A common sight at a temple in Japan is a multitude of statues. This is not that different from religious sanctuaries in Western countries, except that in Japan these statues usually wear bibs!
I’ve been asking my Japanese friends why this is. I mean, the statues look kind of cute but is there a reason for the bibs? And who puts them there?
But my Japanese friends don’t really know, and I don’t really blame them. After all, I’m a Finn but don’t know the ins and outs of all Finnish traditions either. For example, on the night before Easter Sunday, Finnish children leave woolly hats next to their beds. In the morning they will have found that an Easter rooster or Easter chick has visited and laid chocolate eggs in their hats. When Japanese people ask me what the significance of the Finnish rooster/chick is and what is its cultural references in comparison to, say, the English Easter tradition of an Easter Bunny and Easter egg hunt the answer is: I don’t know. To me (similarly to many Finnish/English people) these are just cultural traditions that we learn as children, but whose symbolism, meaning or historical reasons we do not question (or in fact, most kids may not even be interested in the cultural references of Easter roosters, chicks or bunnies, but the main point is that these characters are associated with magically appearing chocolate eggs).
Ok, back to the statues in Japan.
The only things that my Japanese friends have told me is that some statues, usually in the shape of a small person or the ones that have human faces, are called Ojizosama and often represent children who have died before their parents. It’s the parents or sometimes also other local people who put the bibs on the statues to protect the dead children in the afterlife. I don’t quite understand why, but for some reason, it seems, the bibs are considered a protective garment. Red is perceived as a particularly protective colour and hence, it is the most common colour of the bibs. However, other colours are also used (see photo above).
But it is not just statues in the shape of people, but all sorts of statuses that can be seen wearing bibs. Since these are not children, the question is: Why should these statues need the bibs? For instance, the Fushimi Inari Shire in Kyoto has statues of foxes, who are the messengers of the God of Agriculture and these foxes also wear bibs.
Could this be because the Japanese believe that the statues, like all living and non-living things, have a spirit and the bibs are to keep them warm or are they just decorative items? I don’t know.
If you know anything more about the statues or bibs, I would love to learn more about them. They are beautiful, fascinating and something that seems to be a question mark not only to Westerners but also to many Japanese people.
Addition to the original post, the 8th May 2016
A Finnish reader, who has lived in Japan for many years, speaks and reads Japanese and has detailed knowledge of Japanese culture and traditions, sent me a message explained the function and cultural significance of the bibs. She said:
‘So basically what this blog post is talking about are those tiny Buddhist statutes called ojizosama in Japanese. You see them dotted around e.g. temple grounds, road junctions and wooden shelters. Many foreigners unfamiliar with the story deem them a bit scary. The word for these is indeed that O-jizo-sama (o- and sama- being part of Japanese honorifics, so the noun for these are actually jizo) You see them most commonly carved out of stones, something you would perhaps disregard when travelling in Japan if it was not the red bibs or red baby hats they are commonly wearing. Jizo is a bosatsu, a Japanese term for deity or a sacred character in Buddhism. Much loved and cared for, if I recall correctly it is the saint for the weak (e.g. children, giving them strength) or travellers. It is not uncommon for deities in Japan to carry significance for many different groups. There are numerous legends associated with Jizo-sama’s, the one I have been told as a child living in Japan is that this particular deity, albeit having reached the highest level of Buddhist wisdom, has chosen not to enter nirvana but instead remain in this world to help those needing his assistance e.g. children who traditionally have been believed to be too weak to cross that Buddhist river required to enter nirvana. This sadly is e.g. unborn children or those dying in early childhood. It is believed that these children remain in limbo. If you look closer at ojizosama’s you will also see piles of pebbles formed into a tower next to them, this is often the parents building the pebble tower with a view to facilitate for their kids afterlife. Similarly, it is a common tradition to put bibs and hats on ojizosamas. Even robes sometimes. I do not think there are particular rules regarding what you can put on ojizosama to show your respect. It is also an act of accruing good karma for the afterlife for yourself, so it is common that local women have groups taking turns doing the dressing up. Oh and worry not, its actually a bold Buddhist monk it is depicting, not a dead child.’
Thanks so much for the information! I’m glad to hear that the statues are not children, and that even though the statues are associated with sad events, such as a parent losing a child, they are kind and helpful entities who society sees as having an important role in the afterlife.
Addition to the original post, the 11th May 2016
Another reader left a message on my blog’s Facebook page and said:
‘A friend of mine, who had lived several years in Japan, told me, as I asked a similar question to yours, a different explanation: as contraceptives are not easily available, abortion is used more often than in western countries. She called the groups of those statues with the red caps the “altars of unborn children”. The acceptance of abortion seems to much higher – you find the groups of statues quite often in residential areas. Made me think about the position of females in Japan.’
The reader emphasised that she did not know how accurate her friend’s description of the statues was, but given that her friend had lived in Japan for many years, I feel that it is likely that there is at least some truth in what she said. (I also did a quick Internet search on abortion statistics, and yes, it sadly seems to be the case that abortions are very common in Japan relative to many Western countries.)