Every culture has its own variety of expressions, activities and totems that signify good luck and Japan is no different. This article seeks to highlight several of Japan’s notable symbols of good luck.
The Maneki Neko.
This statuette of a cat waving its paw, often representing a calico with a bobbed tail and with a large golden coin in view, is widely regarded as a symbol of good luck. The pose of the cat’s paw is regarded as a means of beckoning someone over and is taken from the tale of a feudal lord who was passing by a temple during a storm. The lord noticed the cat waving him over and decided to see what the cat wanted; had the lord not heeded the cat, he would have then been struck dead by the bolt of lightning that struck the spot where he would have been standing.
These are talismans that are purchases from shrines. Each omamori is wrapped within a brocade and it is considered poor luck to open the bag in order to look within it; this tarnishes the good luck energies inscribed into the charm held within. There is an omamori for just about every possible purpose, including general success and prosperity.
This rounded figures are representative of Bodhidharma, the monk responsible for Zen Buddhism. Darumas are hollow objects drawn with a great deal of artistic liberty. The two common elements to all darumas are the depiction of lucky red clothes and empty eye spots. A daruma’s role is one of wish fulfillment; when a person makes a wish, she draws in one of the doll’s eyes. The second eye is drawn in when the person’s wish comes true.
These are drawn strips of paper bearing fortunes of varying goodness, commonly received by making a minor donation to a shrine. If the fortune comes out positive, the recipient is supposed to keep it on his person. However, if the fortune is revealed to be one of bad luck, the person is to tie the strip to a string on site at the shrine with other bad luck omikuji strips.
These wooden plaques are a common item at many temples and shrines. Every plaque bears the dreams and wishes of a person for all, including the local “kami” or spirits, to see; it is hoped that the kami can intervene and bring good luck to the person who wrote on the board. While it may seem odd that a wooden board might grant a person luck, the tradition seems to have its roots as a replacement for the older tradition of donating horses to shrines in order to gain great luck.
Koi, also known as carp, are symbolic of good luck, perseverance and inner resolve due to their ability to swim upstream with great force, reaching heights of up to eight to 10 feet out of the water. It is said that any koi able to swim through an impressive waterfall will be transformed into a dragon.
These are windsock streamers depicting koi that are hung during Children’s Day. Beyond serving as a good luck charm, koinbori are totems of a family’s hopes for its children to have a positive and healthy upbringing.
A complete set of senbazuru consists of 25 strings, each bearing 40 origami cranes made from multiple bright colors of paper. The tradition arose after the death of Hiroshima survivor Sadako Sasaki, who succumbed to the long-term effects of radiation exposure before she could finish making 1,000 paper cranes; her friends finished the labor. It is said that anyone who can produce a full senbazuru will have their wish granted. These tokens are also symbolic of hope and restoration.
Why an American confection would be seen as a great source of luck may seem odd until one hears of the expression “kitto katsu.” This Japanese expression means “surely win” and sounds very close to the name of this candy. Kit-Kats have been a common gift for Japanese students about to take their exams because of how close the two terms sound alike.
The Shichifukuin, or “Seven Lucky Beings.”
There are countless piece of statuary and artwork depicting these seven gods and goddesses of luck and mirth within Japan’s mythology. While each deity was initially venerated separately, their close association and overlapping portfolios have led to them being discussed mainly as a since 1420 CE. One of the most common icons of Japanese New Year festivities is a treasure ship bearing this septet of divine beings, bearing goods and treasure for all.
Hotei, “The Laughing Buddha.”
Hotei is one of the Shichifukujin and is often illustrated or carved as a jolly bald monk with a smile or a laughing face, with only his robes and a sack as possessions. The sack is said to store luck, fortune and all other positive forces within the universe. It is a common good luck tradition to rub the belly of Hotei’s statues.
There are a handful of plants that are regarded as fortunate and N. domestica is just such a plant. This berry-bearing bush is said to repel any bad luck that- might befall the people living within its area. The common name for this plant is “heavenly bamboo” due to the combination of luckiness and resemblance to bamboo, another lucky plant. This plant is quite common within Shinto temples.
This flower has long held an artistic appreciation within China and Japan, which has led to the perception that it is not only a beautiful flower, but also one that brings a person prosperity and honor.
While Japan is full of its fair share of spidery horror stories, spiders also appear in at least one tale of good luck. It is said that should a person encounter a spider in the morning, that they will have good luck…provided they resist the instinctive urge to squish the arachnid.
Teru Teru Bozu.
Also known as “bald, bald monks,” these are basic pale humanoid dolls fabricated from paper or cloth. They are regarded as influencers of the weather, based on how they are hung up at night. When hung upright, it is believed the little monk will cause beneficial weather to greet the person the following day; when hung upside down, it is believed that snow or rain will come instead. This trinket is especially popular among schoolchildren prior to a field trip or major test, for obvious reasons.
These are eggs that have become black by being cooked within Hakone’s Owakudani valley, a region known for volcanic activity. Locals say that while eating a single egg adds seven years to a person’s life, and seven is a lucky number; eating two kurotamago will add 14 years to a person’s life. The perspective changes when the idea of eating three kurotamago, with local folklore strongly advising against this as it will not bring the imbiber 21 extra years of life.
Japan is saturated with superstitions surrounding New Year’s and the “hatsuyume,” that year’s first dream, is no different. Should an eggplant, hawk or Mount Fuji appear in a person’s hatsuyume, she will have profoundly good luck throughout that year.