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 why the Japanese had 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. I’m very happy to give a real, comprehensive guide where I enlist possibly all the objects that can be held, treated like an amulet or an object destined to bring good luck.
This among the lesser known object which almost all the Japanese families or households do have as they are so popular. These are tiny dolls – 2 of them-that come in a basket and they look like egg children with a smiley face. They used to be kids’ toys from around the 14th century and today are one tradition which are used by artists to create new designs. They come with a solid grounding so you can bounce them and they would always bounce back. People love to compete and see which okiagari Koboshi has the best design and can bounce back the fastest. This is the reason why they are also treaded as one symbol of Japanese resilience.
The beckoning cat – (招き猫) Maneki Neko
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.
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.
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.
Another new year’s tradition that is done and used as a gift for businesses for them to bring good luck. Fukusasa is an way of artistry mixed up with a bit of an ikebana. It’s the way of decorating nice branches of bamboo with all sorts of good luck symbols, which may include any of the below or above mentioned good luck charms, and they are often gifted to businesses. Several shrines are selling Fukusasa in January. Making Fukusasa is also a popular activity during festivals such as the Yanagihara Ebisu festival held in Tokyo in january. In the Osakan shrine called Imamiya Ebisu Shrine would have the largest festival every january where the Shinto priestesses Mikos would decorate the Fukusasa and offer these for selling.
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.
Hina Matsuri or Doll’s Day is one of the most popular and scenic celebrations in Japan and it’s held to celebrate all girls in Japan. A week before and during Hina Matsuri a beautiful set of Japanese handmade dolls (usually a whole family) are displayed at a nice place of the home to pay respect and wish all the best luck and health for Hina Matsuri. Japanese have the belief these beautiful dolls do have the ability to transfer good luck to all the girls in the family. As you can see Hina Matsuri also comprises of all the respect to be paid for the family ancestors.
Akabeko literally means red cow and this funny looking figurine is traditionally made in Kufushima Prefecture. They are made as toys but they also happen to have the secret quality to protect children from sickness according to old folk tales. The whole belief is based on a 9th century story that’s about a cow who becomes a Buddha after helping to build the Enzoji temple. Akabeko is very popular both as a lucky charm, a toy and a souvenir.
The Seven Gods of Good Luck – Shickifuku-jin
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.
The Koi Carp
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.
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.
Frogs – Kaeru
They are attributed to 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 to helping wealth return in a home. They are also often used as protective talismans by travelers just like you can see in the photo above.
Kit Kat the luckiest sweets in Japan
Have you ever wondered why it was Kit Kat that has become so enormously popular in Japan that it has a life of its own in there and has been produced with flavors and variations sold only in Japan? It’s thanks to its name and the name’s similarity to the Japanese Kitto Katsu a verse used by students mainly before their exams and it basically means gambarimashou ( we will struggle and work hard to win). So this is how Kit Kat is the lucky chocolate with tons of limited and special editions available only in Japan.
Ema – the wishing plaques
These are almost as popular as the Omamori. You can buy them with lots of types of figures and in many forms, but the base is always the same: the wishing plaque would help you translate and get through one of your strongest wishes to the kami or god of the Shinto shrine. Lots of shrines are selling their own plaques next to Omamori. It is a personal preference which shrine you choose. These wishing plaques are also fantastic as souvenirs. What differentiates plaques from Omamori or Omikuji is that these are not for carrying. You buy them put your strong will to the wish you choose, then you leave it at the shrine at their designated place. The plaques would be burnt once a year after the year has passed during a ceremony held by the shrine. People normally buy one plaque but you can choose more too.
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.
If you to any Shinto shrine in Japan, you will certainly catch sight of a special area inside which is designated for people, who badly want their wish come true. This is mostly a New Year tradition, similar to buying a Daruma Doll. O-mikuji is a strip of paper that contains predictions that are pre-written or pre-printed. People can buy those, which they see fit their situation or the good luck they wish on themselves or on one close friend or family member. The secret of O-Mikuji is, that it must be kept with yourself, the same way as you keep the Omamori the little bags, carrying these wishes. Then once the year passes, you can see if your wish did come true or not. If it did come true you can happily dispose of your wish at the designated place in a shrine. And if the wish was not completed or did not come true in any form, then you would strip your paper on the designated wire just like it’s shown on the photo, to leave the bad luck behind you and start afresh.
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 shrine which is world-famous for its numerous Torii gates is a shrine that was raised for Inari the goddess of Rice whose key servants are the Inari foxes, which means a leveled -up Kitsune fox with a master degree. Inari shrine is therefore full of Inari fox statues, which is the only type of fox that’s considered lucky.
Osechi ryori – New Year meal for good luck
Osechi ryori is the name of the traditional New Year meal in Japan. Many of these foods are meant to bring luck in the new year for a certain aspect of life. For example, those wishing for children eat kazunoko ( Kazoku means family in Japanese) or marinated herring roe, while those praying for good health eat soybeans. I will plan to release a whole post dedicated to all the New Year traditions, where I want to write about all the types of meals alongside their specific meaning.
Koi-no-bori – carp streamers
Koinobori means carp streamers and it’s a symbol of children’s good luck and this way it represents good luck in terms of maternity as well. Koinobori is the symbol of Children’s Day in Japan ( in May) and this way, it’s become one of the most popular and well-known symbols worldwide. These carp-shaped windsocks are regarded as the symbol of good luck and represent the family’s wishes to give birth to happy, healthy, and successful children. Also, it’s a lovely sight to see all the colorful Koinobori waiving in the wind.
Kadomatsu or “gate pine”
Another New Year’s tradition Japanese do to bring good luck. The pine tree “Matsu” is a highly regarded tree because it’s evergreen and durable. This is why it’s regarded as a symbol of good luck and durability paired up with longevity. Similarly to the concept of the Chinese Lucky Bamboo, the Japanese version mixes up this concept with Ikebana and creates a decoration piece that consists of pine tree and bamboo another highly regarded plant, alongside other decorations and it’s bought when the New Year starts. Kadomatsu decorates the entrance area of lots of homes, temples and even office entrances to bring good luck. Kadomatsu can be arranged in lots of different ways and sizes but the key concept of pine tree and 3 bamboos doesn’t change.
Senbazuru – make a wish with 1,000 paper cranes
Senbazuru represents the fact that we must work hard for our wishes to come true. It also represents the importance of one of Japan’s most popular symbolic animals the crane. In this case, one wish costs the making of 1000 origami cranes. And it looks spectacular once ready. Senbazuru is like an art form finding the best possible way to show all 1,000 origami cranes—typically 25 strings, each with 40 cranes but there are other shapes and string forms too. Senbazuru has become famous thanks to the story of Sadako Sasaki who deeply believed when she completes the challenge of completing 1000 paper cranes by hand within one year, one important wish of hers will be granted to come true by a crane. Senbazuru is since regarded as a symbol of healing and hope in Japan.
Unlike other lucky charms Kurotamago which literally translates to black egg is not something to keep but it’s something to eat. And it has one specific place of making: In the Owakudani volcanic valley located in Hakone, where Kurotamago is considered as part of the attraction, just like a magical spring elsewhere. They are cooked in the hot volcanic water pools the high sulphur content of which make them jet black, but only on the outside. the volcanic water also adds a very special smell to the general egg smell. So, all in all they equal boiled eggs and you cannot keep them for more than a few days. Most people eat them right after buying them. Many places sell them ready made and still warm. According to the beliefs if one eats 1 kurotamago it would add 7 years to your life. This duplicates by eating 2 kurotamago, but you should never eat 3 of them as that brings bad luck. Owakudani is generally not a very attractive place to visit, but Kurotamago and its legend has made it a very popular tourist spot.
Derived from the verb “mamoru” meaning to protect, Omamori is by far the most popular type of amulets the majority of Japanese people buy in the beginning of the New Year. Omamori is best to be disposed of in the same shrine where it has been purchased. There are tons of different omamori fulfilling all sorts of different wishes or bringing all sorts of different luck to their bearers. They contain specific Shinto prayers or blessings written on paper or on wood. You should never open your omamori.
please check out my separate post on Omamori
I hope you liked this post. I am planning to write a whole lot more about Yokai, Yurei, Obon, legendary creatures, and even more in the future! My next post will be about superstitions.