The land of the rising sun is home to a number of gods and deities which depict several meanings to the Japanese people and their culture. But there are actually seven popular gods in Japan known as the Shichi Fukujin or the Seven Lucky Gods that represent different types of luck and virtues since the 15th century.
Known in Japanese legend, the Seven Lucky Gods are said to have traveled in a ship known as the Takarabune or Treasure Ship, which is filled with treasure to give fortune and prosperity to the people or believers of the gods during the time of the new year.
The only god of the seven who originated in Japan, Ebisu is known as the god of fishermen and merchants and is very popular with people from that industry. He is often depicted holding a fish in his left hand, a fishing rod in the right and wearing a pointed hat. The beer and train station Ebisu are also derived from this god’s name. Ebisu is also the god that represents the virtue of honesty.
The god of wealth and prosperity is Daikokuten or sometimes Daikoku. This god is the Japanese equivalent of Makahala or more popularly known as Shiva which originated in India and came to Japan during the 9th century. Daikokuten is often depicted holding a mallet in the right hand and always smiling, standing on bales of rice. There is also a myth that Ebisu, the first god mentioned here, is the son of Daikokuten. The two are often placed together with a third god, Fukurokuju, making up the “Three Gods of Fortune”. Daikokuten represents the virtue of fortune.
Benzaiten, also known as Benten, is the only goddess within the Seven Lucky Gods. Benzaiten is a Japanese Buddhist god who originated from the Hindu goddess Saraswati in India. She is the god of music, arts and knowledge and is often seen holding a biwa, or a Japanese lute. There are a number of temples in honor of Benzaiten in Enoshima and she is the god that represents the virtue of joy.
The God of Warriors and Punisher of Evil-doers is Bishamonten or Bishamon. Also like Daikokuten and Benzaiten, Bishamonten is also originally from India and is one of Buddhism’s four guardians or known as the shitennou. Bishamonten is often depicted in an armor suit holding a weapon with one hand, and a pagoda in the other with a fierce look on his face. The pagoda that Bishamonten hold represents the treasure which he guards and gives away to people. Bishamonten represents the virtue of dignity.
Fukurokuju is the god of wealth, happiness and longevity. His name comes from the Japanese version of these words Fuku-roku-ju. He is said to be a combination of the Three Star Gods from China. Fukurokuju is depicted with a long beard and high forehead, in a long Chinese costume. Sometimes animals who represent longevity are with this god, like deer, tortoises or cranes. Fukurokuju also represents the same virtue, longevity.
Jurojin is the God of Wisdom and Longevity that came from China. With a very similar appearance to Fukurokuju, the two are often mistaken for each other and it has also been said that the two inhabit the same body. The staff that Jurojin holds has a scroll or makimono tied to it. Jurojin represents the virtue of wisdom.
And the last god of the seven is Hotei. Hotei is the god of happiness and abundance and is also from China based on the reincarnation of Maitreya, a Buddhist saint. Hotei is depicted as a large bellied Buddhist monk holding an ogi or a ceremonial fan and a sack, with a smiling face. Hotei is very well known outside of Japan as the “Laughing Buddha”. Hotei is the god that represents the virtue of happiness.
There are also traditions in Japan in which the Seven Lucky Gods are involved. Japanese children are told to place a picture of the seven gods aboard their treasure ship, under their pillow on the night of the new year. It is said that if the person sees a lucky dream, he or she will have a good year ahead of them. However, if that person has a bad dream, it is said that if the person who had the dream lets the picture drift in a river, the person’s luck will change for that year.
One tradition that also takes place around the first week of the year is the Shichi Fukujin Meguri or the Pilgrimage to the temple and shrines dedicated to the Seven Lucky Gods. Families visit each one to pay their respects to the gods in the hope of receiving good fortune. In the old days, people would do the pilgrimage tour on foot but with modernization in Japan, people can go by car or bus, making it easier to visit every location in less time.
Another common thing to do during the Shichi Fukujin Meguri is purchasing a special book called a ‘goshuincho’ for collecting stamps (goshuin) from each shrine visited. There are many recommended routes in visiting each god, but it is not mandatory. The important thing is to complete making the visit to each of the seven gods.
Another is the rubbing of the gods’ statues. It is said that rubbing the head or shoulders of Daikoku will bring wealth while rubbing the stomach of Hotei, happiness, and good luck. Rubbing of statues is also a practice in many countries, but Japan is especially fond of this tradition.
There are many shrines in Japan that are dedicated to the Seven Lucky Gods where you can visit. The Seven Lucky Gods have also become a popular image of souvenir items for both the Japanese and tourists as well. Even in modern times, the impact these gods have still remains strong in Japan. The new year is getting closer so why not take a visit to these gods soon?