Not Only Amabie: Guide to Japanese Ancient Lucky Charms Enriching Your Life

The half-fish, half-human creature known as Amabie began appearing on social media in Japan last year and went viral. Many Japanese cartoonists have adapted the creature in their own styles, sharing the images to spread hope and positivity amid the face of the coronavirus. Many people say that Japanese people have no religious affiliation, but since ancient times, we have deep-rooted beliefs in folklore. There are a numerous variety of lucky charms all over the country, which create sources of comfort, inspiration, and motivation.

In 1822 during the Edo period (1603-1868), there was a cholera epidemic in Osaka. During that time a medicine merchant in the town of Shudo handed out pills made from crushed tiger skulls. At the same time, a local shrine gave out Harikono-tora (papercraft tigers) as good luck charms. There were no specific medicines for this epidemic, and it was difficult for ordinary people, except the wealthy, to see a doctor. Therefore, various folklores were born to avoid sickness, and people sought out paintings and charms to ward off evil and disease. In this peaceful and politically calm Edo period, numerous cultural and intellectual developments across the nation were born, such as ukiyo-e, kabuki, sumō, and handicrafts. These local specialties included lucky charms that were collected in the Edo district, the emporium of Japan. The unpolished crafts were refined into urban and modern products by Edokko—the native citizens of Edo district.

During this age, the general public could afford to enjoy the seasonal activities of travel and festivals. Most of the local toys and lucky charms were gifts from shrines and temples, or festivals, which tourists bought as souvenirs to take home. Souvenir purchases and collecting are still well-liked among the people today.

Many toys still in production continue to be recognized in the antique books.  
Cover and the image, Unai no to mo (Book of Toys) 1891–1924, published in the Meiji era. Seifu Shimizu, a researcher of local toys, and Tekiho Nishizawa, a painter are co-authors. 

Find Your Favorite Lucky Charms, The Power of the Color Red 

Red to Repel Plague: Akabeko, Fukushima Prefecture

In the Aizu region, cows are called Beko. In the Edo period, smallpox was a highly contagious and deadly virus that caused children to go blind or even die. The red bobblehead Beko has been regarded as a talisman to ward off the illness and any kind of evil. In China, there was also a belief that if you kept something colored red around you, it would help you from diseases. 

It Never Falls! Well Established Charms: Daruma, Gunma Prefecture

These charms, as shown above, is made all over Japan, and their appearance and shape vary depending on their production area. Takasaki city is a major manufacturer of these most famous Japanese charms. The heavily mustached dolls have been symbols of good luck since ancient times. The doll possesses a weighted bottom, making it return to its original position even if it seems to falls over. To make a wish, draw one eye on the right side facing the Daruma doll. Then once your wish has come true, you then paint on the other eye on the other side of the doll. You then bring it to a shrine or temple to eventually burn the charm. The history behind Daruma dolls is based on a wise Indian born monk known as Daruma-Daishi, who is dressed in a hooded red robe. He is widely recognised for introducing Zen Buddhism to China.

Case (Inrō) with Design of Daruma, Edo period (1615–1868)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

A Very Distinctive Figure: Yamana Hachimangu Shrine, Gunma Prefecture

This Shrine is known to have a god that promotes safe childbirth and parenting. People believed that if a child, between the ages of six months and five years, wore a paper mache lion’s head named Shishigashira, it will stop the child from crying at night or from throwing tantrums. Therefore, the child can grow up healthy and can possess good luck. The objects in the picture shown above are miniature versions of the Shishimai’s head and can only be purchased at this particular shrine. In a Japanese traditional lion dance, performers wear the lion headpiece and costume while imitating the wildcat’s movements.  

At the Kamakura Shrine in Kamakura, there is a lion’s head charm that eats evil & brings happiness to the owner. Shishimai’s head transformed to many types of toys and good luck charms in many regions of Japan.

The lion dance was introduced to Japan from China in the 16th century. The first time it appeared was on the New Year holiday to ward off the plague caused by famine in Ise. By the 17th century, it arrived in Edo (now Tokyo), where it took root as a lucky charm to celebrate the world. There are many theories about the origin of this dance, but it seems strongly associated with Buddhism in India. 

The Lion Dance(1789), Kitagawa Utamaro, Edo period (1615–1868)

Superstar Charms for Everybody: Sarubobo, Hida Takayama, Gifu Prefecture

This loveable looking doll is named Sarubobo—meaning monkey child. People believe that the charm is effective for good luck, family joy, and defends people from illness. The original form of the doll is known as the Hōko or Amagatsu, which is a doll introduced from China in the Nara period, about 1200 years ago. Later during the Edo period, it spread to the public as a tool to protect infants and was also given to brides to wish for a safe delivery and a happy marriage. Furthermore, parents gave them to children as toys to wish for good health. The use of red cloth for making these dolls began during the period when the smallpox epidemic spread.

A Wish-granting Octopus: Takoyakushi-do, Eifuku-ji Temple, Kyoto Prefecture

Tako is an octopus. Once upon a time, a monk at the temple Zenko’s mother fell ill and asked him to get octopus for her as her favorite food. Although he was hesitant to buy raw octopus as a monk, Zenko went to the market and bought it. When he bringing back a box in the octopus, the townspeople pressed him… Zenko guilted then prayed to Yakushi nyorai as Buddha of Medicine, for help. The octopus turned into a Yakushi Sutra—a Buddhist sutra— suddenly, then the mother healed. Since then, the temple has been called Tako-yakushi nyorai and is still visited by many worshippers wishing for healing from illness.

Flying a Kite to Pray for Eldest Son’s Health and Well-being: Oniyozu, Mishima, Yamaguchi Prefecture

On the island of Mishima, there is a long-standing traditional celebration of the New Year. Families, who have had a first son, gather their relatives and friends and fly a large kite named Oniyozu. After the flight, the kite is hung from the ceiling of the child’s bedroom to keep it in view, which is believed to help the child grow up strong. In the kite’s eyes are paper tassels that resemble the tears of demons. This represents the hope that the child will be not only strong but also be kindhearted. Kite flying is one of the most popular customs of the Japanese New Year. The scene of countless kites being flown by children high in the blue sky is very relaxing.

In the ukiyo-e, the kites are symbolized as combating rising prices of the commodity. The children are flying kites with the names of rice, alcohol, oil, and other necessities. It is a caricature, an expression of the people’s desire to keep the prices lower from rising further. Children at Play: Kite-flying Contest (Kodomo asobi tako-age kurabe), Utagawa Yoshitora, 1865

During your trip to Japan, looking for local and unique lucky charms is a great way to double the fun of your Me Time!