One of the things that stood out when we visited the Okunoin Cemetery was the abundance of small, childlike statues/memorials dressed in mostly red hats, red bibs and other children’s clothing. Perhaps the blanket of white snow, in place when we visited, made them stand out more than they might otherwise have.
We actually encountered these little statues many times on our trip to Japan, not only in cemeteries but also by roadsides and at city intersections. We found them charming and loved coming across them, particularly amongst the ancient cedar trees and mossy banks here in Okunoin.
It was only here that I learned that they were statues of the Jizo bodhisattva (or Ojizo-sama) and also of their particular significance in Japan.
Jizo appears in various Buddhist sects under a number of names. He is a bodhisattva – a being who works for the enlightenment of all beings, not just himself – who vowed not to enter Nirvana until the Hell Realm is empty. Although primarily known as the bodhisattva of the Hell Realm, he travels to all Realms and is a guide and guardian of those between rebirths.
In Japan Jizo, one of the most beloved of figures in Buddhism, takes on a supplementary role as protector of deceased children, including miscarried, aborted or stillborn infants. In Japanese folklore, Jizo hides the children in his robes to protect them from demons and to guide them to salvation.
Another tale tells of how dead children go to a kind of purgatory where they must spend time piling stones into towers to build merit and be released. Alas, demons come to scatter the stones and the towers are never built. Only Jizo can save the children.
Jizo can be found alone or in small groups and here in Okunoin in large mounds or pyramids.
So charming though they may be for the visitor, there is a sad reality behind these statues – the caps, bibs, blankets and oft-times toys will have been put on or left by grieving parents, in memory of a dead child and in the hope that Jizo will help them enter Nirvana.
By way of footnote – like most of the transcendent bodhisattvas, Jizo performs many roles other than the protection of deceased children, which I have concentrated on in this review.
Jizo bodhisattvas can be found throughout the Okunoin Cemetery.
The cemetery is free to enter and open at at all hours. The main entrance via Ichinohashi bridge is about 15 minutes walk from the town centre (tourist office) or a short bus ride (during daytime only).