Text and photos by Ramata Cisse
Do you know which deity is one of Japan’s favourite? If you have ever visited, you will have more than likely seen him along a road or a cemetery. He’s usually represented in statue form, with a bald head, wearing a robe and a very big smile. That’s right. You almost can not go anywhere in Japan without seeing our little friendly Ojizou sama, protector of travellers, firemen, expectant mothers and children.
The Origin of Ojizou Sama
Ksitigarbha, known as Ojizou sama in Japan, was a Buddhist monk that made two very important vows. One, was to take responsibility for all the beings in the six worlds after the death of Siddartha Gautama (the Buddha) and before the rise of Maitreya (regarded as the future Buddha). The six worlds include the God, the jealous God, the human, the animal, the hungry ghost and the hell. His second vow was a promise to never attain Buddhahood (or enlightenment) until all hells (i.e purgatory) were emptied. For this reason Ksitigarbha is often seen as the bodhisattva (a person who can attain enlightenment but delays doing so through compassion and the sake of others) of the Hell beings.
Interestingly enough, although he is now always represented as male, Ksitigarbha was originally female. She made her first appearance in Japan during the Nara period (710-794) where she became very popular among commoners. However, somehow along the years she came to be represented as male. It is still possible however to see a female representation known as Koyasu, the guardian of child birth.
Still, Ojizou sama is especially revered as the protector of deceased children lost in limbo, called sai no kawara (賽の河原) in Japanese. In Buddhism it is said that children are too young to have accumulated good deeds or karma to go to heaven. Moreover if they have passed away before their parents, they have committed the great sin of having brought their parents a lot of pain and suffering. In order to get out of limbo, or cross the mythical river Sanzu to get to heaven, the children must stack pebbles and rocks.
Sadly thought, when they go to sleep, demons knock their stack and they must start again. Only Ojizou sama has the power to save them from an eternal hell of piling rocks by hiding them under his robes and reciting mantras to them. Therefore you may sometimes see stones piled near a jizou statue, placed by grieving parents in the hopes that they can be of help to their child. You might also see jizou statues with a hat or a bib. Although they may be of any colour or pattern, they are often red, the colour of safety and protection. These are a form of gratitude from the parents not only for protecting their children while in limbo, but also from an expectant mother or for curing a child from illness.
Jizou Statues in Cemeteries
The jizou that are found in cemeteries are the protectors of forgotten graves and ancestors. They guard the lost souls. Where you would usually find six statues (which symbolise the six worlds in buddhism) if walking by a group of jizou, in a cemetery you may often find them in much greater numbers. And in some shrines, such as Hasedera in Kamakura, they have what is called sentai jizou, quite literally meaning one thousand jizou.
Ojizou – Protector of Travellers
Finally, Ojizou sama is the protector of travellers, making him one of several types of dousojin (道祖神). I believe for travellers there is nothing more comforting than to see the familiar sight of a gentle face who they know is there to protect them on their journey. And that is something that even I can testify to….