The terrible sadness of Jizo statues and toys

Jizo are common sights in Tokyo — not to mention the whole of Japan. Little figures stood solemnly by the roadside. Or more often than not, in and around temples. Statues that along with watching out for youngsters and travellers, are far better known as the protectors of deceased children, including miscarried or stillborn infants. The belief being that Jizo hides them in his robes and then guides them safely to salvation.

However, invariably kitted out in red bibs and wooly hats, it’s easy to forget this sad reality behind the countless statues. Even more so the many people who dutifully go and pay respects to them. And yet at other times, it’s quite clearly, and very uncomfortably, the opposite.

Japanese Jizo

Christianity, Tokyo style

Unlike many countries, Japan has a wonderfully relaxed, carefree attitude towards religion. It’s simply not an important aspect of daily life for the majority of the population. Nor does it play any real role in regards politics or public morals. And while temples and shrines may well be everywhere, it’s arguable that for most people, visits are more out of superstition and/or custom, rather than any real sense of spirituality.

Christianity, on the other hand, is a little different. Adherents have actually sought out a religion that is not associated with Japan. A belief system that for a long time was actively repressed, with those outed as followers persecuted, sometimes even killed. Of course that’s not the case now, but Christians still make up less than 1 percent of the population, and as such they have to try a little harder when it comes to finding a place of worship. But churches are out there. They just aren’t always that obvious that’s all. Neither are they especially beautiful.

Tokyo church

Military uniform wearing worshippers at Yasukuni Shrine

Tokyo’s Yasukuni Jinja is often referred to as the capital’s ‘war shrine’, and, as 14 Class-A war criminals are enshrined there, it’s a moniker not exactly unwarranted. An element that makes any official visit hugely controversial, resulting in increased tension between Japan and its Asian neighbours.

At the same time, however, it is where almost two and a half million of Japan’s war dead are also enshrined. Young soldiers and citizens who, like countless others all over the world, served their country. Many not because of ideology or desire, but out of duty. Men and women who quite rightly deserve the respect of their families, comrades and country people.

The only trouble is, the aforementioned controversy that surrounds the shrine, and the far-right groups that use it as a rallying point, often make it difficult to distinguish between honour and hostility, prayer and propaganda.

‘Yasukuni