Thursday, 3 November 2011

Water Child

We lived in Japan for a few years, but sadly I don't know enough about Mizuko kuyō, a Japanese ceremony that commemorates miscarriage, stillbirth and abortion. I remember visiting temples where I had seen rows and rows of tiny statues that looked like baby Buddhas. When I fine-tooth-combed my photo archives I only found three photos I'd taken from one such temple in Kamakura, near Tokyo, but distinctly have a memory of seeing more. 

At the time, my local friend explained the statues as a way for parents to pray for their babies who had died. I remember thinking it was wonderful that grief lived so openly in what some see as a culture that is not always open.

Mizuko (水子), literally translates as Mizu (water) ko (child) - water child. It is a "Buddhist belief that existence flows into being slowly, like liquid. Children solidified gradually over time and weren't considered to be fully in our world until they reached the age of 7". For those who are interested, Peggy Orenstein, a NY Times journalist wrote about experiencing a miscarriage in Japan while on assignment there and explains Mizuko clearly. 

I think I love the thought that regardless of where we are from, who we are as a people, a culture or a nation and no matter where we are in the world, most people would feel the very human pain of loosing a child profoundly. It's not something that you "get over". But I hear that time helps. So do rituals of healing, such as a Mizuko kuyō. Most grieving mothers I know in the Western world have done something at some point as part of their own healing ritual or journey. Some release balloons or butterflies, some light candles, some make cakes on the 1 year birthdays of their children who have died and on other birthdays that follow. Some even have a mizuko statue in their gardens.

My pictures don't really show it, but Mizuko statues in Japanese temples and shrines are usually dressed in red bonnets or red bibs. These are usually handmade, it's hard to see in this picture, but those red beanies are hand knitted. I love the idea of making something for my baby and can only hope that those parents found some healing in making those items in memory of their babies.

The red bonnets and bibs are also left along with gifts of flowers, clothes, toys and pinwheels. The vases depicted in the picture below hold the pinwheels and/or flowers. Sometimes parents also write a message to their Mizuko. I love how all the elements of nature can be represented in this simple ceremony as well. Wind in the pinwheels, earth in the flowers, water which is poured over the statue to symbolise rebirth and the cycle of mizuko and fire when a candle or incense is lit.

In my brief research of the topic it was obvious that there are many views on Mizuko kuyō. Some see it as an exploitation of vulnerable and grieving family members (as some temples ask for a fee when performing the Mizuko kuyō ceremony). Others may have a religious opinion about it. Be that as it may, I can't help but keep coming back to the fact that every statue that is dressed or adorned with gifts, represents another grieving family.

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