I’m not a Japanologist but the country has always been alluring to me, its history with the samurai in the Sengoku period, its style like ukiyo-e paintings and woodblock prints, its pantheon of gods like Susanoo and Amaterasu, the stories about kitsune and Yamato no Orochi, … It’s no wonder that my one of my favourite games of all time, Okami, encompasses almost all of this adding some extraordinary music to it. That game is still fantastic after all these years. But I’m not here to sing my praise to the game. There’s another aspect of Japan, one that deals with tradition, symbolism and wish-granting. There’s the obvious Senbazuru legend where a single person can fold a thousand cranes, one for each year that the crane is told to live, and where at the completion of this task, will get a wish granted by the gods, or good luck for the rest of their lives. I’ve done this once (I got bored during the exam periods) but made no wish, as you’re supposed to keep all the cranes. Instead, I gave them away to people in return for a small donation to a good cause, which was the goal I had in mind from the beginning, I never intended to keep them all to myself. Looking at where I am now, I could’ve used that extra luck, but unlike my own eyes, hindsight is 20/20. Another popular lucky charm is the Maneki-neko. You can read up on that yourself, I’m getting off track too much already, as usual.
To get to the point of this blog, another Japanese tradition are Daruma dolls. They’re these round figurines, usually in papier-mâché, representing a bearded man with big white eyes. Each Daruma doll is unique in the way of colour (though they’re usually red) and design including the shape of the beard and other facial features. The dolls are rather commercialized these days, so I don’t think they’re as unique as they are marketed to be, but I don’t doubt there are some people out there who still make them in the traditional way. The doll is another kind of talisman of good luck, usually presented as a gift to someone as a symbol of encouragement and perseverance. When the receiver gets the doll, the eyes are usually just blank white spots. He or she can then think of a goal or wish when filling in one eye. The bigger the doll, the bigger the wish can be. The doll then acts like a talisman for good luck, warding off misfortune. According to some stories, the goal or wish has to be an obtainable one, the doll is only there as a reminder and lucky charm, to help you with the journey but you’re the one who needs to take the steps. As you can see from my own Daruma doll, I’m not there yet.
The shape of the Daruma is based on Bodhidharma who was a Chinese monk during the 5th or 6th century and one of the earliest Chan Buddhists (the progenitor of Zen). There’s not that much known about the man and most of it is has the status of legends. One of these tells how Bodhidharma was an avid wall-gazer. On one occasion, he sat there for nine years without moving so that his arms and legs just fell off, leaving just his head and torso which the ball shape of the Daruma refers to. Other versions tell how he was so angry at himself when he fell asleep, he cut his eyelids off to prevent it from happening again, leading to the wide white eyes. Alternatively, he got so hungry during his meditation that he just ate his limbs to sustain himself.
In the early 18th century, the founder of the Daruma temple in Takasaki, Japan, often painted Bodhidharma on New Year’s charms which were kept by the people as talismans for good luck. This luck lasted for a whole year, meaning the people needed new ones every year. A few priests later, when demand for the charms got so high that it became a bit of a hassle, the temple came up with a solution: they would provide wooden blocks that acted like molds so that the people could make their own three-dimensional Daruma charms by using papier-mâché. At one point in the 19th century, this practice combined itself with tumbler dolls, toys that we know in Western countries as well, resulting in the shape we know today. The dolls are weighted at the bottom, making sure they can put themselves upright again. This in itself is supposed to represent the overcoming of obstacles. The red colour stems from the robes of a high-ranking priest, referencing the important figure of Bodhidharma. The doll became an important part of the region known for its silk farming which can use all the luck it can get. This importance can still be seen today as each year the city of Takasaki holds a Daruma doll festival honoring their mascot.
I’m not someone who really dabbles into superstitions, but I love the stories behind these things. So the reason that Daruma standing there on my shelf is two-fold: one, I like it for what it represents, how it looks and what it means without explicitly believing in it, though maybe there is part of me that does believe, or wants it to be true. Secondly and most importantly, it’s just a reminder to myself, a beacon of encouragement, telling me to hold on. That one eye, staring at me whenever I look at it, isn’t there to judge. It just reassures me that while I might not be there, there’s no reason to give up yet. I’m going to fill in that other eye, one day. I swore that to myself when filling in the first, and I’ve never broken a promise. I don’t intend to start breaking them either. It’s nothing spiritual, just an unchecked mark in my story.
This blog was brought to you by: Okami OST – The Sun Rises