Mizuko kuyō (水子供養?) or "fetus memorial service", is a Japanese ceremony for those who have had a miscarriage, stillbirth, or abortion. This practice has become particularly visible since the 1970s with the creation of shrines devoted solely to this ritual. Reasons for the performance of these rites can include parental grief, desire to comfort the soul of the fetus, guilt for an abortion, or even fear of retribution from a vengeful spirit.
Mizuko (水子?), literally "water child", is a Japanese term for a dead fetus or, archaically, a dead baby or infant. Previously read suiji, the Sino-Japanese on'yomi reading of the same characters, the term was originally a kaimyō (posthumous name) given after death.[page needed] The mizuko kuyō ceremony was used to make offerings to Jizō, a bodhisattva who is believed to protect children. In the Edo period, when famine sometimes led the poverty-stricken to infanticide and abortion, the practice was adapted to cover these situations as well.
Today, the practice of mizuko kuyō continues in Japan, although it is unclear whether it is a historically authentic Buddhist practice. Specifics of the ceremony vary from temple to temple, school to school, and individual to individual. It is common for temples to offer Jizō statues for a fee, which are then dressed in red bibs and caps, and displayed in the temple yard. Some American religious scholars have criticized the temples for allegedly abusing the Japanese belief that the spirits of the dead retaliate for their mistreatment, but other scholars believe the temples are only answering the needs of the people.
A similar practice is found in contemporary Taiwan, where it is known as yingling gongyang. The modern Taiwanese practice emerged in the mid-1970s and grew significantly in popularity in the 1980s; it draws both from traditional antecedents dating back to the Han dynasty, and the Japanese practice, and is popularly perceived as a practice imported from Japan. These modern practices emerged in the context of demographic change associated with modernization – rising population, urbanization, and decreasing family size – together with changing attitudes towards sexuality, which occurred first in Japan, and then in Taiwan, hence the similar response and Taiwan's taking inspiration from Japan.
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- Jeff Wilson, Mourning the unborn dead : a Buddhist ritual comes to America, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), ISBN 978-0-19-537193-2