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Marketing the Menacing Fetus in Japan

Helen Hardacre (Author)

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Paperback, 332 pages
ISBN: 9780520216549
March 1999
$33.95, £24.95
Helen Hardacre provides new insights into the spiritual and cultural dimensions of abortion debates around the world in this careful examination of mizuko kuyo—a Japanese religious ritual for aborted fetuses. Popularized during the 1970s, when religious entrepreneurs published frightening accounts of fetal wrath and spirit attacks, mizuko kuyo offers ritual atonement for women who, sometimes decades previously, chose to have abortions. As she explores the complex issues that surround this practice, Hardacre takes into account the history of Japanese attitudes toward abortion, the development of abortion rituals, the marketing of religion, and the nature of power relations in intercourse, contraception, and abortion.

Although abortion in Japan is accepted and legal and was commonly used as birth control in the early postwar period, entrepreneurs used images from fetal photography to mount a surprisingly successful tabloid campaign to promote mizuko kuyo. Enthusiastically adopted by some religionists as an economic strategy, it was soundly rejected by others on doctrinal, humanistic, and feminist grounds.

In four field studies in different parts of the country, Helen Hardacre observed contemporary examples of mizuko kuyo as it is practiced in Buddhism, Shinto, and the new religions. She also analyzed historical texts and contemporary personal accounts of abortion by women and their male partners and conducted interviews with practitioners to explore how a commercialized ritual form like mizuko kuyo can be marketed through popular culture and manipulated by the same forces at work in the selling of any commodity. Her conclusions reflect upon the deep current of misogyny and sexism running through these rites and through feto-centric discourse in general.
Helen Hardacre is Reischauer Institute Professor of Japanese Religions and Society at Harvard University, and author of Shinto and the State, 1868-1988 (1989) and Kurozumikyo and the New Religions of Japan (1986).
"A remarkably original contribution to the anthropology of reproduction, Marketing the Menacing Fetus in Japan provides broad and deep insights into the culture of sexuality and gender in Japan. Framing the issues historically, as well as anthropologically, Hardacre artfully blends a wide variety of sources, from the demographic to participant observation, from surveys to rich life histories. The book is a major contribution to feminist studies of abortion, and its impact is likely to equal that of Faye Ginsburg's justly famous book, Contested Lives."—David I. Kertzer, author of Sacrificed for Honor: Italian Infant Abandonment and the Politics of Reproductive Control
Abortion has been practiced for centuries in Japan, but it is only since the mid-1970s that religious rituals for aborted fetuses, rites called "mizuko kuyô," have been commercialized on a large scale. Although these these rites have enjoyed popularity in the past, they now appear to be in decline. This book uses these rituals as a lens through which to examine the changing meanings of abortion in the history of Japanese sexual culture from the Edo Period (1600-1868) to the present, and to study the changing relations of religious institutions and practitioners to abortion. Abortion became a reproductive experience shared by large numbers of Japanese women following its legalization under the 1948 Eugenics Protection Law, which provides for abortion in circumstances of economic hardship. Legalized abortion has enjoyed strong public support over the postwar decades, but it was not ritualized significantly until the 1970s. "Mizuko kuyô" was promoted then by non-sectarian spiritualists, primarily through the tabloid press with an advertising campaign directed mainly toward young women. Its message was that the spirits of aborted fetuses harbored resentment against those women who "should have" carried them to term and become their mothers; the spirit fetuses will menace and harm these selfish women if not properly ritualized. Tabloid accounts of "spirit attacks" by aborted fetuses gave visible shape to the idea of a vengeful fetus by using fetal photography, creating images of a scowling, full-term fetuses turned head-up, hovering over terrified young women cowering in their beds in terror. All indications are, however, that only a small minority of women who experience abortion are sufficiently convinced by feto-centric rhetoric to sponsor such ritual. Examination of contemporary accounts of abortion can tell us much about the place of abortion in contemporary Japanese sexual culture. Religious anxiety about abortion is rare, and ideas of fetal personhood are absent. Study of the phenomenon in four separate locales establishes, unambiguously, that the practice is regarded with great ambivalence by many Buddhist clerics and their parishioners. Thus, "mizuko kuyô" cannot be understood as "Japan's way of dealing with abortion." It is widely rejected and remains quite controversial. "Mizuko kuyô" is built upon a feto-centric discourse that goes so against the weight of Japanese historical tradition and public support for legalized abortion that it was only accepted by a small minority of the people and their religious institutions. For most who have paid to have "mizuko kuyô" performed, the rite was either a one-time venture from the start or incorporated into a routinized ritual calendar in which the sexualized association of abortion was gradually lost. Hence, "mizuko kuyô" is dying out as it fulfills the basic meaning women give to it: assuaging feelings of irresolution and ambivalence. "Mizuko kuyô" appears to be a short-lived "boom" that will soon run its course. This book includes presentation and analysis of eight contemporary accounts of abortion (six by women, two by men), and a field study of nearly 200 temples, shrines, new religions, and other religious sites of four different locations in Japan. Chapter 1

Titled "Reproductive Ritualization Before Mizuko Kuyô," this chapter traces the history of popular thought and religious ritual associated with pregnancy, childbirth, abortion, infanticide, and child abandonment from the Edo Period (1600-1868) until "mizuko kuyô's" appearance in the mid-1970s. During the Edo period, attitudes towards abortion were bifurcated: tolerance when it was performed for reasons of economic hardship, and stigmatization when it terminated pregnancies conceived in pursuit of sexual pleasure. In the latter case, coercive sexual use of a maidservant by a man with power and authority was a stereotypical image, producing stock characters still persisting in popular accounts of abortion: the Callous Man and the Foolish Woman. Religious institutions were not involved with pregnancy and childbirth, generally turning a blind eye toward abortion. Fetuses which had died for any reason were only rarely the object of religious ritual. One exceptional case, that of the Buddhist saint Yôten Shønin (1637-1718) is examined to show how the spirits of the aborted were regarded as incapable of the "spirit attacks" presupposed by "mizuko kuyô" today. By contrast with the removal of religious institutions from reproductive experience, the role of the midwife was highly ritualized, and first childbirth had an initiatory character for the mother. Religious ideas about the fetus and newborns arose, attributing to them a liminal character, sometimes until the age of seven, corresponding to high rates of infant and maternal mortality. The meaning of pregnancy changed significantly when the state adopted national policies on population and public health after the Meiji Restoration of 1868. State regulation resulted in a de-ritualization of pregnancy and childbirth, completed by a universalization of hospital birth after 1945.

Chapter 2

The 1948 Eugenics Protection Law provided for abortion in circumstances of economic hardship, and over the postwar decades, legalized abortion enjoyed strong public support. Though one religion did challenge abortion in the course of promoting a wider range of ultra-conservative and ultra-nationalist causes, it did not succeed. In the interval, however, popular culture, especially the personal advice columns of national newspapers, perpetuated the two constructions of abortion seen in the premodern era, adding new ideas and interpretations to them.

The oil shocks of the 1970s marked an end to the era of high economic growth that began around 1955, and the beginnings of pessimism was visible in religious life by the 1970s, a mood that persists to the present. New religious groups of a more spiritualist character, stressing the unpredictability of individual destiny and recommending various techniques of spirit manipulation, spiritualism, and divination, came to the fore. It was also in the mid-1970s that the cult of "mizuko kuyô" came to public attention, promoted on a mass scale, and popularized first by religious entrepreneurs through a media campaign in Japan's tabloid newspapers and magazines. The campaign principally targeted young, unmarried women and frightened them with graphic images of menacing fetuses, a technique derived from the recent development of fetal photography, buttressing the visual message with spiritualists' dire predictions of fetal wrath if proper rituals were not performed. The problems foretold for women who failed to perform "mizuko kuyô" were, in essence, a list of physical and emotional problems associated with menopause. When "mizuko kuyô" was first commercialized, abortion was acceptable and contraception was widely used among the population. "Mizuko kuyô" emerged as part of what the media labeled "the occult boom," at a time when abortion was in decline for all age groups except teenagers, when a variety of representations of abortion in film, fiction, and advice columns presented a rich diversity of viewpoints within an overall framework of acceptance.

Chapter 3

Titled "Abortion in Contemporary Sexual Culture," this chapter presents eight accounts of abortion, by six women and two men, in order to assess the influence of "mizuko kuyô" on contemporary popular attitudes toward abortion. Studying individual accounts of abortion allows us to see how decisions about abortion are actually taken, and with what consequences for a couple's relationship. Abortion most frequently occurs at the beginning of a relationship or marriage, to prolong the woman's work income and in the context of relationship strife or transition, and after the desired family size has been reached, normally two children. The main consideration in abortion is the couple's socio-economic circumstances, by comparison with which other factors are described as vague, impractical, and unrealistic. No one disputes a woman's authority to decide in favor of abortion, but women's inclinations to carry pregnancies to term are sometimes contested in favor of abortion if the woman is a minor, unmarried, or seen to lack appropriate economic and social support. Religious considerations are acknowledged as relevant or appropriate only if socio-economic realism is weighed more heavily in the end. Mention of religious anxiety about abortion is rare. Ideas of fetal personhood are absent. Overall, very little evidence of the influence of "mizuko kuyô," whether in the sense of accepting or rejecting it, can be perceived here; much stronger is the "common sense" that abortion is necessitated by a wide range of difficult circumstances that the umbrella of "economic hardship" usefully covers. "Mizuko kuyô" can apparently coexist with experiences of abortion that implicitly deny its rationale, as a minor phenomenon without ubiquitous influence.

Chapter 4

This chapter examines the practice of "mizuko kuyô" by spiritualists and some members of the Buddhist clergy and concludes that the view of abortion seen here is quite different from the historical conceptions examined in earlier chapters. In a significant departure from the "common sense" abortion inherited from the sexual culture of the Edo period and from representations seen in contemporary newspaper advice columns, where the Callous Man receives his share of scrutiny, the Foolish Woman is alone in the limelight in spiritualists' accounts. In the former, the place of the Callous Man is a heightened demonization of female sexuality, especially of young women, and a readiness to blame them exclusively for their own and everyone else's problems in a rhetoric of menopausal and ghostly symptomology familiar from the tabloids. Spiritualists frighten clients with predictions of "mizuko-genic" problems: problems in courtship and marriage (including a husband's infidelity), illness (including uterine tumors and cancer), sexual problems, problems with children (delinquency, refusal to study or attend school, and violence of children against parents), and work problems. Interviews with spiritualists and analysis of the rituals they practice are presented, and the idea of fetal spirit attack has become plausible to some for a variety of reasons examined here. The medicalization of pregnancy and childbirth objectifies the pregnant woman's body, and the invention of fetal photography permits visual representations of the fetus that erase her entirely, thus breaking the unity and inseparability of mother and fetus. These developments coincide with the rise of feto-centric discourses in the West, especially in the United States.

Chapter 5

This chapter presents the results of a 1994 field study of "mizuko kuyô" in Tøno Town (Fukushima Prefecture), Miura City (Kanagawa Prefecture), Tsuyama City (Okayama Prefecture), and Yukuhashi City (Fukuoka Prefecture). It examines these rites as conducted in a variety of Buddhist sects, Shintø shrines, Shugendø temples, and new religions. It documents the local circumstances in which this practice was originally instituted and assesses its current popular support. About 44 percent of Buddhist temples perform rites for "mizuko," and 46 percent do not, leaving about 10 percent with no clear policy on the matter. The largest sect of Japanese Buddhism, Jôdo Shinshû, prohibits it on doctrinal grounds. Other sects mostly remain silent or passively participate. For most who have paid to have the rite of "mizuko kuyô" performed, the rite was either a one-time venture from the start, or the rite was incorporated into a routinized ritual calendar in which the sexualized association of abortion was gradually lost. Hence, "mizuko kuyô" is dying out as it fulfills the basic meaning women give to it: assuaging feelings of irresolution and ambivalence.

"Mizuko kuyô," taken as the combination of both its practice and its critique, represents the contradictory religious impulses of Japan at the century's end: less confident and optimistic, surely, than during the era of high economic growth, but unwilling to fully succumb to the pessimism, determinism, and lust for vengeance and stigmatization of the country's "occult boom," sentiments which, in different forms, have transfixed other quarters of religion in the industrialized world. All things considered, mizuko kuy would appear to be a short-lived "boom" that will soon have run its course.

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