Seven has been an auspicious number for thousands of years in countries around the world, and Japan is no exception. There are seven basic principles of the Samurai's philosophy (bushido), the Japanese Star Festival tanabata is on the seventh day of the seventh month, a baby's birth is celebrated on the seventh day, a death is mourned for seven days, and again after seven weeks. In Buddhism, the main 'religion' of Japan, people believe in seven reincarnations. (more)
It is not surprising then that there are seven gods in the shichifukujin.
When you first see images of these seven gods, you might think they belong in a toy shop. Seven comical-looking characters, mostly with chubby faces and big grins. Surely people don't worship these?
Yes, they do. Shichifukujin have been an important part of Japanese culture since the 15th century (Muromachi era). They come from different parts of Asia (mainly China, India and of course Japan) and from different religions (mainly Brahmanism, Buddhism, Taoism and Shintoism). Although most of these characters have a courtly or scholarly appearance, they were popularised by farmers, merchants and artisans. Consequently their treasures are practical things like rice, fish and cash, rather than gold or jewels.
Special focus is placed on these seven deities in the New Year. The gods arrive each 31st December on their treasure ship to dispense gifts of happiness and luck to believers. Traditionally, before going to bed on New Year's Eve, children place a picture of the gods under their pillow to ensure a happy and prosperous New Year.
But this juvenile custom and the doll-like effigies are not just the domain of children. During the first seven days of the year, whole families will visit temples and shrines to pay their respects to the shichifukujin. Many of these places are dedicated to just one of the gods, so people often make a tour of seven shrines to see them all, to ensure they benefit from all types of luck. This pilgrimage tour (shichifukujin meguri) is not restricted to the New Year and usually takes place in the same neighbourhood. The tradition has been popular since the beginning of the Edo period (17th century). Now, there are about twenty such groups of seven shrines in Tokyo alone and are over one hundred in Japan as a whole.
Separate from the shichifukujin pilgrimage, is the traditional 'First Shrine Visit of the New Year' (hatsumode). In the New Year, millions of visitors pour into shrines around the country to pray for prosperity in the year ahead. Some shrines are considered more powerful than others and so become extremely busy with thousands of people, slowly trudging along to pay their respects.
And payment is done literally.
At the entrance of the shrine, there's a large wooden collection box for pilgrims to toss their coins into. Above the box is a huge bell, which people ring after depositing their coins, to alert the gods to pay attention to their prayers. After a couple of hand-claps, the pilgrim moves out of the way for the next person in line. Though made to Buddhist or Shinto altars, the pilgrimages aren't especially religious. Most Japanese have a relatively casual attitude toward their religious affiliations, and the New Year's visits are more of a chance to dress up, shop for lucky charms and socialize, than they are an opportunity to pray.
The Meiji-jingu shrine in Tokyo usually has the biggest crowd - over three million people each New Year. Instead of a collection box, there's a huge white sheet to catch the coins thrown by the crowd as they approach. Hard-hats are advised for the front row of pilgrims! Of course, the money you pay is an investment - the more you pay in, the more luck you will receive. Companies even send their senior managers with cash, although in times of recession many companies shy away from this tradition.
For some people, shichifukujin epitomizes all the virtues of God, whereas for others this is a rather shallow view.
The Seven Fukunokami of the Shichifukujin
Ebisu is the patron of fishermen and favours them with a good catch. He also ensures safe journeys for all seafarers since he himself arrived into Japan from the sea. In the countryside, he is considered a guardian of the rice fields and agriculture in general. Land merchants, caterers, farmers and other tradesmen have adopted Ebisu for prosperity in return for their hard work. All this makes him the most popular of the seven gods.
His trademark is a large fish; usually a red sea-bream (red snapper) (tai), carp (koi), cod (tara) or sea bass (suzuki). The fish either dangles from a rod in his right hand or is carried under his left arm. He has a cheerful smile behind his neat beard and wears a pointed hunter's cap (kazeori eboshi). Ebisu is the son of Daikoku and they are often depicted together in carvings and paintings.
Daikoku came to Japan from China in the 9th century, although originally he was an incarnation of Shivain in India, where he protected people against evil forces. In addition to giving a good harvest to farmers, he is another god that ensures prosperity and wealth in commerce and trade. He is also guardian for cooks and all kitchen workers. People who dream of financial riches tend to worship this god.
Daikoku wears ancient courtly hunting clothing with a hood or bonnet. He stands or sits on bulging rice bales and his portly belly implies he's well-fed and prosperous. In the sack slung over his left shoulder, he carries treasure. Exactly what type of treasure is unclear - perhaps it's the great treasure of wisdom and patience. In the old days, 'treasure' might have been sufficient rice to overcome hunger. These days it may be a huge pile of cash, or the ultimate treasure - free time!
In his right hand he holds a lucky wooden mallet (uchide-no-kozuchi) that dispenses good fortune whenever he strikes it. Daikoku is the father of Ebisu and they are often depicted together in carvings and paintings.
The mallet often has the auspicious tomoe motif. In Japan both the Tomoe and the related Triquetra are used as a kamon; a sort of heraldic coat of arms (ka means 'family' and mon means 'crest'). Like the cross in European heraldry, kamon were used especially in battle to identify individuals or members of a clan. They were first owned by the aristocracy and later rolled out to anyone associated with that community. Kamon are still used by Japanese, especially as decorations on their formal kimono.
Benten was an angel of one of the three major Indian goddesses, Sarasvati, the goddess of fine arts: music,
painting, sculpture, dance and literature. These attributes help to soften the vulgarity of monetary wealth, and therefore this goddess is included in the group of seven. Although Sarasvati is a Hindu goddess, Benten came to Japan with Buddhism.
She is the goddess of luck, love, eloquence, education, the arts, science, and patron of students, artists, geishas, and entertainers in the eating-and-drinking business. Her virtues also include happiness, prosperity and longevity. She can protect us from natural disasters and gives wisdom to succeed in battle.
Benten is the only female deity among the Shichifukujin and always carries a Japanese mandolin (biwa). Often she sits or stands on a lotus leaf, and sometimes rides a white dragon, sea serpent or snake. These creatures represent jealously, so married couples often do not visit her shrine together. Occasionally she is seen with multiple arms (four, six or eight) which enable her to perform the various arts simultaneously.
Fukurokuju is from an old Taoist god who in turn is based on the old Chinese sage Lao Tzu who had kept archives for the imperial court in the Sung dynasty. He was renowned for performing miracles, particularly in the field of longevity and prosperity. Therefore he is the deity of wisdom, good luck, happiness, wealth, virility and longevity. He is thought to share his body with Jurojin.
Fukurokuju's appearance is similar to Jurojin's: He wears a long, flowing Chinese costume, and holds a sturdy walking stick to support himself in his advancing years. On the walking stick is tied a parchment scroll (makimono) on which is written sacred teachings and all the wisdom of the world. He usually also carries a folding ceremonial fan (ogi). He has a high forehead, a dome-shaped bald head topped with a scholar's cap, and a long white beard symbolising wisdom and age. By his side is usually a stag or deer (shika), a tortoise (kame) or a crane (tsuru), all symbolizing longevity.
The rotund Hotei is the only member of the shichifukujin based on a mortal; an eccentric Chinese Zen monk called Pu-tai and thought to be the reincarnation of Maitreya (miroku Bosatsu), a Buddhist saint.
Hotei, like Daikoku, is a god of abundance. He is also the god of laughter and the happiness you can achieve by being satisfied with what you have. He is the god of joy and satisfaction in trade, hence a Hotei statue is often positioned at the entrance of stores.
He is depicted as a laughing man with a huge belly symbolising his benevolent soul. He carries a ceremonial fan (ogi) and a large bag of riches (usually rice) over his shoulder. The supply of rice from his bag is never exhausted so he can afford to be generous; there is always sufficient to feed the hungry. Sometimes he is shown sitting in a cart drawn by a few grateful children who have benefited from Hotei's altruism.
Jurojin is a Taoist god from China and thought to inhabit the same body as Fukurokuju. He is the god of wealth, wisdom and happiness for our long lives.
Jurojin's appearance is similar to Fukurokuju's: a smiling old man dressed as a Chinese sage, long white beard and an elongated bald head. He also has a staff with a scroll (makimono) attached, which contains a life study of the world and the secret of longevity. He is sometimes flanked by a stag or deer (shika) as his messenger, a tortoise (kame) or a crane (tsuru), all of which symbolize longevity.
Bishamon is a Buddhist deity from India and a protector of the righteous and a symbol of authority. He lives at the earth's core in the fourth layer of Mount Sumeru, protecting the northern quarter and the teaching seat of Buddha. He is one of Buddhism's 'Four Guardians' (shi-tenno) and carries a small 'treasure tower' or pagoda (tahoutou) in his left hand.
Bishamon is the god of prosperity (symbolised by the 'treasure tower'), the god of war and patron of warriors (symbolised by the defensive armour and offensive weapon). He brings good luck in both battle and defence. He is protector of the Buddhist law and defender of peace. (See also Crenel Cross)
The bearded Bishamon is identified as a fierce warrior wearing a full suit of armour, helmet and armed with a sword, spear, trident or pike (hoko) in his right hand. From the pagoda, he dispenses treasure and good fortune to poor, worthy people. Having given people their riches, he uses his skill to protect them from evil and guard their treasure. However, since he meets few 'worthy' people, he is usually forced to destroy the treasure.
Not only statues of stone
Shichifukujin are seen all over Japan; as stone statues, wood carvings, paintings, ice sculptures, and even acrylic stick-on nails (tsuketsume). The set of fake talons in this photo were seen in a Tokyo 'nail art studio' window during the first seven days of January; the best time of year to see Shichifukujin.
Other 'lucky' pages: