The history and meaning of Japanese Daruma dolls

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Although Japan has many symbols of luck and good fortune, the Daruma doll is without a doubt a favorite. Believed to have supernatural and psychological powers, traditional papier-mâché figurines are used to help their owners achieve their goals.

Read on to find out the history and meaning of these lucky charms.

What is a Daruma doll?

A Daruma doll is a hollow, round Japanese doll that dates from the 17th century. Traditionally, farmers in the town of Takasaki made the first versions of the figures as charms to be blessed by the monks. They believed that the dolls would bring them a good harvest and selling them was also a way to supplement their income during tough economic times. Over the following decades, the practice of using Daruma for good luck spread across the country.

Today, Daruma dolls are typically purchased at the start of the Japanese New Year with the belief that they can help you achieve your goals. They are found in Japanese store windows, on restaurant shelves, and inside many homes. They are also a popular keepsake for people visiting Japan who want to take home a lucky charm.

Who do the Daruma dolls represent?

Japanese Daruma Dolls

Woodcut of Indian monk Bodhidharma by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, 1852 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

The Daruma is modeled on Bodhidharma (Where Daruma-Daishi in Japanese), a monk who lived from the 5th to the 6th century. He is credited as the founder of Zen Buddhism and a type of sitting meditation called Zazen.

Legend has it that Bodhidharma remained in deep meditation for nine years with his eyes open, staring at a white wall. He closed his eyes once and was so mad at himself for breaking perseverance that he cut his eyelids off. As it fell to the ground, green tea leaves grew where they landed. This is why many Buddhist monks drink green tea to stay awake.

Besides losing his eyelids, Bodhidharma’s arms and legs simply withered away after years of stillness. But the fearless spirit of Bodhidharma, however, remained. And today, Daruma dolls – with their wide open eyes and limbless shapes – represent the figure of folklore.

Features of Daruma dolls

Japanese Daruma Dolls

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Eyes

Daruma dolls are sold with large empty eyes. The idea is for the owner of the doll to paint over the missing pupils themselves. Once you have decided on your goal, you paint an eye to signify your commitment. Once you’ve achieved your goal, you paint over the second eye, giving the god back his sight as a thank you.

Fur

Daruma’s beard and eyebrows are painted to resemble Bodhidharma facial hair, but they also have important meaning. The eyebrows are drawn in the shape of cranes while the beard is designed to resemble turtles. This is because the two creatures represent longevity. The idea comes from a Japanese proverb which says: “The crane lives 1,000 years, the turtle 10,000 years.

Body

The rounded body of the Daruma doll represents the limbless form of Bodhidharma in folklore, but it makes more sense. The original dolls were designed to return to an upright position if knocked over. It is a reminder of perseverance: no matter how many times you are knocked down, you always have to get up. It also refers to the Japanese expression nanakorobi yaoki, which means “seven times lower, eight times higher”.

Japanese Daruma Dolls

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Writing

Kanji characters for “luck”, “fortune” and “perseverance” are sometimes written under the face of the Daruma. However, some people paint their own personal wish on their doll to remember their purpose.

Color

You can find Daruma dolls decorated in all kinds of colors, but the most common shade is Red. Historians do not yet agree on the reason, but some suspect that red represents the color of Bodhidharma’s robe. Others believe that the color red signifies supernatural powers. In the past, the Japanese wore red clothes or jewelry or decorated their doors with red ropes. It was an attempt to drive out the “smallpox god” from entering their homes and giving them disease. Throughout history, Daruma dolls have been used to defend against disease and aid recovery.

Daruma dolls can also be found in other colors, including white, gold, and pink. Different colors indicate a different goal or wish. Below is what some of the shades are meant to mean. However, it should be noted that there are differing opinions on this matter, so this list should not be taken as a fact.

  • White: Purity
  • Yellow or Gold: Money and glory
  • Black: Prevention of bad luck
  • Orange: Academic achievement
  • Blue: Education and professional status
  • Green: Health and fitness
  • Purple: Personal improvement
  • Pink: Love and Romance
  • Money: Social status

How are Daruma dolls made?

Japanese Daruma Dolls

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About 80% of Japanese Daruma dolls are made in the city of Takasaki it’s north of Tokyo. They are made from a special type of handmade papier mache called washi. The making of washi is an art in its own right, and the labor-intensive craftsmanship is even listed as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage. The material is made from fibers found in the inner bark of the gampi tree, mitsumata shrub, or paper mulberry (kōzo) Bush.

Once the rounded shape of the Daruma is achieved, each one is hand painted by expert craftsmen. Since each doll is handmade, each is completely unique.

How to use a Daruma doll

Japanese Daruma Dolls

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Once your Daruma has received a specific wish, you paint over the first eye. You then display the doll in a visible location in your home or workplace to remind you to work every day to achieve your goal. Once this is achieved, the second eye is painted and the wish is sometimes written on the back.

To properly harness the power of a Daruma doll, you are supposed to bring it back to the temple from where you bought it after one year. Even if your goal has not yet been achieved, you must burn the doll in order to free the god. There is even a ceremony called daruma kuyo Where dondoyaki at several temples across Japan, where thousands of people come to have their dolls blessed before a ritual mass burning. You can then purchase a new doll as a renewal of your vow and the process begins again.

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