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A Short Introduction to Jizo, a Japanese Bodhisattva

When traveling in Japan, you may see statues dressed in red cloth. They are representations of Jizo, the Buddhist divinity loved by most Japanese people! I, too, love them and would like to give you a brief introduction to their role and symbolism.

The Roles of Jizo

A Jizo statue
A Jizo statue

The Jizo Bodhisattva, “O-Jizo-san” in Japanese honorific language, is a deity fondly loved by Japanese people. You will find Jizo statues in many places: in Buddhist temples, graveyards, at the side of the road in the countryside, and, less commonly, at the corner of some streets in the cities.

The primary role of Jizo is to protect children. This explains why, in Studio Ghibli’s animation movie “My Neighbor Totoro,” when little Mei gets lost, she finds refuge next to Jizo statues

Jizo also protects the souls of children who passed away and unborn babies. In Japanese beliefs, it is thought that the soul of children who died before their parents, consequently making their parents suffer, cannot cross the river to the afterlife. They remain on the side of the river, having to pile stones as an act of penance. Devils come to try to destroy these stone towers, and this is when O-Jizo-san appears to save them and hide them in his clothing from the evil spirits. He then looks after them as a guardian in replacement of their parents.

Jizo statues along a road
Jizo statues protecting travelers

The other central role of Jizo is to protect travelers, which is why you will often find Jizo statues on the side of the roads like in the picture above. This tradition is derived from the ancient belief of Dosojin. Dosojin is a deity who protects travelers. The deity statue was placed on mountain pathways, crossroads, and at the borders of villages. The sculptures were generally in the shape of a couple. With time, Jizo has taken their role.

Jizo also protects firefighters and saves the souls of those suffering in the afterlife.

Why Are Jizo Statues Dressed in Red Clothing?

Several Jizo statues wearing red hats and red bibs

Japanese people believe that red is the color to defend against evil since ancient times. Babies are vulnerable, so their parents dress them in red to protect them from illness and danger. Jizo statues also wear red bibs, because the worshippers offer baby bibs and hoods. Some wish for protection, and others who have lost their baby pray for the spirits to go to heaven without suffering.

Grieving parents also give them toys as an offering. People sometimes also build stone or pebble towers next to them, wishing to help the deceased children in their penance.

Local Traditions

Woman holding a small Jizo statue in her arms
The Okakae-Jizo in Hiroshima Prefecture

Jizo statues can be subject to local traditions. One example is the Okakae-Jizo that can be found in Takehara City (Hiroshima Prefecture).

This Jizo is believed to fulfill one’s wishes if the Jizo feels lighter than expected while holding it and reciting the Jizo’s mantra, “On-kakaka-bisamaei-sowaka,” three times.

In some temples, it is customary to pour water on the Jizo statue as a gesture of worship.

Hand pouring water on a Jizo statue
Pouring water on a Jizo statue at Hase-dera Temple, Kamakura

A Familiar Deity Giving a Strong Mystical Atmosphere

Dozens of ancient Jizo steles surrounded by trees
Very ancient steles and Jizo statues in the forest near Magoji Temple, Takahama

Their peaceful features and the many places you can meet them make Jizo statues one of my favorite sights as a foreigner in Japan! Some figures, very ancient, give a truly mystical atmosphere to the Japanese countryside and forests, like in the picture above I took in Magoji Temple. 

Cute Jizo statue in a moss garden
More recent depictions can have really adorable looks

Jizo statues are highly likable, as it is said that Jizo becomes close to everyone, especially people who are in trouble. Some shops sell adorable versions of them as lucky charms and souvenirs.

I love to find them in the most peculiar places, and they fill me with a calm feeling. What about you?

Amélie Geeraert

Born in France, I've been living in Japan since 2011. I'm curious about everything, and living in Japan has allowed me to expand my vision of the world through a broad range of new activities, experiences, and encounters. As a writer, what I love most is listening to people's personal stories and share them with our readers.

4 Comments

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    Sue A Duthweiler

    September 17, 2020 at 8:15 AM

    Thank you for the posting on Jizo statues. They fascinated me during our visit to Japan more than thirty years ago. I’m happy to know what the sweet children with red hats are all about.

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    Lee Wikoff

    September 26, 2020 at 9:46 AM

    Thanks for your post. I became aware of Jizo and was moved by them during a visit to Hasedera shrine in Kamakura while I was in the Navy in the 1960s.
    I hadn’t made the connection about the Jizo in “My Neighbor Totoro (one of my favorite Studio Ghibli movies) so I’ll watch it with new insight in the future.
    I have a number of gardens and have recently added a miniature garden with a Jizo and Torii gate modeled after the one at Hasedera shrine.

    Reply
    • Amélie Geeraert

      Amélie Geeraert

      September 28, 2020 at 10:23 AM

      Hi Lee!
      Hasedera is definitely a place that stays with you! The fact you recreated a miniature version in your garden is so nice.
      I’m glad if the article will make you see “My Neighbor Totoro” under a new light – other Jizos are also in the movie – see if you can spot them!
      Thanks a lot for sharing your impressions!

      Reply

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