Washed away: A change of the image of sacred territory after 3.11. The case of Shōtokuji’s Nagare-Jizō by Aliise Donnere

This piece is the first part of the JAWS online series of Reflections from Tōhoku


Many temples and sanctuaries in Tōhoku region were damaged or completely destroyed during the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. After rebuilding the temples, many priests had to decide if they wanted something in the temple’s territory that would remind visitors about the catastrophe. It can be a memorial or a monument dedicated to those who perished in tsunami, but sometimes the objects constructed after the tsunami have quite complicated meanings. Here, I would like to present one such case study concerning a Jōdo sect temple Shōtokuji (照徳寺) in Sendai, Miyagi prefecture. I came across this case while performing field studies throughout the temples of Sendai. My original aim was to find out the way the statues of Boddhisattva Jizō  (地蔵, skt. Kṣitigarbha) (for more about the cult of Jizō in Japan, see Bays, 2003, Fuji, 1974, Hayami, 1975, Ishikawa, 1995, Manabe, 1959) are treated in modern Buddhist temples. For this purpose, I conducted multiple interviews with temple priests to find out the reasons behind finding a place for these statues within temple grounds. During the course of my research, Shōtokuji became one of my main interests, as the temple had undergone many changes after the Tsunami of 2011 (the interview with the abbot was conducted on 2017.03.22), impacting the placement of Jizō statues as well.

Shōtokuji was built in 1591, in a rural area (nowadays – a part of Sendai) just 3.1 km away from the seashore (Sendai-shi shi hensan iinkai, 1953, p. 364). The temple stores a famous wooden Jizō statue called Nagare-Jizō (流れ地蔵, floating Jizō). This Jizō statue is renown as a Koyasu Jizō – a type of Jizō that grants safe childbirth (For more about Koyasu Jizō, see Yanagita,1964 (27), p.299-302). The legend behind the statue states that originally it used to be worshiped in the Nakano (中野) neighborhood of Sendai, approximately 4 km from the temple, but local children liked to take the o-Jizō-san (Jizō, one of the most beloved Bodhisattvas in Japan, is often called like this, to express his closeness to people and an affectionate bond between the Bodhisattva and believers) with them when they went swimming. One day they accidentally let the statue go and it floated all the way to Okada (岡田), where it was taken out of the water, brought to Shōtokuji and secured inside a small sanctuary. A belief spread around Okada soon that making an offering of a Tsutsumi-ningyō 堤人形, a type of ceramic dolls famous in Sendai (For more on Tsutsumi-ningyō, see Nihon Kyōdo Ningyō Kenkyūkai, 2006 and Sendai-shi Hakubutsukan, 1986) to this Nagare Jizō will provide a safe birth of a child. It is even believed that it is possible to choose a gender of an expected child – those who want a girl were supposed to bring a doll of a woman and take a red pillow from the sanctuary. Those in need of a boy brought a doll of a man and took a white pillow. The pillow had to be returned in double amount after the birth of a child. Tsutsumi-ningyō are often considered as a suitable offering to deities that grant childbirth. In fact, very similar practices exist in many other places in Sendai, but they are associated with Kishimojin (鬼子母神, skt, Hārītī), a Buddhist deity that is regarded as a protector of children and childbirth (Kasahara, 2017, p. 60). Jizō is venerated as a protector of children, too, although it is unclear why exactly this statue was said to have the power of granting a child.

In 2011, the sanctuary in Shōtokuji was full of Tsutsumi-ningyō, standing in many lines on both sides of Nagare-Jizō. But on 11th March of 2011, the temple, its precincts and the sanctuary itself were swept away by tsunami waves. Two or three days after the catastrophe, the statue of Nagare Jizō was found near the temple together with five Tsutsumi-ningyō – all that survived from the once impressing collection of dolls that were stored in the sanctuary. The statue of Nagare Jizō was severely damaged and after repairs were done, it was decided that it is too fragile to be placed back into a sanctuary outside of the temple. With this in mind, the abbot of Shōtokuji decided not to construct a new wooden sanctuary and instead the statue of Nagare Jizō was placed in the temple’s main building, alongside the remaining five Tsutsumi-ningyō.


Koyasu Jizō of Shōtokuji 照徳寺 (left) with remaining Tsutsumi-ningyō (right) (Aliise Donnere, 22.3.2017)


When talking about the former sanctuary of the Nagare jizō, the abbot describes it with great affection. The beautiful wooden statue of Nagare Jizō stood in the middle of the sanctuary, surrounded by rows of Tsutsumi-ningyō, symbolizing children who were supposed to come into this world through the help of Nagare Jizō. However, it was not only the sanctuary that was destroyed in the disaster. While the most obvious damages from the tsunami were to the temple itself, the surrounding cemetery was swept away too, leaving behind hundreds of tombstones, small Mizuko-jizō statues, a special type of Jizō satues, dedicated to aborted fetuses, stillbirths and miscarriages (For more about Mizuko, see Hardacre, 1997 and LaFleur, 1992), and memorial Jizō statues, erected as tombstones for children. The tombstones were mostly damaged and although it was still possible to distinguish which family did they belonged to, a decision was made to dispose of them. However, the statues were salvaged, with the abbot explaining his decision to keep the Jizō statues with emotional compassion for the families who have lost their children:

 “These Jizō statues were erected as memorials for children, and I can’t just throw them away. When a baby under 1-year-old dies, parents cannot forget it, right? They want to pray for the child. But it was impossible to understand whom these statues belonged to and return them to their families.

The abbot decided to collect all of the Jizō statues within the debris and place them where the Nagare-Jizō sanctuary once stood. Soon after he had made this decision, he received a new stone Jizō statue from a stonemason company. The statue was approximately 160 cm tall – taller than all the collected memorial Jizō statues. Today this statue stands in the middle of composition, surrounded by the salvaged Jizō statues. Instead of Nagare Jizō, a miraculous statue granting child birth and rows of Tsutsumi ningyō – both offerings for the statue and symbols of children who had come into this world through the help of Nagare Jizō, the place is now occupied by a big stone statue of Jizō, surrounded by small Jizō statues, each of them a memorial to a dead child.


Jizō statues on the place where Nagare-Jizō sanctuary used to be (Aliise Donnere 22.3.2017)


The resulting object – a group of small stone statues of Jizō gathered around a bigger one – has come to fulfill two roles in the post-disaster Shōtokuji. First, it helps families who have lost their graves to keep on worshiping their family’s dead children and mizuko (Japanese term used towards aborted fetuses, miscarriages and stillbirths), and thus, ensures that the children are not forgotten. Second, it serves as a memorial for the perished sanctuary that was significant to the temple and to the surrounding community. Small sanctuaries are commonly more approachable than main buildings of temples and it is now feared that the necessary move of the Nagare-Jizō to the temple’s main hall may result in the Nagare-Jizō phenomenon and all the associated folklore to slowly disappear. So, according to the abbot, the construction of a stone statue version of this sanctuary is, in some way, an attempt to remind people about the unique local tradition that blossomed before the catastrophe.

Although here we can see a clear move from the sanctuary that celebrated life (childbirth) to the memorial for the dead. However, with a smiling main Jizō statue standing at the centre of the monument, the purpose of the place is not to be solemn. Instead of leaving the ground of the former sanctuary empty or filling it with something that would have no connection to Jizō, the temple’s priest used the other identity of Jizō – his identity as a substitute parent for the dead child, to create a different sacred space – a space of acceptance of death and lighthearted mourning. The monument is not dedicated to people who perished in tsunami waves, but it is meant to accommodate the ancestors that too suffered because of tsunami – in particular, the dead children who had been removed from their original place near their other ancestors’ graves. This double identity of the place that used to be one of the main spots of worship in the temple can perhaps help to accept the loss of Shōtokuji the way it used to be before the catastrophe.


Aliise Donnere was born in Latvia and was raised in a bilingual environment. She is a member of the Tendai Buddhist sect and earned her PhD from Tohoku University in 2018 for her study of Jizō statues in modern Buddhist temples. She is now a researcher of modern Japanese Buddhism, and shares her passion of linguistics as a lecturer at Tohoku Gakuin University. Her other interests include gender studies, folklore, local history and traditions, as well as cross-cutural communications in religion. Passionate about music, literature, and travel, she prefers to conduct her research on foot or by bicycle.





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