The Japanese Daruma: Feeding Matsumoto’s Fires

Mon, Jan 27, 2020



Earlier this month the good people of Matsumoto enjoyed their annual sankuro, the new year’s bonfire wherein everything associated with the previous year’s wishes and prayers for good luck are wholly, happily incinerated. It’s good, smoky, eye-irritating fun.

Among the items burned on the pyre are peculiar egg-ish figures called daruma dolls. If you’ve spent a little time in Japan you may have seen one. He’s red and round. He has no arms or legs. On his human-ish face he sports some pretty fancy facial hair and, for a while, no eyes. (We’ll get into why in a minute.)

Daruma (達磨) are unique Japanese representations of perseverance and good luck. Odd-looking though they may be, their features are thick with symbolism. A trip 1,500 years into the past explains.

A Legend Gives Life to the Daruma

Once upon a time there was a Buddhist monk named Bodhidharma who, in his pursuit of enlightenment, developed a habit of gazing at blank walls for days on end. Eventually he went a little too far, sitting and staring at nothing for nine years in an effort that may or may not have brought him enlightenment but certainly did lighten him as his atrophied arms and legs finally fell off. There are variations on the legend of ‘Bodhi’ but this is the one that gave birth to the daruma’s shape.

The origins of daruma as an object of luck and persistence began in Takasaki, over in neighboring Gunma Prefecture. Originally, people visiting Daruma-dera (Daruma Temple) would receive an illustrated New Year’s lucky charm depicting a very sedentary Bodhidharma. Then the ninth priest of Daruma-dera, a time-management guru by the name of Togaku, began distributing wooden molds that allowed people to fashion their own paper-mâché renditions of Bodhi.

From there the tradition of making – and buying and selling – daruma dolls took off.


Making Tradition in Matsumoto

Daruma are still constructed of paper-mâché. The daruma maker I visited up in the Yamabe area of Matsumoto uses a mold-press to give shape the 20,000 dolls he produces annually. True to tradition they are round on all sides, but they are able to stand upright due to their heavy disc-shaped bases, which are meant to be weighty enough to bring a knocked-over Daruma back to its feet – a visible, interactive representation of the spirit of perseverance.

Aside from its base, the daruma’s significance is hidden in plain sight. The ones produced in Yamabe have eyebrows painted to resemble a crane. The beard covering the cheeks represents a tortoise. Both creatures are traditional symbols of long life in Japan. The scribbles of gold paint on either side of the face are actually Kanji, spelling out the craftsman’s message of luck and fortitude. The daruma’s bearded chin is a visual allusion to the branches of a pine tree. The red strokes lining the upper lip and nostrils signify, respectively, bamboo and ume, a kind of Japanese plum. These three ubiquitous Japanese symbols – pine, bamboo, and plum – when pronounced in their on-yomi form make up the term Sho-chiku-bai, an oft-used expression in the celebration of a special occasion or time of year.

The discs that keep the Daruma standing.
Red Robes of the Daruma Drying in the Sun

Red Robes & Blank Eyes

It is said that the daruma’s red color originated with Bodhi’s preference for dressing in red robes. The custom gained permanent traction with the measles and smallpox outbreaks that ravaged the population of the Kanto region during the Edo Period. The God of Smallpox was believed to have had a thing for the color red, so people with sick children would hang red ropes around their homes and dress their diseased ones in red in hopes of appeasing the nasty, cold-hearted deity. More pragmatically, the displays of red served as a warning to others to stay away.

The most obvious feature of the daruma, however, is its blank white stare. When daruma hit the streets they have only two white circles for eyes. The person who buys or receives the daruma will put a black pupil in one eye while making a wish. Once their wish comes true they can fill in the other eye. This tradition is said to be related to the Buddhist ideal of attaining enlightenment – though Japanese tend to wish for more mundane things like passing their school exams, getting a promotion at work, or playing shortstop for the Yomiuri Giants.

Though all daruma share the basic traits, there are variations in the details. Design details in the facial hair differ, as do the Kanji painted on the sides of the face and on the daruma’s belly. Some daruma  are clad in gold, relating to a business’s hopes for financial success. Goshiki Daruma are a set of five dolls in five different colors, usually red, blue, yellow, white and black although green daruma have also made an appearance. Meanwhile pink daruma sporting an uncanny resemblance to Hello Kitty have been spotted at festivals throughout the country.



The Eternal Flame

Like most good luck items in Japan, daruma are burned soon after the new year, usually on the grounds of the temple where they were purchased. The folks in Matsumoto, however, seem to enjoy putting a little more flair into their fire. Hence the spectacle known as sankuro.

And with the conflagration comes the start of another year of wishes and hopes and dreams. And, for our daruma-crafting friend in Yamabe, another 20,000 reasons to give thanks – to Bodhi, to Togaku, and to the people who carry on their age-old tradition, year after year.