A Cemetery for the Unborn

I recently stumbled upon an article from January 2018 in World Magazine. The article by Sophia Lee describes a rather unique Buddhist temple a couple hours south of Tokyo. Part of the temple is filled with small statues called mizuko-jizo. Each one, in a sense, represents a child that died before it was born. This does include miscarriages and infanticide, but a large number of them are dedicated to those who died by abortion. All of this comes together as a cemetery for the unborn.

Along with the statue is a memorial service for the unborn called mizuko-koyo. Reportedly the temple, despite placing over 50,000 of these statues in the grounds since World War II, still receives requests for the services 20 times a day. Why so many? Lee states, “Parents from all over the region travel to Hasedera, hoping that a mizuko kuyo would help alleviate their guilt, grief, and regret over their babies’ deaths.” She also discusses how there wasn’t a great deal of demand for this until abortion became more common. This caught my attention, given how much it contrasts with what we observe in the American culture when it comes to abortion. I thought it might be interesting to draw a few comparisons and contrasts on this topic.

1. No Debate in Japan

Here in America the topic of abortion never really cools off. The fire of debate has been going for over 50 years now. You might see the conversation temporarily quiet down, but that’s typically not because we’ve come to a conclusion so much as we realize we’re not going to. No, the debate rages on between pro-life and pro-choice advocates. Pro-life advocates will contend that the unborn are human beings and deserving of human rights, thus making killing them morally wrong. Pro-choice advocates will either contend that the unborn are not human yet, or if they are they are not persons deserving of value, or that the mother’s autonomy outweighs any rights the child may have. In Japan, however, there is a bit more of a consensus. The Japanese make no argument against the humanity of the unborn, but still keep abortion legal. They “accept abortion as an unfortunate necessity—and those who have an abortion seek for some way, any way, to assuage their guilt, pain, and fears about having willfully extinguished a life.”

They do not attempt to get rid of abortion, but they also do not try to sugarcoat it or redefine terms to make it easier.

2. Cultural Acceptance of Shame

What stood out to me most in all of this is the role of shame in our societies. American culture has been going through a backlash against shame for a number of decades.  Ideas of moral relativism and post-modernism have influenced a lot of people into this idea that shame is bad, regardless of whether you’ve done something wrong. The solution our society came up with was not to stop doing shameful things but to declare nothing shameful, and everything acceptable. Well, everything accept shame.

Whether you think that’s right or not, clearly the Japanese people do not see it that way. Culturally, they seem more comfortable with shame as a part of their society. You can do wrong things, and not necessarily face legal consequences, but that doesn’t mean you’re innocent. I found this a fascinating notion, because I think that’s at the heart of what we are seeing here. Western culture sees thousands of abortions every day, leaving many with feelings of guilt and shame. Our culture’s solution has been to redefine life and turn abortion into something magical, positive, and completely devoid of wrongdoing.

3. Turning to Religion

The final thing I took away from this is where they go for help. If the Japanese society is going to keep abortion, but not make any attempt to resolve that shame issue, that still leaves many people to deal with it themselves. They can’t just take comfort in thinking they did nothing wrong, if both they and everyone around them believes they did. So where do they turn? Seemingly to religion in an ancient Buddhist temple and tradition. Lee writes, “They can’t go to their families for help, since many harbor deep resentment against the boyfriend, husband, or mother who pressured them into having an abortion; they can’t go to their friends, since abortion isn’t appropriate to discuss.” But does that help them? I found the words of Greg Koukl especially apt when addressing this question. He often states when talking at secular universities, “Maybe guilt is just a cultural construction. I guess that’s possible. But there’s another possibility. Maybe you feel guilty…because you are guilty. The answer to guilt is not denial. The answer to guilt is forgiveness. And this is where Jesus comes in.”

As much harm shame can do to a person mentally, we cannot live in denial. But neither is the solution mizuko-koyo. As Paul writes, “In him we have Redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace.” (Ephesians 1:7)

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