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Categories: A to Z of Japan, Events

In our A to Z of Japan we outline the best bits of Japanese culture letter by letter, this week we’re taking a look at ‘D’, and our top pick is ‘Daruma dolls’.

Daruma dolls are round, hollow Japanese good luck charms that bear the face of a bearded man.  They are a longstanding part of Japanese culture and are thought to be modelled on the founder of Zen Buddhism, Bodhidharma. The signature red is thought to have been chosen as it was the colour of Bodhidharma’s robes, but they are also available in other colours too, each of which has a slightly different meaning. The dolls are said to represent the proverb “The crane lives 1000 years, the tortoise 10,000 years”, and the beard is meant to look like a tortoise’s shell and the eyebrows like a crane.

Daruma dolls are made of papier-mâché, and they have a weight inside which makes them roll upright onto their base when they’re tipped over. This roly-poly quality is considered to represent the idea of never giving up, and Daruma dolls embody the Japanese saying, “fall down seven times and get up eight”.

Daruma dolls are known for their round, empty eyes. Traditionally a goal or wish is painted in the left eye, and then when you complete the goal, or the wish comes true, you can then fill in the right pupil. The doll is always placed somewhere prominent so that you keep the goal it represents in mind through the year.

The dolls are thought to have originated in the Temple of Daruma in Takasaki in Gunma Prefecture where a priest at the local temple, Shorinzan Daruma-ji, would create good luck charms each year featuring the founder of Buddhism. When famine hit in the mid-17th century he taught locals to make their own versions. Each year the city has a Daruma Doll Festival and hundreds of thousands of people flock to celebrate the creation of the Daruma doll.

The day after New Year’s Day Daruma’s are brought back to the temple they were originally bought from, and they are burnt in the ‘Daruma Kuyo’. New ones are then bought for the year ahead, so that new goals can be achieved and recorded on the dolls.