Line of seated stone statues wearing red caps and bibs
Colour,  Culture & tradition,  Japan,  Sunday Stills

The Bake-Jizō of Kanmangafuchi Abyss

Red, in Japan, is the colour of the sun (not yellow as in other cultures). It stands for life, power and protection, but also for death, and is thought capable of expelling demons and illness. You see red everywhere; on temple roofs, torii gates at shrines, lanterns and pagodas. And in the bibs and caps worn by the haunting Jizō statues of Kanmangafuchi Abyss in Nikko.

This gorge was formed about 7,000 years ago by an eruption of nearby Mount Nantai. Since then the river Daiya has been carving these huge boulders into dramatic shapes as it tumbles over them. This area has been considered a sacred place since ancient times, because Fudo-Myo-O (a manifestation of the Cosmic Buddha) once appeared to people from the deep waters of the river. The name of the abyss, ‘Kanman’, comes from the murmuring sound of the river; the Priest Kokai likened it to an incantation chanted by Fudo-Myo-O of which the last word was ‘kanman’.

Wooded valley with rocks and stream
Kanmangafuchi Abyss, Nikko

The Jizō statues

They are commonly referred to as Hyaku Jizō, meaning the ‘100 Jizō’; but there are in fact around 70 or 80 here as some were washed away in a flood in 1902. I say ‘around 70 or 80’ because it is said that no one knows the exact number. According to legend, each time they are counted the result is different, hence their other name, Bake-Jizō, meaning ‘Ghost Jizō’. Of course the more rational visitor may conclude that the reason for all the discrepancies when counting is that many have been so badly damaged that they are now little more than a pedestal or pile of stones, and therefore no one can be sure whether or not to count them. But the legend is more captivating!

Another name sometimes used for them is Narabi Jizō, meaning ‘Jizō in a line’, which is self-evident. They line one side of the path, facing the river, as if standing guard over the abyss. And in fact, standing guard is exactly what they are doing. Jizō is a Buddhist divinity, the guardian of children, and in particular, children who die before their parents, including stillbirths.

The belief is that when a child dies too young, they will not have had the time to lead the moral life that would have ensured good karma. So they are sent to Sai no Kawara. Much like the Styx, or Purgatory, this is a limbo on the banks of the mythical Sanzu River which souls must cross into the afterlife. Here the children must endlessly stack stone towers in order to atone for the pain they caused their parents, and to gain enough karma to one day cross the Sanzu. But yokai, the demons that populate the riverbed, come out at night to knock over the stone towers. Thus the children are doomed to keep building and rebuilding the towers forever. Jizō hides children in his robes to protect them from these demons and save them.

But why do the statues wear red?

As red is believed to offer protection from evil, parents traditionally dress babies, who are particularly vulnerable, in red clothing to shield them from illness and danger. Like the babies they protect, Jizō statues also wear red bibs and caps; these are knitted for them by parents either praying for the recovery of a sick child, or mourning a lost one. The power of the red colouring will help keep the demons at bay.

Also, it is hoped that by dressing the statues in warm clothes, the Jizō will do the same for their child. Local people too sometimes dress them with red bibs and hats to keep them warm in colder weather; helping a Buddhist monk is a virtuous gesture and will earn credit for getting into the afterlife.

Mourning parents also bring them offerings of money or even toys in the hopes of accruing merit for their children in the afterlife. You also sometimes see small stone towers, where parents or simply passers-by have stopped to land a hand to the children.

And elsewhere …

The red bibs aren’t exclusive to the Jizō however. You find them on other statues too, for example the foxes that traditionally guard Inari shrines, such as this one in Takayama. Inari is the god of rice, protecting the harvest; and these foxes, known as Kitsune, wear red to protect this important deity, as without Inari the harvest might fail.

Stone fox wearing a red bib
Kitsune in a red bib

It was at this shrine that we were fortunate to witness a special celebration, the presentation of a new-born baby to the shrine to be blessed. This first visit to a shrine is known as Hatsu Miyamairi or more commonly Omiyamairi and happens around the 40th day after the birth. The purpose is to show gratitude to the gods for the safe delivery. Parents ask the deity of the shrine to bless the baby with happiness and health; to purify him/her; and to accept the baby as part of the local worshipping community. Naturally the baby was dressed in red for this big day.

Dressed for Omiyamairi ceremony

But I’ll finish with another perhaps even more poignant statue of Jizō, which I found in the Asakusa district of Tokyo. This one is depicted with tiny children sheltering under his robe. Both monk and children wear red caps and bibs, and grieving parents have left little toys for the children.

Mizuko Jizō statue in Asakusa, Tokyo

So while for many of us red is the colour of Valentines and hearts, in Japan it carries another meaning. It is the colour I always think of when I look back on my visit to that country; and it’s an obvious choice for this week’s Sunday Stills colour challenge.

I visited Japan in 2013


Do share your thoughts, I'd love to hear from you! And please include your name in case WP marks you 'anonymous' - thank you