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Jizō Statues and the Riverbed of Souls

From the clearing’s mouth, the earth bleeds red, and I peer into death’s pregnant, bloated belly. It was beautiful and disturbing. The concrete sculptures with fabric bibs and caps of red stood every which way, without any set order. Some sat in neat rows, some climbed the embankment, others faced one another in silent conversation.


Jizō statues are believed to be protectors of children and unborn babies in traditional Japanese Buddhist teachings. It is said mizuko or water children—the stillborn, miscarried and aborted—cannot cross over to the afterlife alone. A Jizō statue wears the baby’s clothing, a bright red bib and cap, to alert Ojizō-sama they are waiting for him to smuggle them across in the sleeves of his robe.

Jizō can be traced as far back as the 14th-century Japanese folktale, Sai no Kawara, Riverbed of the Netherworld. According to the legend, children who die prematurely are sent to the riverbed of souls in purgatory, where they pray for salvation by building small stone towers. There, they pile pebble upon pebble, in the hopes of climbing out of limbo into paradise. But every night, demons scatter their stones, until Ojizō-sama-- alerted by the red bib and statue that they are waiting--comes to collect them.

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