LIQUID LIFE: Abortion and Buddhism in Japan
William LaFleur
Princeton University Press: Princeton, N.J. 1992.
257 pp., $24.95 (clothbound).

LIQUID LIFE WILL BE of keen interest to anyone involved in the American controversy over abortion, choice, and right to life. As a Zen Buddhist priest, I, for a number of years, have been conducting a version of the Japanese ritual for aborted fetuses (the mizuko or “water-baby” ceremony) described in William LaFleur’s book. The author has clarified many questions that have emerged in the process of performing this ritual in a North American context. The author brings to his subject an astute critical mind, a thorough knowledge of Japanese history, and a sense of empathy which greatly aid his attempt to comprehend—and to make comprehensible—a culture so very different from our own.

Essential to this understanding is the distinction he makes between attitudes, laws, and practices concerning abortion, and those attitudes and practices involving the notions of revenge or punishment aimed at the aborting parents on the part of the spirits of aborted fetuses. (This conflation of ideas is prevalent in Japan, where the idea of revenge is due in part to the influence of Shinto on Japanese Buddhism.) His ample reflections on the Western perspective help readers to follow his inquiry into the Japanese relationship to abortion, which is marked by a serious though often ambiguous attitude toward family planning and birth control. (The pill is still not legal in Japan, and a long history of periodic famine and poverty has fostered practical solutions to conflicted pregnancies that allow parents to be religious and good citizens at the same time.)

LaFleur quotes various Japanese who have spoken out about the mizuko ceremony. The ritual is highly controversial in Japan, especially since it has recently become big business. And, not withstanding the economic underside of the “mizuko business,” there is a need here for authentic, palpable, spiritual solace: many people frequently visit the shrines and temples which house figures of the Bodhisattva Jizo, who is associated with the remembrance of aborted beings.

The range of Japanese voices in Liquid Life is a welcome expansion of the views that we in the West have had about this complex subject. Particularly compelling is the plaintive narrative of the wife of a Buddhist priest in Tokyo:

It should not even be necessary to point out that the intention of Buddhism as taught by its founder, Shakyamuni, was not to provide rites for dead persons who are blackmailing the living by threatening reprisals. . . . Honest priests can conceivably make something positive out of funerals by using them as contexts for counseling the lives of the living relatives in a good direction. But in the case of rites for mizuko nothing of that applies. People make excuses about being remorseful for their abortions but, since their real intent is to escape fetus reprisal, what they really want is an exorcism, something that derives from the perspective of Shinto and has nothing to do with Buddhism. . . Of course, we who are Buddhists will hold to the end that a fetus is ‘life.’ No matter what kind of conditions make abortion necessary we cannot completely justify it. But to us it is not just a matter of fetuses; all forms of life deserve our respect. . . . Even in the context of trying to rectify the contradictions and inequities in our society, we sometimes remove from our bodies that which is the life potential of infants. We women need to bring this out as one of society’s problems, but at the same time it needs to be said that the life of all humans is full of things that cannot be whitewashed over. Life is full of wounds and woundings.

In Liquid Life, LaFleur elaborates on the language and metaphor used in mizuko ceremonies. The wordmabiki, for example, denotes culling seedlings, as rice farmers do, and is used, by extension, to describe the process of aborting a fetus. LaFleur describes the Japanese understanding that abortion is not the final killing of a life, but rather a way to send a life back into the other world, from which point it can prepare for a more propitious rebirth.

After a ceremony in the United States (similar in many ways to the Japanese version), I was told by a woman who had undergone an abortion and who (as a nurse midwife) is often asked to assist a woman in ending a pregnancy, that after her own experience she began asking prospective clients to first go home and talk to the baby. She said she would be glad to help after the mother had first conversed with the fetus. In her experience a high number of spontaneous miscarriages occur following such conversations. For all our vast medical knowledge, the natural ending of life in the womb is still a mystery. We are not fully in control, whatever we may think, yet if we open ourselves to the mystery, we can be at home with what we do not understand, whether that unfolds into an abortion, a spontaneous miscarriage, or carrying a baby to term.

LaFleur makes a welcome contribution to this discussion through his unusually fresh approach: by looking through the lens of Japanese society with him we come to better understand our own. He skillfully lays bare our attachment to ideologies—abstract arguments that offer no room for compromise—and juxtaposes them with what is the overriding concern in Japan, social solidarity.

To the extent that a concern for social . solidarity is intrinsic to the pragmatist’s approach, it should come as no surprise that Japan has garnered certain—but not all—of the benefits of pragmatism as a public philosophy. And ironically that is a philosophy once thought by Americans to be rather specially their own.

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