Where Did Japan’s 7 Lucky Gods Come From?

Where Did Japan’s 7 Lucky Gods Come From?

Japan`s 7 Lucky Gods are an eclectic mix of one Japanese deity (Ebisu) and deities from Indian Hinduist (Benzaiten, Bishamonten, Daikokuten) and Chinese Taoist and Buddhist (Fukurokuju, Hotei, Jurojin) origin. They are called ‘shichifukujin’ in Japanese, which is a combination of the characters “seven,” “luck,” and “deity” (七 福神). Children grow up hearing stories about these figures, and their faces can be seen all over the country – in shrines, shops, tourist destinations, and in homes. So who are they, and how did they come to be grouped together?

Who Are the 7 Lucky Gods?

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Pictured above are the 7 Lucky Gods. From left to right you see: Hotei, Jurōjin, Fukurokuju, Bishamonten, Benzaiten, Daikokuten, and Ebisu.

More elaborate descriptions of the 7 Lucky Gods can be found here, but as a quick recap, here is a list of them that includes what they symbolize and their origin. The list corresponds to the above picture from left to right.

  • Hotei (布袋) is a fat and happy god of abundance and good health and is the only one based on a historical person – a Chinese monk that lived in the early 10th century.
  • Jurōjin (寿老人) is a god of long life and comes from the Chinese Taoist god, the Old Man of the South Pole (named after the star Canopus).
  • Fukurokuju (福禄寿) is a god of happiness, wealth, and long life (as the kanji in his name imply). He also has his origins in China, and is often confused with Jurōjin, especially since there are stories that say they inhabit the same body! You can usually tell it is Fukurokuju if he has a high forehead.
  • Bishamonten (毘沙門天) is a warrior god that originates from Hindu god Vaiśravaṇa. He is often seen with a pagoda in his left hand and a spear in his right.
  • Benzaiten (弁才天 or 弁財天) is a goddess of knowledge, art, and beauty. She is the only female deity in the set and originates from the Hindu goddess Saraswati.
  • Daikokuten (大黒天) is a god of wealth, commerce, and trade. He evolved from the Buddhist form of the Hindu deity Shiva, and may also be intertwined with the native Shinto god Ōkuninushi (大国主).
  • Ebisu (恵比寿) is a god of fishers and merchants and is the only one of the seven to originate solely from Japan. He is often seen carrying a cod or sea bass and is commonly paired with Daikokuten in storefronts.
How Did They Become a Set?

woodblock-utagawa

As you can see, the Shichifukujin have quite diverse origins. So how did they end up together? Pictured above is an Ukiyo-e woodblock of the Edo Period by Utagawa Toyokuni (1769 – 1825).

Individually, the deities that make up the Shichifukujin have each been around for well over a thousand years. Their appearance as a set is a more recent development, however. The earliest recording of the seven together comes from a 1420 account of the Muromachi period. A procession of seven deities was held as an imitation of daimyo (feudal lord) processions in Fushimi (Kyoto). In the years 1469-86, there were bandits who dressed as the gods to trick people into giving them money!

Much later, in 1623, the seven are said to have been chosen by a Buddhist priest named Tenkai after a discussion with shogun Iemitsu Tokugawa. The subject at hand was nobility and human virtue. Tenkai said that nobility consists of seven absolute virtues: longevity, fortune, popularity, candor, amicability, dignity, and magnanimity. Tokugawa liked this so much that he told the monk to choose seven deities to represent each of these virtues and to set up an organized worship of them.

Tenkai named the seven that are listed above, who are today considered the standard set. However, it is also important to note that before this occurrence, there have been other gods who were sometimes associated as part of the seven in place of some of the others. These other deities include Kichijōten, Shōjō, Marishiten, and Sanmen Daikoku. Keep in mind that there are hundreds of deities associated with Hinduism, Buddhism, and Shintoism, and they have all had different levels of popularity at different times and different places. The popularity of these particular seven are partially due to the connection tradesmen and craftsmen have with them.

Why Number Seven?

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It is no coincidence that there are seven lucky gods, and not six or eight. Seven is a lucky number in Japan, just like in many other places. There were seven visible planets to early astronomers (one for each day of the week) and there are seven colors in a rainbow. Specific to Japanese culture, there are seven basic principles of bushido (the way of the samurai), and a baby’s birth is celebrated on the seventh day. Tanabata, the festival of the stars, is celebrated on the seventh day of the seventh month. Because of the popularity of number seven, it was natural for seven popular gods to coalesce into a group to be revered by the Japanese.

Traditions

woodblock-hiroshige

It is said that around New Year’s, the Shichifukujin travel together in a takarabune (宝船), or treasure ship. “Takara” means treasure, and “fune” (or “bune” in this case) means boat. They bring good luck, fortune, and happiness to those who are devout. Children will often put pictures of the shichifukujin under their pillows on New Year’s Eve in order to bring in the good luck. Pictured above is a woodblock print by Hiroshige (ca. 1840).

Good luck isn’t limited to children, though. Pilgrimages (meguri (巡り) in Japanese) to visit temples of the seven became popular in the late Edo period (19th century), and their circuits are well-traveled today, particularly during the New Year period. In the past, people would travel on foot, but in today’s modern world, cars and buses are often used to go from temple to temple if they are far apart. If you want to commemorate your pilgrimage you can purchase a kinen shikishi (記念色紙), and then request a stamp at each site that represent the seven. The board itself (the shikishi) usually costs around ¥1,000, and each stamp costs about ¥100-200. You’re likely to see advertisements for them in and around train stations and temples around the New Year.

When one thinks of pilgrimages, they usually imagine them to take a long time – days, weeks, or even months. However, here is one pilgrimage in Shibamata that takes only around two hours! How about you? Do you know of any other pilgrimage sites to visit the lucky seven? Have you ever participated in one, or would you like to? Please comment below!

Pictured below is an example of a completed kinen shikishi (記念色紙) for a shichifukujin meguri (巡り).

pilgrimage-stamps

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