Luck. That single word has come to define what many individuals, groups, and cultures want. There are expressions to wish good luck upon someone, and phrases that attribute one’s achievements to luck. Essentially, people want good luck, and multiple countries and cultures will regard certain items as charms that will bring good fortune to those who possess them. Japan is no exception.
Japan is a country of tradition, and there are different symbols that people have long considered to be catchers of luck, happiness, wealth, and health. People visit shrines to pray to deities and spirits for good fortune, or use an item to help them with whatever they are pursuing in life. Most of these beliefs are inherited from Buddhism, Hinduism, and various Chinese religions. In Japanese, small items such as dreamcatchers are said to be “engimono” (lucky charms). Here are some of the most popular engimono you can buy.
Carps, or the koi fish, are a symbol of great importance in Japan and it is very respected. We can see colorful fish swimming around in ponds and rivers that are associated with temples and shrines, such as in Ueno Park. These pretty fish are believed to be symbols of good luck, happiness, and well-being. The koi fish can swim across a stream, hence it is also believed to be a symbol of courage and willpower.
Koi fish are often painted on men’s kimono and during the boys’ festival called “Tano no Sekku”, which is held on May 5th. Every household with boys hangs “koinobori” (koi fish windsock flags) in front of their home. If you are in Japan during the end of April, you will definitely see these pretty koinobori around, symbolizing good luck and strength for the boys in the family.
Frogs are also believed to bring good fortune. As well as meaning “frog”, “kaeru” is means “to return”. The frog is hence representing people or things returning to their origin or home. People use to hang small frog dangles on purses or bags while traveling, which is believed to carry people’s wishes for a safe return.
Owls, or “fukurou”, are symbols of a lucky life free of hardship. In a typical Japanese suburban neighborhood, you may be able to see owl-themed ceramic pots and statues in most gardens. It is believed that they will protect one from hardships. There are also many owl accessories and toys sold at many shops across the country.
“Maneku” means to invite or beckon, and “neko” means cat. The maneki neko is something you may have seen in Asian markets as sweet little gifts. This beckoning cat is made of ceramics, plastic, or metal and can be mostly seen at the entrance of shops. They have various colors such as golden, red, white, or black, and is found in different postures. Each color and pose means different things; for example, gold is said to bring prosperity and wealth, and black is believed to ward off evil spirits and promise safety.
Maneki neko can be found with either its left paw or right paw raised. The right paw invites money and business, and the left invites customers and people. It can, therefore, be said that either paw raised is good for business. However, the left paw is traditionally used for venues that operate at night, such as geisha houses and restaurants.
Maneki neko is one of those good luck charms foreigners can easily recognized since Japanese restaurants (and some Asian fusion ones) overseas often have them.
Daruma dolls come mostly in reddish colour with the face of a man with thick eyebrows and a moustach, which is also believed to be a good luck charm in Japan. They are made of paper or ceramic, and it is also believed that they will bring luck, love, courage, and power. These dolls are available in five important colours, each having a different meaning. For example, a red daruma doll brings good luck and fortune while a white doll promotes love and harmony, and a gold doll brings wealth.
Cranes or “tsuru” in Japanese, can be seen in most Japanese paintings and it is another good luck symbol in Japan. They are mainly associated with New Year and marriage. Traditional wedding kimonos commonly have broideries containing paintings or patterns of cranes. It is a well-known belief that if you make one thousand paper cranes, your wish will come true.
Tanuki, known in English as Japanese racoon dogs, and have played a very important role in Japanese folklore. In these stories, tanuki were mischievous, shape-shifting creatures with magical powers. In the past, the shape-shifting tanuki were regarded as bad omens.
In modern-day Japan, though, tanuki have changed completely. Tanuki are now represented in a very jolly fashion: they have big bellies, kind smiles, straw hats, passbooks, tails, big eyes, sake flasks, and incredibly large scrota (the plural form of scrotum). The size of their testicles may confuse those who are unfamiliar with Tanuki statues, but there is absolutely nothing sexual about them. The 8 striking traits in a tanuki statue, from the straw hat to the large scrotum, symbolize something. Therefore, tanuki statues represent different 8 virtues and attributes like readiness, friendliness, and sincerity. In case you are wondering, the enlarged scrotum represents a bag of gold or the expansion of one’s wealth.
Daikokuten is believed to be the god of prosperity in Hinduism and Buddhism. Daikokuten statues, both big and small, are kept inside many households and shops to bring wealth and good luck. Daikokuten is one of the seven lucky gods of Japan.
The laughing Buddha, also known as Hotei, is another statue available in various poses. These are also made of metal or ceramic. A popular color includes the golden one holding a beaded chain in one hand and a big bag on its shoulder. The symbol of this fat and jolly god is also believed to bring good fortune, good luck, and good health if kept at houses and shops. Hotei is another god belonging to the Japanese seven gods of fortune.
The Omamori is an amulet with covers made of Japanese-style silk cloth pieces. They enclose prayers written on paper or on wooden pieces kept inside. “Mamoru” means in Japanese “to protect”, so “omamori” literally means “protection”. We can see them in different colors and shapes available in almost all shrines and temples. They are believed to bring good luck and they are available in various names for bringing safety and fortune in different places and situations. It is also believed that the cover, if opened, will lose its power of protection and hence it can never be opened.
Matsu, or pine trees, can be seen in many Japanese gardens. Pines are the evergreen tree species that can survive in even the harshest of climates, and hence it is believed to be a symbol of good fortune and longevity. During the New Year, an arrangement containing pine, bamboo, and plums are used to make “kadomatsu” which is kept at the entrance of houses, offices, and temples to welcome the new year. All these trees are considered as carriers of good fortune.
Although these are some well-known good luck charms in Japan, the article barely scratches the surface of the many things in Japan that are thought to bring good luck. For example, if you meet a geisha, be sure to accept the small piece of paper or sticker she gives you since keeping it in one’s wallet means the person will find money.
Even if you don’t believe in amulets, these can be excellent items to collect!