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There's More to the Daruma Than Meets the Eye

From a good luck charm for children to a talisman for sexual potency and childbirth, the daruma has been many things to many people throughout history.



A daruma with its left eye painted in. (©John Carroll)

Anyone in Japan who has watched election night news reports in Japan is surely aware of the role of the daruma doll. Winning politicians are frequently shown painting in the right eye of a scowling, rotund red doll with no arms or legs, fashioned from papier mâché or wood. As for the left eye, it is typically filled in at the start of their campaigns. The concept is that the first white eye is painted in with dark black ink when one makes a wish and the other eye after it is fulfilled.  


A Good Luck Talisman

As is the case with politicians, many Japanese typically purchase a daruma when they are embarking on a major project. This could be an ambitious sales campaign, preparation for a university entrance exam, or a major sporting contest. It is meant to symbolize perseverance and resilience. 

Daruma dolls of various shapes and sizes at Horinji temple. Some are covered in paper talismans. (©John Carroll)

In recent years, daruma in colors other than red have also become popular. The colors supposedly match the benefit sought after. Gold for getting rich, white for educational endeavors, pink for luck in romance, and so on. There is also considerable regional variation, although nowadays the city of Takasaki in Gunma Prefecture produces roughly 80 percent of all daruma dolls. 

The Daruma's Origin Story

Daruma dolls are meant to represent Bodhidharma (Damo in Chinese). The semi-legendary Buddhist monk is traditionally believed to have brought to China (some sources say from South India, some from Central Asia) the core teachings of what developed into Chan (Zen) Buddhism. Chan, which was highly influenced by Taoism as well as Buddhism itself, emerged in China around the seventh century. 

Bodhidharma is famously said to have spent nine years in a cave on Mt Song. This is the same peak on which the venerable Shaolin monastery was built. Here, it is said that he meditated silently in front of a wall, which caused his arms and legs to atrophy and eventually drop off. By some accounts, at one point he had cut off his own eyelids when he happened to doze off. 

Daruma has had many fearsome faces over the centuries, several of which are in the collection of Horinji temple. (©John Carroll)

Bodhidharma and Zen Buddhism

As for why the daruma always looks so ill-tempered, perhaps that has to do with the fact that Bodhidharma's enemies supposedly tried to assassinate him on more than one occasion. A widely accepted tradition was that they finally got to him with poison. Nonetheless, another tradition says he survived to the very ripe age of 150. According to one story, when his grave was opened, nothing was to be found inside except for one shoe.

There is even a Japanese legend that this mysterious Zen patriarch traveled to Japan. There, it is said that he took on the form of a beggar. He then encountered the Shotoku Taishi (Prince Shotoku), the great early promoter of Buddhism in Japan, in Nara.

A blood-red Bodhidharma at Horinji temple. (©John Carroll)

Why Red?

It is sometimes said that daruma were traditionally red because Bodhidharma, like other high-ranking Buddhist priests, wore a red robe. But the more likely explanation is that he had become identified with infectious diseases introduced into Japan from abroad. Specifically, smallpox was a scourge throughout much of Japanese history. The highly contagious variola virus was rife as late as the Edo period. Many children lost their eyesight even if they did not perish. 

Records from premodern Europe indicate that prior to the adoption of vaccinations, smallpox might have been responsible for roughly one-third of all cases of blindness there as well. Perhaps, filling in the eyes of the daruma might be seen as a form of sympathetic magic. 

Daruma souvenirs at Horinji temple. (©John Carroll)

Symbol of Resilience

A daruma doll is weighted so that no matter how many times it is pushed over, it will pop up again. Thus, it symbolizes the ability to overcome adversity and recover from misfortune, or as a common saying would have it, "fall seven times, get up eight" (nana korobi, ya oki).

Daruma have been around for roughly four centuries. However, the armless, legless-style representation only seems to have become popular in the middle of the 18th century. Tumbling daruma apparently came into being as a good luck charm to protect children. 

The Daruma Hall in Kyoto

On a recent visit to the Daruma Hall at the Horinji temple (also known as the Darumadera), a Rinzai Zen temple in western Kyoto, I marveled at the roughly 8,000 daruma in various shapes and sizes. A ceremony honoring the founding father of Zen is held here annually on November 1. 

Horinji temple, also known as the Darumadera. (©John Carroll)

Daruma reached the height of their popularity during the Edo period. This is when Bodhidharma became a pop culture figure well-known among the common people and a target for satiric Edo humor. Said to have been the third son of a great king, Bodhidharma was frequently referred to as the "Blue-Eyed Barbarian" and always depicted as appropriately hairy. 

Daruma During the Edo Period

One example of the mirthful takes on this holy man is the Moriyama scene in the 1852 woodblock print series Sixty-Nine Stations along the Kiso Kaido by Utagawa Kuniyoshi. Daruma Daishi is depicted here as a corpulent and very hairy "barbarian" slurping down noodles, the local delicacy. There are perhaps twenty servings of noodles around him, of which he has already consumed roughly half. Meanwhile, an obviously amazed waiter brings him even more.


Even more irreverent were the illustrations showing Bodhidharma consorting with ladies of the night or cross-dressing. This probably came about because of the popularity of daruma as good luck charms in Edo-era brothels. "Daruma" was in fact a nickname for prostitutes. 

In that respect, they were carrying on a tradition begun with an earlier type of roly-poly, weighted doll known as the okiagari-koboshi. The toy is generally associated with the Aizu-Wakamatsu district in Tohoku. Its name literally means "the little kid who keeps getting up." The daruma came to symbolize not only quick recovery from disease but also sexual potency. A kind of visual Viagra perhaps?

It was also during the Edo period that the practice of building daruma out of fallen snow took hold (yuki daruma). Although daruma snow sculptures were undoubtedly the most popular, there were also snow cats (yuki neko), snow bunnies (yuki usagi), snow frogs (yuki kaeru), and snow tigers (yuki tora). All of this really had nothing to do with Zen, mind you. 

Different Forms Across Time

Bernard Faure, a prominent scholar of Eastern religions, speculates that the legends of Bodhidharma spawned a variety of popular manifestations before becoming the daruma we are familiar with today. Bodhidharma's assassination by poisoning might have turned him into an avenging spirit (onryo). This in turn made him an excellent candidate to be viewed as a foreign disease god. 

But he also seems to have had aspects of a mountain god, a god of destiny, a crossroads god, and a god associated with silkworm cultivation. But at the same time, he was neither a native kami nor a Buddhist deity per se. 

Faure also believes Bodhidharma came to be regarded as a placenta god, which would explain his blood-red robe. Numerology has always been important in popular religion, and as you will recall Bodhidharma supposedly remained in his cave for nine years. An unborn baby remains in the mother's womb for roughly nine months. Mere coincidence? In any event, we know that during the Edo period, common people prayed to him for easy childbirth. 


Author: John Carroll

John Carroll is a Kyoto-based freelance writer and JAPAN Forward contributor. He is currently writing a book on the religious traditions and superstitions of Japan's ancient capital.

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