The Face of Jizō: Image and Cult in Medieval Japanese Buddhism, by Hank Glassman, is a delight to read. It fills a large gap in existing studies in English of the bodhisattva Jizō. Until now, the only academic monograph in English to focus on Jizō in his Japanese guise has been William LaFleur’s Liquid Life: Abortion and Buddhism (Princeton University Press, 1992), which deals with the rite of mizuko kuyō. This usually consists of prayers and offerings made to a Jizō statue on behalf of a miscarried or aborted fetus, or a stillborn child. Glassman treats various other aspects of the Jizō cult in Japan that have previously received short shrift.
Glassman’s work joins a small body of literature in English on Jizō in Japan that also includes M. W. de Visser’s 1914 The Bodhisattva Ti-Tsang [End Page 155] (Jizō) in China and Japan (Oesterheld), Yoshiko Dykstra’s translation in Monumenta Nipponica (1978) of portions of the Jizō bosatsu reigenki, and my own chapter on Jizō in Living Buddhist Statues in Early Medieval and Modern Japan (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007). The Making of a Savior Bodhisattva: Dizang in Medieval China (University of Hawai‘i Press, 2007), by Zhiru Ng, is a valuable exploration of the bodhisattva’s Chinese incarnation. Jizō Bodhisattva: Guardian of Children, Travelers, and Other Voyagers (London Shambhala, 2003), by Jan Chozen Bays, while not an academic study, provides fascinating detail on the ways in which Jizō rituals have been adapted in the West.
In Japanese, the literature on Jizō is naturally more extensive, but surprising gaps still remain, primarily because scholars tend to stay within strict disciplinary boundaries. For example, Hayami Tasuku’s approach is that of a religious studies scholar, with a focus on sutras and other texts. Matsushima Ken, an art historian, presents a thorough survey of Jizō images but offers minimal context for them. Other major Japanese scholars of Jizō include Manabe Kōsai and Sakurai Tokutarō. But Glassman’s study is unique because he supplements his background in religious studies with approaches that are art historical, literary, and anthropological.
The Face of Jizō consists of four thematic chapters that unfold in rough but not precise chronological order. This organizational scheme is engaging but results in chronological overlap and is sometimes problematic, since Glassman’s argument regarding the spread of Jizō worship necessitates close attention to what took place first and what happened later.
Chapter 1, “The Iconology of Jizō,” introduces his theoretical and methodological approaches. He speaks extensively of the art historian Aby Warburg’s theories of images, stating that he follows Warburg’s understanding of the term “iconology”: “For Warburg, the term had more to do with reading meanings through historical context and looking for ways to restore connections that would have existed in the mind of the contemporary viewer but are lost to modern eyes” (p. 5). This powerful statement provides an excellent framework.
In this first chapter, Glassman presents several statements of purpose that, while not mutually exclusive, nevertheless differ significantly, revealing a tension between his desire to present a broadly applicable theory of images and his desire to demonstrate Jizō’s central role in Japanese Buddhism, or even to discuss medieval Japanese Buddhism more generally. Such statements include, “While the present study is nominally a book about the deity Jizō, it is also a book about the religious culture of medieval Japan as a whole” (p. 4); and, “The purpose of this book is to demonstrate the centrality of images in the promotion and dissemination of the Jizō cult and additionally (if only between the lines) to outline a general theory of images” (p. 6); and, “The purpose of this book is to demonstrate the ways in [End Page 156] which particular iconographies of Jizō … represent a dynamic negotiation and mediation of symbolic turf” (p. 30).
In my assessment, the following statement of purpose is the most accurate one offered by the author:
[T]his study is a way to tell...