The Buddhist tradition behind these lucky dolls
Last updated: December 21, 2020
Daruma dolls are popular across Japan as both wishing charms and as a reminder to persevere with your goals. There are many theories about the origin of these bearded, limbless papier-mache dolls. One is that they were created at Shorinzan Darumaji Temple in Takasaki, where you can still find hundreds of the colorful dolls stacked up in the temple. Since then, Daruma have gone on to become an icon of Gunma.
People traditionally buy these lucky dolls at the start of the year, make a wish as they color in the doll’s left eye, and then work towards their goal. Once the goal is achieved, they fill in the other eye.
Among the theories of Daruma's origins are that Shorinzan Darumaji Temple would distribute images of Bodhidharma, who founded a predecessor of Zen Buddhism in 5th- or 6th-century China, as yearly good-luck charms. After a famine around 200 years ago, a temple monk decided to help Takasaki's farmers by creating a mold for these papier-mache dolls for them to sell at festivals as a sideline business. Such charms were especially popular with silk farmers, whose livelihoods depended on luck.
The rounded shape we know today was inspired by okiagari-koboshi—a traditional doll with a weighted base that stands back up when knocked down. This limbless shape resembles Bodhidharma, who supposedly lost his arms and legs from nine years of meditation.
Though traditional Daruma dolls may look very similar to one another, these papier-mache dolls are individually hand-painted by master craftspeople. Around 80 percent of Daruma dolls are made in Takasaki, and Daimonya Co., Ltd is the largest producer. You can even paint your own at the shop.
Every detail of Daruma is rich in symbolism. The Daruma's eyebrows are shaped like cranes and the beards like turtles. As demonstrated by the Japanese saying, "the crane lives 1,000 years, the turtle 10,000," both of these creatures represent longevity.
Japanese kanji characters meaning "luck," "perseverance," and other similar words are painted onto the middle of the Daruma. Traditional Daruma dolls have rounded bases so that, even if knocked over, they will return to their upright position. This demonstrates a famous Japanese saying about the importance of perseverance: "seven times down, eight times up." This saying has been a popular one with the region's silk farmers who regard Daruma as an important guardian deity.
Daruma are available in various colors, each with a different meaning. Red is bought for general good fortune and is the most common color. Other colors are less traditional, and their meanings can be more fluid. Sometimes purple is considered the color for health and longevity, gold or yellow for wealth and prosperity, black for business success, pink for love, green for physical health, and blue for academic success. Modern use of Daruma is to represent the winning of an election in Japan: candidates fill in the second eye upon winning.
Daruma dolls are the perfect Gunma souvenir. Color in the Daruma's blank left eye as you make a wish and, when your wish is granted, color in the second. This represents restoring the deity's eyesight as in appreciation for granting your wish. You can still fill in the eye in recognition of a successful year if your wish has not yet been fulfilled.
Shorinzan Nanakusa Taisai Daruma Market Festival is a popular time to choose a Daruma for the year. The market starts on January 6 and runs until the 7.
A year after buying your Daruma, take it to a Buddhist temple, shrines, or hatsuichi festival in Gunma and burn it to free the deity. This process is supposed to occur whether or not your wish has been fulfilled. If you're still working towards your goal, buy a new Daruma and recommit to the goal or set a new goal. The Maebashi Hatsuichi Festival, held every January, is dedicated to Shinto rituals at shrines, Daruma's burning at Hachimangu Shrine, and a procession. Stalls sell Daruma dolls, other lucky charms, and food products throughout the day.