Although seen to many as a bristling metropolis of a country, where gadgetry and bright lights reign supreme, Japan is still very much a country steeped in tradition and the reverence that is reserved for ancient practices is amazing. With countless shrines, temples and statues, it is easy to become accustomed to these common sights without giving them a second thought, but the stories that lie just beneath the surface are often fascinating and intriguing.
Perhaps one of the most common sights in Japan are the statues that line roads, temples and shrines, of a soft-faced, Buddha like figure who is often seen wearing a red child’s bib, or knitted woolen hat. These noble statues depict one of the most loved and popular deities in Japan, お地蔵様 (O-Jizo-Sama).
Originally inspired by the East Asian figure of Ksitigarbha, a monk who took it upon himself to take responsibility for those in each of the “six worlds” between death and enlightenment. Armed with a staff that can open the gates of hell and jewel to lighten the darkness, Ksitigarbha refuses to attain Buddhahood until the realm of hell is emptied of suffering people.
Held in high regard throughout Asia, it seems every culture has a different depiction and fable to explain Ksitigarbha’s origin, some believe him to be a mortal monk who attained immortality due to his undying quest to help others, whilst some believe Ksitigarbha was actually a woman, who prayed to save her mother from hell, but after being transported to hell and being told by a guardian that her mother had been saved, she was shocked to see so many in torment that she vowed to save them.
In Japan, the O-Jizo-Sama have a multitude of tasks and responsibilities. They often line roads, offering safe passage to travellers, they are also said to help protect and aid fire fighters that in turn risk their own safety to help those in need. But perhaps the most prominent use of the O-Jizo-Sama is to protect and help infants and children that have passed away.
In Japanese mythology, it is believed that by living a pure and generous life, one accumulates karma, which allows the person to build a bridge over the mysterious “Sanzu River” which leads to the afterlife; the better life a person lives, the sturdier their bridge. However, if a child is still born or dies at a very young age, they have very little time to accumulate good karma, therefore they are unable to cross over to the afterlife. It is said that O-Jizo-Sama helps and comforts these lost children, and it is common to see a small pile of stones carefully placed in front of these stone statues, left by grieving parents who wish to help their children cross over to the other side of the river.
The statues are often given toys, children’s treats and clothing, to help aid the children in his care. The Japanese statues are also seen with a staff and jewel, as well as a long robe, in which O-Jizo-Sama hides and protects the children from demons and softly recites mantras to help sooth and comfort them.
A common character in modern popular culture, such as the anime series’ Hell Girl and Bleach, there are also countless fables based on the gentle statues, the best known perhaps being 笠地蔵 (Kasa-Jizo), a story of an elderly couple living in the bitterly cold north of Japan, facing winter with little food and money, scraping a living by making and selling the prism like hats that are common amongst laborers (and tourists).
On one particularly cold day, it snowed heavily and the elderly man hiked to a market to sell his wares, on the way he saw a row of seven (although some versions of the folktale say five) Jizo lined up, each of them naked against the harsh weather. The old man thought they must be cold to go unprotected against the snow and could not stop thinking of their plight whilst selling his wares. After coming back from the market, having sold very few of his hats, he gave up his only source of income and carefully laid a hat on top of each statue, to protect it from the snow. He trudged home and explained to his wife what he had done; expecting her to lose her temper, he was relieved to see that his wife supported his action and assured him he had done the right thing.
As night drew in and the temperature dropped, the Jizo rewarded the elderly couples’ kindness with a mountain of treasure, including fine foods, drinks, blankets and money. As the old man opened his front door and discovered his new found fortune, he saw a row of stone figures retreat into the darkness and disappear amongst the falling snow.
This idea of repaying kind with kind is perhaps one of the main reasons why Jizo are so well respected and loved in Japan. Many are given hats or scarves in colder weather and near the final resting place of Koba-Daishi, in the Okunoin Cemetery, a row of Jizo are constantly showered with water by thankful worshipers, who believe that by throwing water on the Jizo, they in turn help cool him from the heat of hell, where he is aiding those less fortunate.