One of my favorite pieces of Japanese culture is the Daruma doll. I don’t know that it’s made its way to Western culture yet, although I think I have seen a Daruma doll here and there at various Japanese restaurants. The more popular Japanese talisman seen in the US at least is the Maneki Neko (who I also love).
The Daruma doll has a really interesting history, and contains a lot of symbolism, as well. Today they are used as a sort of good luck charm, and when you purchase on you get to make a request of the Daruma doll. I’ve heard some people describe it as a wish, and others as a goal. From what I know of Japanese culture, which really values hard work, I think “goal” might be the more appropriate term. Basically, you hope for a certain goal to be accomplished, and the Daruma doll will aide you in realizing this goal. Of course, you have to put in some hard work, too. The reason I think “wish” isn’t the appropriate word is because a “wish” usually doesn’t require work from the wisher.
Traditionally, Daruma dolls are bought from a temple on New Year’s day. When a Daruma doll is first purchased, it has white, blank eyes. After you profess your goal (or wish) to the Daruma doll, a pupil is added to just ONE of his eyes. Most of the sources I’ve consulted have said it is the left eye that should receive a pupil, although I have also read that it doesn’t matter which eye you choose. When your goal (or wish) comes true, you then grant the Daruma full sight and add the second pupil. Additionally, at the end of the year, should your goal (or wish) have come true, you should return to the temple where you originally bought your Daruma doll. Here there will be a great bonfire where everyone burns their dolls. (Side note: what’s the motivation for the Daruma doll to help you with your goal or wish when you will BURN him at the end of the year if he does so?? I’m investigating the answer to this question…)
Of course, you can buy Daruma dolls in other places and at other times of the year. Originally, Daruma dolls were always red, but now they come in all sorts of colors and sizes, ranging from itty-bitty to absolutely enormous.
But the legend of the Daruma doll is always what has interested me the most. As with most ancient things, there are various different tall tales surrounding the origin of the Daruma doll. This is my favorite story I’ve read about, which describes why the Daruma doll looks the way it does.
Bodhidharma, a Buddhist monk, also known as the father of Zen Buddhism, went on a quest of sorts to mediate for nine years. Once, he began to drift off into sleep. In anger at his own weakness, he cut off his eyelids, so he would no longer accidentally close his eyes to sleep. (Side note–he also threw the eyelids on to the ground, which then grew into the first green tea plants! And, subsequently, green tea helps to prevent drowsiness.) At some point during this nine year quest, his legs and arms atrophied so much that they simply fell off, thus turning him into a little ball of a man!
There are other bits of symbolism that account for Daruma’s other features. For example, some Daruma dolls are weighted, so that if they are knocked over they pop back up. This coincides with the Japanese proverb “Fall down seven times, get up eight.”
His eyebrows are also meant to resemble cranes and the mustache to resemble a tortoise shell. Both the crane and tortoise are symbols of longevity in Japan.
Over 80% of Daruma dolls are made in Takasaki, Gunma, Japan. This weekend I made a little pilgrimage to Shorinzan, the temple that made Daruma famous. I was excited to see where the Daruma doll truly originated.
Click here to see the whole image set!
Of course, I’m not an expert on Daruma! If you want to learn more, you should check out these websites (where I got a lot of my information): We Love Daruma, Daruma.jp, Japanese Buddhist Statuary. Or, better yet, visit Takasaki and the Shorinzan temple!