It’s time for the next instalment of my A-Z of Japan, and today I’m looking at J. Of course, J could be for the martial art judo (柔道). Or perhaps the Japanese word for shrine – jinja (神社). But I’ve decided to write about something which I have a particular soft-spot for…
J is for… Jizo!
Jizo, also known respectfully as “ojizo sama” (or, “Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva” in Sanskrit), are statues that most visitors to Japan will see, but many will not know the meaning of. Stone Jizo statues are often found by roadsides and in cemeteries. They are seen as the guardian of children (especially stillborn, aborted and miscarried children). According to Wikipedia: “In Japanese mythology, it is said that the souls of children who die before their parents are unable to cross the mythical Sanzu River on their way to the afterlife because they have not had the chance to accumulate enough good deeds and because they have made the parents suffer. It is believed that Jizo saves these souls from having to pile stones eternally on the bank of the river as penance, by hiding them from demons in his robe, and letting them hear mantras.“. You will often see small piles of stones next to the Jizo statues – they are put there in order to help shorten the time children will have to spend in the underworld. Often, the Jizo statues will be wearing bibs and hats, which are usually red. Sometimes there are other decorations by the statues, like colourful, plastic toy windmills.
Jizo is also known as a protector of travellers, which is why the statues are often by roadsides. There’s nothing like taking a walk in Japan, spotting a little flash of red, and finding a group of Jizo statues looking up at you. I’ve come to be very fond of them, and find their presence somehow reassuring.
Jizo statues come in all different shapes and sizes, and their faces vary a lot, too. Generally speaking, they are quite small, but I have come across some really big ones in Nikko.
If you’re in Tokyo, and you want to see a lot of Jizo statues, the best place to go is probably the temple Zojyoji.
When I was in Japan, I came across an adorable fairytale called “Kasakojizo” (or, “Kasajizo”):
It is the story of a poor hat maker and his wife. Every day the hat maker goes out to sell his hats, even when it’s snowing. He has to, because it is his only source of income.
One day, right before New Year, he goes out to sell hats in the thick snow, but he doesn’t sell them all. On the way home, he sees the Jizo statues that he passes every day. The statues look cold in the snow, so the man decides to give them the last of his hats.
However, he doesn’t have enough hats, so he gives his own hat to the last statue. Before leaving, he prays before the statues for good luck and protection.
That night, the Jizo statues bring food to the old man’s home and leave it by the door.
When the man and his wife discover the food, they are surprised and so happy because it means they can eat well over the New Year.
The old couple cook the food and have a feast with all the woodland animals!
If you’re in Japan, don’t forget to look out for Jizo statues, and make sure you have a good look at their faces. You’ll see that each statue has a unique characteristic… in most cases!