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There are seven wonders of the world, seven days of the week, early astronomers recgognised seven planets, we avoid the seven deadly sins, and we pray for sevens at slot machines. The world has always had a fascination with the number seven and Japan is no exception. In fact, the number ‘nana’, ‘shichi’ , ‘seven’ or whatever you want to call it, is quite a big deal in Japan.
With the influence of Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism tying in with the native Shintoism over the years, Japan’s reverence for the number is entrenched. Buddhism introduces the idea of seven reincarnations, a birth is officially celebrated seven days after the event and death is mourned for seven days (and then re-mourned after seven weeks). We could go on. But nowhere is this number and its lucky connotations more obvious than its manifestation in the form of ‘Shichifukujin’, or the Seven Lucky gods.
The Shichifukujin (‘shichi’ meaning seven, ‘fuku’ meaning ‘luck’ and ‘jin’ meaning ‘person’) can be found at temples all over Japan throughout the year, but it is the New Year when these lucky gods really come into play. During the first seven days of the year (there’s that number again), the gods hop aboard the Takarabune (treasure boat) and descend to earth bringing the prospect of luck and good fortune. Although each god previously existed individually, they exploded in popularity as a ‘lucky super-group’ of seven in the 17th century. Now, across Japanese New Year, people keep pictures of the lucky gods under their pillows and do their best to visit them all at local temples for a slice of the luck in the year to come.
Probably best get to know this characterful bunch. Who are they and what do they do?
The first is a god of work and the patron of fishermen and tradesmen, Ebisu. As an island nation reliant on the power and promise of the sea, it is no surprise that Ebisu is the only of the seven with origins in Japan’s native religion, Shintoism. Whenever you come across a depiction of Ebisu, he’ll be flashing a big smile wielding his a fishing rod in one hand and a large red Tai (red snapper) in the other, which is believed to be another harbinger of good luck as it sounds like the Japanese word for “auspicious” (medetai). Ebisu has come to symbolize plentiful fishing, safe sailing, and business prosperity, and as such, can now be spotted in small shrines of shopkeepers and merchants across Japan. These days, you can even buy a famous brand of beer with his grinning, lucky face emblazoned on the can.
Daikokuten, the second of the seven, has come a long way since his origin as the Hindu god Shiva and Buddhist Mahakala. Mahakala was a warrior god known as the “great destroyer,” with scaly black skin and a fierce disposition, which is why when brought to Japan his name was translated to Dai(big)-Koku(black)-Ten(divine being). Over time Daikokuten evolved into a god of agriculture and rice, two cornerstones to a thriving kitchen, and his appearance changed into a shape more befitting of a god for food – quite a bit rounder and a great deal jollier than his warrior roots. Sometimes black as the name implies, or tanned from his farming, Daikokuten is now depicted dawning a hammer that grants wishes in one hand, a bag of treasure in the other, and with two barrels of rice beneath his feet.
The next deity of luck is one of the most popular in Japan and the only goddess of the lucky seven, Benten (also referred to as Benzaiten). Benten is a recreation of the Hindu goddess Sarasvati, the personification of a sacred river and goddess of knowledge and arts. Benten as she is known in Japan is a patron of artists, and goddess of all things that flow – water, music, words, and time. As a ruler of water, she is credited for bringing ample rains and subsequent bountiful harvest, making her a provider of great wealth as well. In order to emphasize the wealth aspect of her blessings, Benten’s name was later modified to Ben-ZAI-ten, the “zai” meaning “fortune,” and thus came to be associated with “good luck.”
Of the Seven Lucky Gods, only Bishamonten has maintained his fierce image he is a god of warriors and a punisher of evildoers. Bishamonten is one of the Four Heavenly Kings, who, in Buddhism, oversee each of the cardinal directions. This armour-clad deity is a protector of the righteous who was often prayed to for victories in battle, rewarding his followers with riches and good fortune. He carries a stupa in his right hand, thought to be a treasure house of Buddha’s teachings, and a lance in his left. He is also often depicted standing atop devils, symbolizing his subjugation of evil. Due to the association with victory and the bounties of a battle well-fought, Bishamonten became enlisted as one of the Seven Lucky Gods in Japan.
Fukurokuju has his name is written with the symbols for happiness (fuku), wealth (roku), and longevity (ju), and is pretty self-explanatory. Fukurokuju is based on the Chinese tale of a Taoist hermit renowned for performing miracles and is recognized as the only of the lucky seven with the ability to bring back the dead. You can spot this deity among the lucky seven by his almost comically long forehead, long whiskers, and walking staff. He may also occasionally be depicted with a crane or tortoise, two animals that also symbolize longevity.
The sixth of the Seven Lucky Gods, is Jurojin, a god of wisdom. Jurojin is also based on Chinese tales of a Taoist sage, but he’s known for loving wine and women (perhaps his secret to a long life!) Differentiated by his long beard, his walking stick, and his scroll, thought to contain all wisdom of the world and all the good and bad deeds committed by its beings (like an all-encompassing version of Santa’s naughty-or-nice list). He’s often accompanied by his messenger, a white stag, but can also be joined by cranes and tortoises as they symbolize longevity.
Last but not least is the god of contentment and happiness, known as Hotei. You will probably be familiar with his cheerful demeanour, big belly and large round earlobes. In Japan, this ‘laughing Buddha’ also guards children. With his defining feature is a large sack it’s probably not surprising that his name actually translates to “cloth bag.” This sack is never empty and used to feed the poor and needy, bringing happiness to all. He could almost be thought of as a Santa Claus/Robin-Hood hybrid, and how could that bring anything BUT the best of luck?
That’s them. There is a lot more to their story and to the number seven, but now you’ve acquainted yourself with the Seven Lucky Gods, you’re one step closer to that life of luck. So, you can put down the four-leaf clover, the rabbit’s foot, and maybe even retire your lucky underwear. Instead, you can do as the Japanese do and put your luck into the hands of not just one god, but seven.