Mizuko 水子 – “Water Children”

Jizo statues stand in many places and in many forms around Japan. Photo by Angie Star.


The title of my book: Dream of the Water Children: Memory and Mourning in the Black Pacific, contains terms that are in the in-between space between language, history, and worldviews.  In this post, and the next post, I will focus on the term: water children.  What is this?  In my own use of the term for my book, what does this mean?

As my About page iterates, In my book, I awaken in the middle of the night and begin writing in Japanese, the words   水子 in its many forms. It is “mizu-ko.” In its most common usage, it may be a girl/woman’s name Mizuko. The literal meaning is Water Child.

However, as I also say on that page, that the term is a postwar Japanese term which connotes an aborted fetus in relation to a Buddhist ceremonial ritual that prays to the gods of aborted fetus. The aborted fetus are, in the postwar context, centered around babies created between American and Western military occupation personnel and local women. In most texts regarding this issue, the numbers of mixed-race babies are usually severely reduced or exaggerated, as is the case with most statistics with different views, contexts, and strategies for survival and/or benefit. Water child is in reference to a life-form, a baby, that returns to the waters of the womb. The womb may connote the space where all beings are created. The ceremonies and rituals around the mizuko, became a way for the thousands of women from many walks of life, who had secretly and silently aborted their babies, to pray for the baby that has left the earth.

The Jizō figure/statue, developed through the continuation of Buddhist iconography from South Asia, where the Buddha resided, and developed in Mahayana Buddhist metaphysical traditions as Ksitigarbha (in Sanskrit), who is a bodhisattva who takes responsibility for all beings between the death of the Buddha and the rise of the future Buddha, vowing not to achieve Nirvana until all of the various hells are emptied.  In East Asia, this form was passed from China to Southeast Asia, Korea, and to Japan. In Japan, the Chinese term 地蔵 was then transferred and pronounced Jizō in Japanese. 

In most places around the globe, where American military bases have been produced, usually in the contexts of occupation and elite trade and military interests, the realities of sexual relations is not something to be ignored. Militarism, sexism, and local economies are heavily related and dependent on each other. Those whose lives are mostly effected are the women and the babies produced, creating social issues that are virtually ignored by the American servicemen. In this context, one can imagine that the statistics that the U.S. military, the CIA, and other scientific organizations who have studied this issue, are way off when it comes to the numbers. The first biggest problem is that most women, at least the women I’ve known in Japan, would never divulge the fact that they aborted. It remains a secret. And for more obvious political reasons, the United States will not want the numbers to be too big, and neither will the Japanese government in the process of re-building its nation after the flattening and devastation of Japan in World War II, or today, when the United States needs to maintain hegemonic dominance in relation to recurring Cold War histories in the present.

However, as time has passed, the complexity of allegiances to certain forms of history and historical discourse (i.e. revisions, truths, perspectives) began revealing themselves. In any society, there is complexity in relation to stories that are buried, forgotten, manipulated, or killed off. For the history and stories of the mizuko, there are the cracks in the white-washed stories told of the numbers. In my book, I tell the stories in a more wide-open way, to give peoples’ minds a way to think of the scope, perhaps to understand that which is not calculable. Between the fetus being buried somewhere in a field, to thrown into the oceans or a lake, to being left in a public trash bin, or left on trains and busses, and countless other ways, those lives were counted in only small numbers; too painful and traumatic for those mothers to think about and would most likely for a lifetime, never forget what they did, whether willfully or with the deepest regrets.

In my next couple of blogposts, I will cover different aspects of this, other than those covered mostly in my book. My book stems from my own memories and conversations with women, and conversations with my mother over the years. Whether the memories are accurate or not is not the point. I say this because memory is precarious and fraught with time, displacement, trauma, pain and the will to both forget and remember, influenced by the culture and place where we have been and are.

smiling Jizo

As time has passed, from the traumatic postwar period, the figures of the mizuko also moved with the times. In the more immediate period into Japan’s entrance into western globalization at the Tokyo Olympics, the Jizō figure was primarily represented as serious. solemn, strong, and peaceful. As time passed, the development of Jizō figures that were joyful, or who were represented more childlike, became more popular, to detach Japan from the sadness of those years.

In the next posts, I will cover a myth that has recently arisen, of the publicizing of a mass grave in Yokohama prefecture in Japan, said to be the burial site of over 900 aborted fetus of mixed-race children, which has largely been ignored and willfully hidden by the authorities. In relation to this, Yokohama Mary, a woman who was often seen in urban areas walking in all-white, with her face painted in white and carrying a parasol, became a cult figure in Japan, and related to the story of mizuko, the shame and trauma of women around the military bases during the postwar, and Japan’s mixed desires to confront cultural memory.


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