If you’ve visited Mitaki Temple on the city outskirts or perhaps Daishoin Temple on Miyajima (or many other places throughout Japan) you will surely have come across small stone statues of monks wearing red knitted caps and bibs across the chest. These are statues honoring the Jizo Bosatsu. Jizo is his Japanese name and a Bosatsu (Bodhisattva) is a person who has attained prajna, or enlightenment, but who postpones Buddhahood (Nirvana) in order to help others to attain enlightenment and transcend the “wheel of life”.
Jizō is also, like Kannon (the God/Goddess of Mercy), one of Amida Buddha’s main attendants and, like Kannon, also is one of the most popular modern deities, traditionally the patron saint of expectant mothers, women in labor, children, firemen, travellers, pilgrims, and the protector of all beings caught in the six realms of transmigration.
In modern Japan, especially Jizō is venerated as the guardian of children, specifically of unborn, aborted, miscarried, and stillborn babies. There are in fact many, many different Jizo deities and as such, each has a particular name assignation. These roles were not assigned to Jizō in earlier Buddhist traditions from mainland Asia; they are actually modern adaptations unique to Japan. Devotion to Jizo began its popularization in Japan early in the Heian Period (794–1185).
Offerings are made by parents to thank Jizo for saving their children from a serious illness. Here is one of those curious crossovers of religion. It is thought that children who die prematurely are essentially denied entry to the pure land – heaven (and by proxy, therefore go to hell? A bit dark – sorry) simply because they have failed live long enough to build up enough good karma. Somehow to me, it smacks of the harsh stick of other religions and not what one might expect of Buddhism at all. So, anyway, the Jizo is accredited with smuggling these unfortunate tiny souls into the Pure Land beneath his robes. You may notice toys or offerings placed around the statue – grieving parents place toys and other offerings beside the Jizo statue to invoke his protection of their dead child.
Jizo can also be either male or female and conversely, Jizō was initially female, but is now portrayed almost always as male, except, perhaps, when appearing as the Koyasu (Safe Childbirth) Jizō – the reasons for sex alternation are somewhat confusing and hard to understand and so I will leave it up to those so interested to pursue deeper research about that.
According to Japanese folk belief, red is the color for expelling demons and illness. Jizō’s traditional roles are to save us from the torments/demons of hell, to bring fertility, to protect children, and to grant longevity, thus Jizō is often decked in red. Also, and perhaps only association by coincidence but in Japanese newborn babies are often referred to as aka chan; aka is the word for the color red and chan is a name tag of affection such as an English speaker might use sweetie or honey.
So, perhaps in your travels, if passing a Jizo, you might like to pause a moment and put your hands together in prayer and offer devotion to build up some good karma.
Photos by author