Engimono – lucky charms in Japan

There is no country in the world where the supernatural is so openly accepted by everyone such as Japan. For all things supernatural there is one word that’s used as an umbrella term and this word is Yokai. Yokai is anything that holds mythical powers. The Japanese folklore is stacked with Yokai, these mythological creatures of all sorts, in fact so many, that I am amazed by them and therefore decided to start a series in which I would like to introduce you to all sorts of Yokai: starting with Engimono ( lucky charms)  and all the rest of the weird mythological creatures which have significant importance in Japanese Culture. I hope you will like it and learn from it.

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In Shinto, Japan’s animistic religion every single thing, living or not has a soul or a spirit that is connected to them and they all have their own tale. Japanese people are therefore taught from a young age to treat all things with great respect and care.

This is the reason for the Japanese having their own animals, spirits, ghosts which have great luck and wealth of all sorts attributed to them. In this piece, I would like to introduce you to some of the key lucky charms, mystic animals and other entities that bring wealth and prosperity to their bearers.

  1. The beckoning cat – (招き猫) Maneki Neko
Maneki Neko a refreshing design with an extra carp for extra luck

There is literally no way you haven’t heard about or haven’t seen the famous beckoning cat or Maneki Neko which is one of the very few mythical creatures, that they are associated with so much of good power, that Chinese decided to adopt from Japan as a lucky charm for inviting luck and prosperity into a store, home or any sort of a living or working environment. Over the years, the Beckoning Cat has had many forms but it’s typically a cute cat that’s holding a big golden Coban coin. It was first used by geisha parlors and night establishments back in the day. The cat traditionally wears a golden symbol on its neck and holds a golden tablet or coin. Both of these can represent all sorts of different types of Kanji symbols, depending on where they are destined to present.

The Maneki Neko has a very old legend, in fact so old, that no-one can really pinpoint where the figurine originates from. While some say the legend has its roots in the Middle Age Edo ( former name of Tokyo) others insist that it originates from Kyoto. One thing for sure is that it’s one of the most powerful lucky charms on Earth. While this symbol is traditionally meant for businesses, today, being part of Feng Shui many also buy it to display them at home.

If you ever had a Japanese friend or pen pal, there is no way you wouldn’t receive at least one Maneki Neko from them. I also did and back in the day, I had no idea what it was for.

Here are some lesser-known information about Maneki Neko

The colors and variants of Maneki Neko

  • It’s traditionally a white Calico Japanese Bobtail cat
  • When it lifts it’s left paw it’s meant to be displayed in pubs, drinking parlors
  • When it lifts its right paw it’s meant to be displayed in every other business.
  • There are rare occasions when the Maneki Neko raises both paws.
  • Traditionally, the right paw is meant to attract money and the left paw is meant to attract customers in.
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The Black Maneki Neko is lesser-known or used. This one features the symbol and kanji of love.

Maneki Neko is available in multiple colors and the color often adds a specific role to the figurine.

  • White: the traditional form is white, which represents cleanness, purity, goodness
  • Gold: the golden Maneki Neko is meant to further accentuate on the good luck bringing wealth,
  • Red is meant to provide more protection from evil spirits
  • Black is to ward off evil spirits, illness, and ill-will.
  • Pink accentuates on bringing luck in love
  • Green is to provide luck in studies and health.

What do the Japanese symbols represent Maneki Neko?

It’s not all the same what sort of a Maneki Neko you buy as you could see above. But you also should differentiate according to what is written on the Maneki Neko as per the following.

The gold pendant the cat is wearing often has the following written on it:

  • Ryo – 両: Old Japanese currency to attract wealth
  • Sen Man Ryo – 千万両: meaning 10 million Ryo
  • Kai Un 開運:  means Open Luck

The Coban coin the cat is holding can feature one of the below symbols:

  • Sen Kyaku Man Mai” 千客萬来 – 1000 customers come
  • Genkin Manpuku (現金満腹)  – bellyful of cash
  • Hou Bai Han Jyou (商売繁盛) – a thriving business
  • Kin-Un Sho Fuku (金運 拐福) – for inviting good luck and prosperity

These days there are Maneki Neko which work with batteries or are motorized in other ways because according to Chinese and Japanese beliefs the constant movement creates a further urge, therefore if the beckoning paw keeps on moving, it would invite all the more luck, wealth and/or customers in.

The traditional Maneki Neko as most people know it

2.) Daruma Doll

Daruma is not as popular outside Japan but it’s even more important than the Maneki Neko for attracting personal wealth, luck and happiness

Another overly weird creature one can often get from Japanese friends, Daruma Doll is almost as popular as the Beckoning Cat. Let’s see how to use it and what it is for. Interestingly Daruma dolls descend from the founder of Zen Buddhism also called Daruma or Bodhi dharma. Their eyes are always painted over, traditionally you un-paint one eye when you make a wish, then you un-paint the other, when you wish comes true. Daruma Doll is commonly given as a present by friends, colleagues, family members as a New Year’s gift. These dolls come in all size, but generally they are small, red and have widely open eyes. They also have a scroll to scare bad or evil spirits away and invite good luck for its bearer. Traditionally, they are round, have no legs or arms. The lack of legs is due to the legend according to which the real Daruma used to meditate so much that one day his legs just fell off.

3.) Tanuki

Looking extra cute Tanuki is very popular for Japanese to buy and present in or outside their homes

Tanuki is an animal which really exists, living in the mountains of Japan, it’s a type of raccoon and in looks it looks like a cross between a badger and a raccoon. Now, as a Yokai Tanukis are shape-shifting creatures which were first rather mischievous pranksters but today, they are much regarded as symbols of prosperity. If you drive across Japan, you will see tons of Tanuki sellers, who sell Tanukis in every size possible. Many people like to feature giant big-bellied jolly Tanuki by the entrance of their shops, in their gardens and/or in their entrance doors and it’s also become one of the most popular souvenirs for non-Japanese. Tanukis as Yokai are present in tons of legends and fairy tales, they are often presented as tricksters. Tanuki’s large testicles have magical powers and are traditionally bring luck and wealth. Today’s funny looking Taneki ceramic sculptures are traditionally produced in Shiga prefecture. This jolly, positive Tanuki was first made by Tetsuzo Fujiwara a famous potter. It is thanks to him, we can regard Tanuki as a lucky charm. As Tanuki happens to be a Yokai, please visit my work on Yokai to learn more about Tanuki and its magical powers.

4.) The Seven Gods of Good Luck – Shickifuku-jin

The Seven Gods of luck and prosperity are extra popular in Japan

Ebisu, Daikokuten, Bishamonten, Benzaiten, Hoeti, Furkokokuju and Jurojin. If one good brings good luck imagine how much more can 7 gods bring! This is a very Japanese collection of benevolent gods taken from several Asian countries, with Benzaiten being the only originally Japanese god among them. They are often depicted together, traditionally a picture of all 7 gods being together in a boat is a very popular gift for the New Year.

5.) The Koi Carp

Koi fish in a pond

Almost everyone knows that the colorful koi carps are in the garden for a reason. Another symbol inherited from China, carps are known to bring luck and wealth for their bearers, which is helped by their constant movement and their shiny golden, red color. Koi Carp is a very important lucky charm for boys and they are represented in forms of Koi lanterns and wind banners are presented on poles or rooftops during the yearly Boys’ Festival. Carps are also symbols for their determination and strength to swim against the current. When in pond 7 red koi carp needs one additional black carp to make the pond really lucky. This is a belief that also comes from China. Unlike other lucky charms, koi charms are often worn in form of pendants on necklaces.

Japanese Lucky Owl

6.) Owl

It is not as much known but Owls are popular protectors in Japan, they are to protect the house and the belongings. This can be attributed to the real owls’ nature, who would alert people when they sense that other people are around.

7.) Frogs – Kaeru


They are attributed with the act of returning, like returning home (Kaeru being a verb in Japanese means to return from somewhere) Frogs, just like in Chinese culture are therefore attributed with helping wealth return in a home. They are also often used as protective talismans by travelers just like you can see on the photo above.

8.) Kappa


Even I didn’t know about this mystical animal for a long time and I was hesitant whether to include this in here or in the upcoming chapter featuring mystical animals. But Kappa is also used as a lucky charm around Japan, therefore I finally decided to include it in here. Just like the Tanuki, Kappa is pretty mischievous and a trickster, trying to play people, but in the end it always clears up its act and in some prefectures it’s considered prominent while in others it likes to eat badly behaving kids. It has a humanoid figure but its head is flat and according to legend it’s filled with water. If you make it bend by bending in front of him, all water will flow out of its head and it would lose its strength. It’s featured in tons of fairy tales.  In its looks, it looks pretty similar to a platypus. It has all sorts of depictions but one thing is for sure, that it’s green and it has beaks. As a figurine, it’s often paired up with a Daruma Doll for extra luck. It’s gifted for people to help them live a more conscious and happier life. In Tokyo there is a bridge called Kappabashi, which although not dedicated to these funny looking creatures, they are still featured by smart shop owners who know the art of wordplay, therefore the bridge’s area features plenty of Kappa figures, mascots all looking slightly different. Kappa’s have a weird obsession for cucumbers ( perhaps it’s the color and the fact it holds as much water as a watermelon) and also for buttholes! Check out my Yokai Series to learn more about Kappa.

Next chapter will feature mythological animals then I will represent you with the world of Yokai, the supernatural side of Japan packed with ghosts and spirits of all kind.

Maneki Inari Fox?

Sometimes one or two features of other lucky charms are simply borrowed to create another lucky charm. This is the case with the Inari Fox which, unlike the dangerous kitsune (Yokai) would bring luck to its bearer. The “luck” factor is further enhanced with the two dots right above the fox’s eyes. The Inari Fox is also the one animal an alter-ego of which was made so life-like that it’s still questioned whether it’s real or not.

the Inari Fox lucky charm

I hope you liked this post. I am planning to write a whole lot more about Yokai, Yurei (ghosts), legendary creatures and even more in the future!