AOMORI – Hundreds of Japanese parents grieving over the loss of their children have been finding solace in sending dolls in wedding attire to a temple in Aomori Prefecture for rare “marriage” rites for people who died single.
Yuchi Shiroto, chief priest of Koboji Temple in Tsugaru, Aomori Prefecture, said the doll donation is a tradition that started around 1950 by a woman who lost her unmarried soldier son in World War II.
Wishing that he would marry and be happy in the afterlife, the mother donated handmade dolls of a bride and groom to the temple. The donation became known to other parents of the war dead, who followed suit.
The practice became widely known in the 1980s after it was picked up by a television program. At the time, Koboji Temple would receive 10 dolls a day from across Japan.
The dolls, which used to be handmade, later shifted to expensive manufactured dolls. “It was a reflection of parental feelings wanting to donate better dolls for their children,” Shiroto said.
In recent years, parents have been sending dolls to the temple following a shared tragedy — the suicide of their children.
The parents and younger brother of a man who killed himself in 2013 at the age of 26 came to the temple from neighboring Akita Prefecture to donate a bride doll in June.
The man failed to turn up at work one day and was found to have hanged himself in a forest near a river he had often gone to for fishing.
“No suicide note was found. It was completely out of the blue and we had no idea why he did it,” said his 57-year-old father.
In anguish, the parents contacted a local psychic, who told them to donate a bride doll to the temple in Aomori.
The parents also brought his favorite CD, fishing lure and other items and put them all in a glass container, along with the doll, at Koboji.
“If he were alive, he would have turned 30 this year,” his 57-year-old mother said while holding back tears.
She said the doll donation is a way for the family to “achieve closure and start living positively, little by little.”
The temple is now home to some 900 glass containers, each holding a doll of a bride or a groom in wedding attire, standing next to a portrait of the deceased. Snacks and beverages are also often placed inside the containers.
Local people say praying for the happiness of the deceased by donating dolls of their marriage partners to a temple is a custom that only exists in Aomori. In the prefecture, a similar practice has begun at Kawakurasai’s Kawara Jizo, where some 2,000 jizo (stone statues of Buddhist entities) are enshrined, in the city of Goshogawara.
“No matter what the doll type or the reason for the donation is, I will continue accepting the dolls as long as there are people who want to donate them,” Shiroto said.
According to the 42-year-old Buddhist priest, his temple has been receiving only about three dolls a year recently. Expensive dolls have become a rarity, he said.