If you take a stroll along nearly any road in Japan you are likely to periodically spot small stone statues set along the roadside, especially at highway intersections and at the boundaries of small towns and villages. These statues frequently represent the Buddhist divinity Jizo who is the patron god of travelers and pilgrims as well as expectant mothers, children, and even firemen. Jizo is a Bodhisattva or one who has achieved enlightenment yet has remained behind to help others along the spiritual path. There are several types of Jizo with perhaps the most common in Japan being the Mizuko Jizo (mizuko means “water baby”). Mizuko Jizo is often portrayed in the company of children and babies and is thought to act on their behalf. Mizuko Jizo is also believed to intervene when children are in danger and in the afterlife will even hide little ones within the sleeves of his robe when roving demons are on the prowl. Jizo has long been a very popular figure in Japanese Buddhism where he is described as “a friend to all” and “never frightening, even to children”. Though of Indian origin and originally female, Jizo did first appear in Japan during the Nara period (710-94) where her popularity quickly grew and she was soon regarded as the deity of the common people. For various reasons Jizo did eventually transform into a male figure in Japan. However, the divinity’s feminine roots are still evident in the translation of his name which can mean either “womb of the earth” or “earth treasure”. In fact, Jizo is still sometimes found in Japan in female form especially as the Koyasu (child-giving) Jizo. Roadside images of Jizo are often found alone or in groupings of six. The number six being representative of the six realms of reincarnation which encompass all beings trapped within the wheel of life. We can imagine then that to travelers of old Japan the sight of a roadside Jizo must have been a comforting reminder of the deity’s promise to look after and protect any and all on the road to enlightenment.
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