The Seven Lucky Gods and Their Role in Japanese Folklore
If you have ever been to Japan, you might have come across statues of the Seven Lucky Gods in a Shinto or Buddhist shrine. You may also have seen portrayals of them in woodblock prints or noticed them being sold to tourists as figurines, dolls and charms. The Seven Lucky Gods are derived from a range of different cultural influences and their symbolic representations vary, leaving many visitors to Japan scratching their heads and wondering: who are the seven lucky gods, and what is the symbolic significance of these curious figures?
The Seven Lucky Gods are known in Japan as Shichi Fukujin, the ‘Seven Gods of Good Fortune’. Adapted from various Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist and Shinto gods and saints, they are thought to have been grouped together in Japanese folklore around the 17th Century.
According to tradition, the Seven Lucky Gods arrive aboard a treasure-laden ship (Takarabune) on New Year’s Day and distribute gifts of wealth and prosperity to worthy people. The Takarabune is often pictured on pochibukuro, the red envelopes used to give money to children at New Year. It is said that those who leave a picture of the Seven Lucky Gods under their pillows on New Year’s Eve will enjoy a whole year of good luck.
Who are the Seven Lucky Gods?
The symbolic meanings and physical attributes of the Seven Lucky Gods vary slightly depending where you are in Japan, but are roughly as follows:
- Hotei – the god of abundance and good health, Hotei is depicted as a Buddhist monk with a smiling face and a protruding belly. He is usually pictured holding a sack and a wooden staff.
- Jurojin – Jurojin is the god of wisdom and long life. He is portrayed as an old man with a long white beard, who wears a hat and holds a knobbled walking stick with a scroll tied to it.
- Fukurokuju – the god of happiness, wealth and longevity, Fukurokuju has an elongated forehead and a long moustache. He too holds a walking stick with a scroll tied to it, so is often confused with Jurojin.
- Bishamonten – the god of warriors and defence against evil, Bishamonten has a fierce demeanour and is nearly always dressed in armour with a weapon in hand.
- Benzaiten – Benzaiten is the goddess of knowledge, art and beauty. She wears a flowing, Chinese style dress and holds an instrument, usually a biwa (Japanese lute) or flute.
- Daikokuten – Daikokuten is the god of wealth, commerce and trade. He usually has a smile on his face and a big bag of money, and is sometimes pictured holding a magic mallet.
- Ebisu – Ebisu is the god of fishermen and merchants. He tends to be pictured holding a fishing rod and/or a sea bream.
If you would like to know more about the Seven Lucky Gods, I recommend reading this blog post by Kusuyama, a San Francisco-based supplier of fine Japanese crafts. This informative post contains various artistic portrayals of the gods, including statues, wooden carvings, woodblock prints, paintings and even anime drawings. Alternatively, give a friend or family member the ultimate good luck gift with a stunning ceramic Seven Lucky Gods set mounted on a wooden plinth, available from The Japanese Shop. (Or just keep it for yourself – we won’t tell.)