlife, having a small symbol – a glimpse of red through the gloom – could be a way to acknowledge all their pain, longing and love.
Find out more about death rituals around the world and how different cultures remember their loved ones.