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Japanese lucky charms improve the year's outcome

By: David Knickerbocker

Date Posted: 2002-01-04

Happy New Year! Can you believe it痴 already here? According to the Chinese lunar calendar, this is the Year of the Horse, which will officially begin on Feb. 12. The years in Japan run in cycles of 12 in a system known as 兎to・under the signs of the 12 following animals: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and boar. It is your year of birth that determines your Chinese zodiacal sign. For more information on eto or to learn more about your sign, be sure to check out Master Rao痴 Astrology Center at www.asiaflash.com/rao/chinese_us.php.

The Japanese view many items as symbols of good luck, just as in America and other parts of the world a rabbit痴 foot is considered lucky. During the upcoming New Year痴 festivities, it wouldn稚 be a bad idea to pick up one of the following as a gift for a friend or loved one as a way to wish him or her good fortune in their life.

In Japan, the Shichifukujin are the seven gods of good luck. The word 都hichifukujin・is actually three Japanese words put together, with 都hichi・meaning seven, 吐uku・meaning luck and 屠in・meaning gods. They consist of seven gods and holy persons of Buddhism, Shintoism and Taoism and are used at temples and shrines where people pray for long life, well-being and success in business. The seven gods, often represented in statue form riding on a treasure ship, are Daikokuten, Ebisu, Bishamonten, Benzaiten, Fukurokuju, Jurojin and Hotei. These comical deities carry magical items such as an invisible hat, rolls of brocade, an inexhaustible purse, a lucky rain hat, robes of feathers, keys to the divine treasure house and important books and scrolls.

Daikokuten is a combination of the Indian god Mahakala and the Shinto kami (god) Ohkuni-nushi. He is identified as the god of the kitchen, of wealth or fortune and of the rice fields and agriculture. He holds a bag filled with treasures on his shoulder and a lucky mallet in his hand. With his mallet, he offers his disciples the skill of building, and with his assistance a devotee can build anything -- a business, a home or a fortune. According to myth, when shaking his mallet, coins will fall out, and if you tap the mallet on the ground three times and make a wish, your wish will come true.

Ebisu is an extremely popular deity of prosperity thought to have originally come from the sea bringing blessings from a distant land. The god of fishermen and wealth, he holds a large sea bream and a fishing rod. Ebisu is a businessman, an investor and a merchant.

Bishamonten is of Indian Buddhist origin. He is one of the Four Heavenly Kings and a symbol of authority. According to Buddhist lore, he lives in the fourth layer of Mt. Sumeru, a mountain sitting at the center of the world, and he protects the northern quarter and the preaching place of the Buddha. Represented as a fierce warrior in full armor with a spear in one hand and a pagoda in the other, Bishamonten is known as the god of war and warriors.

Benzaiten, originally Sarasvati, is a deity of Hindu origin introduced to Japan with Buddhism and associated with the arts and music. She has been credited with the power to grant long life, eloquence, wisdom and military victory, as well as provide protection from natural disaster. The goddess of music, she holds a lute called a biwa and is often depicted with coils of snakes. Benzaiten is the artist among the group. She offers her disciples the arts of acting, dancing, music and visual arts. She also has a jewel that grants wishes.

Fukurokuju is a Taoist god of longevity, popularity and wisdom. His name means happiness, wealth and longevity, and he is believed to have been a Chinese hermit of the Sung dynasty. Represented as a small elderly man with an elongated bald head, he is sometimes escorted by a crane, deer or tortoise and carries a book of sacred teachings tied to his staff, which has a scroll hanging from it. Some say that all of the information and wisdom of the world is written on it.

Jurojin is a Taoist god of longevity. He wears a long white beard and scholar痴 cap and is often accompanied by a stag, which is his messenger. He is the god of life and death and is also the timekeeper. Jurojin carries a staff with a scroll on it that has a list of the names of all life. Beside each name is the date and time of each life痴 birth and death.

Hotei is a deity of contentment and abundance. Taoist in origin, he is the god of happiness. He has a jolly face and a big fat belly. He is the god of laughter, and he sits on a bag of rice and has many children running around his feet.

The next time you see a small statue or wooden object of seven gods standing on a treasure ship, you will know that they are the Shichifukujin. Happy New Year and best wishes and prosperity to you and yours!

In Japan charms, amulets and talismans are collectively known as omamori. The word literally means to protect or defend, and these items are intended to offer protection against a wide range of problems and uncertainties including sickness, shipwrecks, fires, painful childbirths and other misfortunes.

Omamori are often small pieces of paper or cloth with the name of a god or special invocation written on them. Ofuda are another type of good luck charm. They are generally thin, oblong pieces of wood displaying the picture of a god or the name of a shrine or temple. The difference between ofuda and omamori is rather vague, but both are considered sacred and are distributed as good luck charms by Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. The difference between the two lies mainly in the way they are used rather than in their appearance. Originally, omamori were kept in bamboo tubes or worn around the neck, but they are now carried in small bags called omamori bukuro and are worn or carried by a person desiring protection. Ofuda are usually attached to the entrance gate or door of a home or are placed in the family shrine.

Compared to their Western counterparts, Japanese omamori are much more a part of everyday life than are their foreign cousins. During the New Year痴 holidays, millions of Japanese from across the nation brave huge crowds and long lines to pay their respects at temples and shrines and buy their omamori.

Omamori have a wide range of uses. They frequently serve as souvenirs from travels, and they make wonderful gifts for friends and coworkers. They can be purchased to wish good health to a friend or luck to someone who is about to take a difficult test. It wouldn稚 be a bad idea to pick one of these up for a friend or loved one during this New Year痴 season.

Daruma good luck charms are favorites among the Japanese, who buy them with hopes of good luck during the next year. Daruma is the common name of the Indian priest Bodhidharma, who introduced Buddhism to Japan from India. After sitting in silent meditation for 10 years, losing the use of his arms and legs, he continued to teach and do good deeds; thus the daruma came to represent perseverance and great determination. Buddhism teaches these traits as the basis for good luck. The daruma痴 eyes have been left blank for a reason. When you make a wish, draw or put in one of the eyes. When your wish comes true, add the other eye.

Another very common good luck charm is the maneki-neko, a statue of a cat with a raised forepaw. This figurine has long been viewed in Japan as a symbol of good luck, 澱eckoning・good fortune and business success with its curled paw. Either the right or the left paw can be raised; some say that the right paw indicates wealth, while the left represents friendship, people or customers.

Other items include the figures of Jizo, a bodhisattva that keeps children safe, pens with a red Buddhist daruma doll attached at the end and Native American dream-catchers.

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