A Short Introduction to Jizo, a Japanese Bodhisattva

When traveling in the Japan, you may see statues dressed with a red cloth. They are representations of Jizo, the Buddhist divinity most loved by Japanese people! I personally love them too and would like to give you a brief introduction to their role and symbolism.

The roles of Jizo

In Studio Ghibli’s ‘Tonari no Totoro’, when Mei is lost, she finds refuge next to Jizo statues.

The Jizo Boddhisatva, ‘O-Jizo-san‘ in Japanese honorific language, is a deity fondly loved by Japanese people. You will find Jizo statues in a lot of places: in Buddhist temples, graveyards, at the side of the road in the countryside and, less commonly, at the corner of some streets in the cities.

Typical Jizo statues found at Magoji temple in Takahama.

Their main role is to protect children. They also protect the souls of children who passed away and unborn babies. In the Japanese beliefs, it is thought that the soul of children who died before their parents, consequently making their parents suffer, are not able to cross the river to the afterlife. They remain on the side of the river, having to pile stones as an act of penance. Devils come to try to destroy these stone towers, and this is when O-Jizo-san appears to save them and hide them from the evil spirits in his clothing. He then looks after them as as guardian in replacement of their parents.

The other main role of Jizo is to protect the travelers, which is why you will often find Jizo statues on the side of the roads like on the picture below. This tradition is derived from the ancient belief of Dosojin. Dosojin is a deity who protects travelers. The deity statue was placed on mountain pathways, crossroads, and at the borders of villages. The statues were generally in the shape of a couple. With time, Jizo has taken their role.

Jizo also protects firefighters and saves the souls suffering in the afterlife.

A Jizo standing beside a road

Why are Jizo statues dressed in red clothing?

the red hood and bib
The red hood and bib

Japanese people believe that red is the color to defend against evil since ancient times. Babies are vulnerable, so their parents dress them in red to try to protect them from illness and danger. Jizo statues also wear red bibs, because the worshippers offer baby bibs and hoods. Some wish for protection and others who have lost their baby, pray for the spirits to go to heaven without suffering.

Grieving parents also give them toys as an offering, and people sometimes also build stone or pebble towers next to them, wishing to help the deceased children in their penance.

Local traditions

The Okakae-Jizo in Hiroshima prefecture

Jizo statues can be subject to local traditions. One example is the ‘Okakae-Jizo‘ that can be found in Takehara city (Hiroshima prefecture).

This Jizo is believed to fulfill one’s wishes if the Jizo feels lighter than expected while holding it and reciting the Jizo’s mantra, “On-kakaka-bisamaei-sowaka” three times.

A familiar deity giving a strong mystical atmosphere

Very ancient steles and Jizo statues found in the forest near Mago-ji temple, Takahama.

The peaceful features and the many places  you can meet them make Jizo statues one of my favorite sights as a foreigner in Japan! Some statues, very ancient, give a truly mystical atmosphere to the Japanese countryside and forests, like on the picture above I took in Mago-ji temple. It highly likeable, as it is said that Jizo becomes closer to everyone, especially people who are in trouble. Some shops  sell really cute version of them as lucky charms and souvenirs.

I personally love to find them in the most peculiar places, and always feel a gentle feeling towards them. What about you?

An old Jizo on the side of the road near Daijo-ji Temple, Takahama
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Writer / Translator

I’m French but I’ve been living in Tokyo for many years during which I had a lot of meaningful and thrilling experiences. I’m curious and I love learning new things. My hobbies are kick boxing, scuba diving, Japanese traditional painting, etc… As a writer, I’d like to share information about less touristic, more authentic places. I will also write about all the fun and cultural activities unique to Japan.