Aborted Women:
A Japanese Perspective

by Anthony Zimmerman, PhD

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The following article was forwarded to us by Japan ProLife. The author, Friar Anthony Zimmerman, Ph.D., is retired professor of Moral Theology of Nanzan University, Nagoya, Japan. He has lived in Japan, serving as a Catholic priest, since 1948.

The ideology of "choice" which rationalizes abortion in America blocks out social acceptance of mourning for the deceased child. A less rigid rationale in Japan facilitates the expression of grief by parents for their hapless little ones; the ritual mizuko kuyo (literally "water-child ceremony") is not only an elixir for psychic healing of the parents, especially the mother, but seconds as a lucrative windfall for obliging temples.

The rigid dogma which canonizes "choice" regiments adherents to march into abortuaries with heads held high in disdain of motherhood; and after being emptied therein, they goose-step out again prizing their pretense with undiminished determination. "Choice" dictates that all alike make a show of heroics, jingoing to the world: "I choose this. I'm free. I do what I want. Oh say can you see, by the dawn's early light..."

Imposed social expectations bid her to suppress the motherly instinct of grieving over the loss of her child. She must be strong; like an executioner who aims and fires at the bark of the official command. She incarnates manly symbols of raw power, submerging womanly instincts of altruism. She stands guard ram-rod erect, immobile and expressionless, before the fort of "choice." Or she sprints holding high an olympic flame of "choice," come pouring rain or raging storm, searing heat or paralyzing cold, contemptuous of hardship. Years will pass before she relaxes her guard to become herself again.

In Japan abortion prescribes no such pre-fabricated formalities to glamorize "choice." Women slip into the doctor's office as unobtrusively as possible, sorry because "it can't be helped" (shikata ga nai). No one claims that abortion is good. Public opinion looks aside, allowing the recognized evil only because it appears to be unavoidable. No one brags about it. Respectable doctors don't advertise what they do on request.

Women yield their bodies to the operation in a spirit of fatalism. Their lot is such, so why fuss when an unscheduled pregnancy needs an aborting? Far from "outing" with bravado, they visit an obliging gynecologist with a sense of defeat. The qualified doctor understands, and routinely runs down the printed page of prescribed questions. She nods as he circles with his ball point the reason: economic hardship. She may have left her mink at the receptionist. She pays out in cash the standard fee (abortion is not covered by health insurance), and the staff provides all the frills and niceties of sterile clinical care. Crude methods like salting out have long ago been abandoned in Japan and a 24 month cap is observed.

But when she has faithfully paid her karmic duty to society, public opinion now concedes to a Japanese mother a right to grieve for her departed child. Her husband may typically accompany her to the temple to set the ritual of grieving into motion.

"Grieving ceremonies" (mizuko kuyo) have become a major business, operated competitively and efficiently, like department stores, airports, and bullet trains. For glamour, Tokyoites may apply at Zojoji temple, where the monks also conduct high class funerals for the elite whose mourners come in tuxedos and sable. Previous arrangements having been made, the grieving parents are welcomed with bows and ushered into one of the waiting booths. The monk chants his sutra, burns incense, rings bells, soothes the deceased with ritual prayer, and assures the parents that the child is now at peace. They may arrange to rent one of the available stone "Jizo" statues on temple grounds (about $700 per year when I last inquired) to commemorate their child. The small statues, roughly hewn of stone, have full moon faces, eyes closed, mouths pouting their undeserved fate. Parents may put a scarlet wool cap over the head, a bib over the shoulders, and a name with perhaps the due-date on a plaque. A vase allows parents to bring flowers occasionally to show their love, and a pinwheel spinning in the wind should amuse the beloved child.

For a modest price, visiting parents may also write messages on wood plaques purchased at the temple. When hung on a nearby tree, the message is guaranteed to reach the child. Simple bulletins read: "Your father and mother love you. Be at peace." Or: "We are sorry, but it couldn't be helped. We love you." Or: "There was no room. Do not feel bad. Come again into my womb in three years."

The Zojoji temple limits the number of available stone Jizo statues to only several thousand, but the Hase Kannon temple at Kamakura, some thirty miles out of Tokyo, has at least 50,000. Smaller temples may have only a few dozen, but there is hardly a temple in Japan now which does not accommodate parents who apply to grieve their miscarried or aborted child. Wooden memorial slats are cheaper than stone statues, and are set up by the thousands. These are burnt ceremonially after some time. Even neighborhood shops sometimes get into the business. A maker of Japanese seals at a near-by Nagoya street corner rents out Jizo statues set up in the back yard, and advertises special seals which bring consolation to the aborted baby every time the parents press the seal on required documents. Cute kokeshi dolls are also popular; pieces of beauty and art, they can also serve discreetly as ambiguous substitute memorials to facilitate grieving.

Japanese iron-clad rules, though unwritten, indicate to mothers that they have a social "duty" to abort "surplus" children. Public opinion is galvanized around a two-child family, and don't ask why. All the neighbors do it don't they? Families are shoe-horned into two-child apartments; mothers need to find a part time job to supplement income, so that the two darlings are pampered and dressed and over-educated to keep up with the fashion. (Surprisingly, however, not all families bow to the de rigueur expectations of the public consensus. One out of six families, even in today's Japan, does its own thing by having more than two. In 1992, 203,221 children were born into families which already had two, three, four, and up to ten previous births.)

But even including all the larger families, national birth statistics indicate an average of only 1.5 children ever born per two parents; that's 25% short of replacement requirements for the next generation of parents. "Fewer births is better" was the message which national leaders blared across the nation in 1946, and the nation forgot to shut off that loud speaker even today. Mothers tend to toe the line that "fewer is better" now as in 1946.

Japanese society, however, in contrast to that of America, allows mothers to grieve for what they do to their unscheduled children; to sympathize with their lost treasures, dispatched from the darkness of the womb to the darkness of the nether world. The ritual grieving brings to the surface the bitter sorrow of lost motherhood and helps them to deal with this trauma.

The Sakakibara "Great Kannon Temple" in Mie Prefecture caters to grieving parents as its mainline business. Its 90 foot high gold-covered statue of the Kannon goddess attracts visitors from far and wide, and its remote location permits parents to grieve without danger of being seen by the neighbors. To drum up business some years ago, this and other temples resorted to questionable advertising. Modern Japanese may make a public show of being above superstitions and ancient folklore, but astute temple promoters of the business ignored the pretext of immunity to superstition. Instinctively they went for the juggler of psychic unrest and gnawed at the vitals of submerged and unresolved fears. Some hinted darkly at tatari, a curse which a restless child in the other world can bring upon a family.

We can bring your child to peace, so guaranteed a typical ad. Bring peace to your child, abandoned now and alone on the banks of the River Sai; demons bully him there, making him pile up stone stupas, which the demons kick down again. Our Kannon is equipped to save your child. She has large hands, with webbing between the fingers; she can pick up your shredded and smashed child whole, press him to her bosom tenderly and reverently, then convey him across the River Sai; family ancestors will meet him there and admit him to their company. There at last, the child will be peaceful, and you are safe from its avenging anger.

An angry and restless child can bring a curse (tatari) to your family, warns the ad; a curse like divorce, a car accident, a loss of job, failure in an entrance exam. You were selfish; you considered your convenience, not that of the child. Apologize promptly for what you did by performing the prescribed ceremony. Help this child to become peaceful... This is also the sure way for peace in your family.

For greater convenience, the ad offered mail-order ceremonies. An order blank had lines to record the due-date of the child; of up to five aborted children, at $100 each. Upon receipt of payment, a priest will perform the ceremony, and the applicant will receive a memorial card by return mail. Should the petitioner wish, the return envelope will be without the temple's address, to guard secrecy. The memorial card can be tucked into a hidden place of the house altar, advises the ad, and when parents hold the card in the hand, they can speak directly to the child, who will then learn about the care and love of the parents.

The multi-million dollar on-going success of the mizuko kuyo prayer industry in Japan indicates that grieving for an aborted child is an abiding need felt by parents. Although the folklore taken literally defies credulity, it is perhaps little more than camouflage spread over the real fears and genuine feelings which tug convincingly at the heart strings of parents.

America's ideological straightjacket of "choice" is rigid and does not allow parents to grieve for their aborted children; Japan's more relaxed folklore of ritual grieving for the departed unborn is kinder to the parents.


Author's Note: The article written by Professor Lynn D. Wardle of Brigham Young University, titled "Crying Stones: A Comparison of Abortion in Japan and the United States", and published in the New York Law School Journal of International and Comparative Law, Vol. 14, pages 183-249 (1993) has given the writer his chief inspiration. Professor Wardle writes accurately, as exactly as keys fit into a bank safe.
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Posted 9 Sep 2000.

Copyright 1995 by Anthony Zimmerman.
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