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The Independent Culture
SOME TIME in the next few months, an oral contraceptive pill will be licensed in Japan for the first time - more than 30 years after the Pill first became available to British women. The delay reflects Japan's caution over new drugs rather than any social conservatism; that and the fact that, since 1948, Japanese women have had other forms of birth control to rely on - notably legalised abortion.

Japan has long accepted one of the highest abortion rates in the world. As in other countries, though, the subject still arouses fierce passions, particularly from extreme conservatives. And few have been fiercer than the followers of the late Tetsuma Hashimoto.

Hashimoto, who died at the age of 100 in 1990, founded the Buddhist cemetery shown in these pictures. A classic representative of what the Japanese call uyoku - "rightists" - he also founded House of the Purple Cloud, an organisation whose journal still bristles with his rage. "Women's liberation damns women to hell," runs a typical pensee. "The Nazis killed 6 million Jews - but Japanese politics has killed more than 40 million foetuses..." But the organisation does more than rant. Hashimoto's genius was to perceive that, in the aching emotional vulnerability that surrounds abortion, there was a lucrative money-making opportunity.

The statues in these pictures are representations of Jizo, one of the gentlest and most appealing deities of the Buddhist pantheon. A tall, kindly, itinerant monk, Jizo is the protector of travellers and children, and particularly of mizuko or "water children" - unborn infants who have died in the womb through abortion or miscarriage. He guides mizuko on the long road to paradise, especially if encouraged by prayers and shrines. Such shrines are found all over Japan, the statues of Jizo dressed up in red bibs, and covered with childish gifts - rice, sweets, toys, tiny shoes; and, often, there is a lone woman nearby, tormented by regret, offering prayers to the souls of her dead children. Most of these shrines are small and informal, tucked away in neglected corners of temples. Not so Jizo-ji, Purple Cloud's cemetery. Hashimoto and his successors have developed it with all the rigour of a mass market business.

The cemetery was opened in 1971, in a small village some 50 miles from Tokyo, and currently contains more than 14,000 Jizo. Ninety per cent of the foetuses commemorated were aborted; the peak period was the late Seventies, when dozens of new Jizo were purchased every month. Visitors come to the temple all year; nowadays, three-quarters of them are middle-aged women, who often bring their husbands and children.

But appeasing a lost spirit child is an expensive business, as the literature issued by the cemetery makes clear. Jizo statues come in three sizes, ranging in price from 150,000y (pounds 940) to 230,000y (pounds 1,440). An inscription on the base of the statue will cost you 300y per character; on top of which there is an annual "maintenance" fee of 5,000y per Jizo. Worshippers are also expected to subscribe to the Purple Cloud journal for 3,300y a year. Multiple abortions, naturally enough, require multiple offerings.

According to Jizo-ji, abortion is not simply a matter of personal guilt or grief. Bed-wetting, illness, even crime and terrorism can all be put down to the malign influence of the resentful mizuko. Even if a woman has never had an abortion herself, she may inherit the sufferings of her mother's or even her grandmother's wickedness. "You should offer 100y every day per mizuko child to compensate for the fact that you didn't bring it up," advises the brochure. "It's best to donate the money to a temple like Jizo-ji." The cemetery even has its own song, which speaks of the consequences of neglecting the water children - "Madness striking, teenagers rebelling against parents, sudden suicide..." - and adds: "The grief, the sufferings of those families will never cease."

Well, they would say that, wouldn't they? !