The Daruma Doll: Japan’s Limbless Figure of Good Luck

Spend a little time in Japan and you are bound to come across a peculiar sort of doll, a red and round human-ish creature with no arms or legs. He may or may not have eyes. He sports some pretty fancy facial hair. If you knock him over he’ll bounce back upright. And if you are lucky, he’ll grant your greatest wish.

Japan’s Daruma (達磨) represent perseverance and good luck. Imbued with symbolism, their origins are tied to the highest aspirations of Buddhism. People buy them – and burn them to ashes – every year. A quick peek 1,500 years into the past explains.

A Bit of History

The Daruma tradition arises from a Buddhist monk by the name of Bodhidharma, who had an interesting habit of staring at blank walls in the pursuit of that ever-elusive gumball called enlightenment. Eventually, however, he went a little too far and spent nine straight years sitting and staring until his atrophied arms and legs finally fell off his body. Other legends of ‘Bodhi’ give differing accounts of his antics but this is the one that gave rise to the Daruma doll’s now-popular shape.

The origins of Daruma as an object of luck and persistence began in Takasaki, Gunma Prefecture. At first, people visiting Daruma-dera (Daruma Temple) received an illustrated New Year’s lucky charm depicting a very sedentary Bodhidharma. But a growing demand led to the practice, started by the ninth priest of Daruma-dera, a time-management guru by the name of Togaku, of handing out wooden molds people could use to make their own paper-mâché renditions of Bodhi. Thus was born the tradition that continues today.

Making & Meaning

Daruma are still constructed of paper-mâché (though the material more resembles the same gray cardboard fast food joints and coffee shops use to make those to-go drink carrier things). The Daruma maker featured here uses a mold-press to shape the 20,000 dolls he produces annually but in places wood blocks are still in use.


Paper-mâché molds, waiting in the storehouse


A Daruma maker’s supply shelves


Tools of the Daruma trade

One feature of the Daruma is its unseen base, circular and heavy. The purpose of this bottom weight is to allow the doll, if tipped over, to quickly right itself. Daruma, as a symbol of persistence, are sometimes connected to the old saying ‘Fall seven times, get up eight.’ Feel free to give your own Daruma a tip if you happen to find yourself in possession of one.

The bases that give the Daruma its bounce

Mainly, though, the Daruma’s significance is hidden in plain sight. The eyebrows are painted to resemble a crane while the beard covering his cheeks represents a tortoise, both traditional symbols of long life in Japan. The gold paint on the sides of the face are actually Kanji, spelling out the maker’s preferred message of luck and fortitude. The Daruma’s bearded chin is a visual allusion to the branches of a pine tree, or Matsu. The red lines marking the upper lip and nostrils signify, respectively, bamboo (take) and the Japanese plum called ume. These three words when pronounced in their On-yomi form make up the word Sho-chiku-bai, which is an oft-used expression in the celebration of a special occasion or time of year.

Small wooden blocks – the original Daruma molds

The Daruma’s red color originated, it is believed, with Bodhi’s penchant for wearing red robes. The custom was solidified with the measles and smallpox outbreaks that rampaged through the Kanto region during the Edo Period. As the God of Smallpox had a thing for the color red, people with sick children would hang red ropes around their homes and dress their diseased little ones in red, hoping to appease the apparently nasty, cold-hearted deity. This red display also served as a warning to others to stay away.

Paint-dipped Daruma drying in the sun

The most obvious and interactive characteristic of the Daruma, however, are the eyes. Daruma have only two big blank white circles on their faces; the person who buys or receives the Daruma will draw or paint a black pupil in one eye while making a wish. When the wish comes true the person fills 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 exams, getting that promotion or playing shortstop for the Yomiuri Giants.


The blank faces of partially-painted Daruma


Bearded and ready for the golden finishing touches


The Daruma Master at work

Variation & Conflagration

While the Daruma’s basic traits remain consistent, there are variations. Some Daruma are clad in gold, mainly in a business’s hopes for financial success. Design details in the facial hair differ, as do the Kanji painted on the sides of the face and on the Daruma’s belly. There are further color variations across various regions while Goshiki Daruma are a set of five dolls in five different colors, usually red, blue, yellow, white and black although green Daruma have also been included in some Goshiki Daruma sets while pink Daruma with an uncanny resemblance to Hello Kitty have been spotted at festivals around the country.

As with many good luck items in Japan, Daruma are burned at the beginning of every new year, on the grounds of the temple where they were purchased. This ritual has different names in different regions. In the Shinshu/Nagano area it is called 'Sankuro'. This ritual often takes place along a river, where the children will also roast mochi over the flames as the Daruma turn to ash and the parents talk and try to keep their kids’ clothing from catching fire.

Photo : Darren McClure

Daruma can be found in many sizes and places. Keep an eye out for them – and check to see if both eyes are filled in. If so, it might be interesting to ask the Daruma’s owner what they wished for. And if the person is now playing shortstop for the Giants you can then get their autograph.

Hand-crafting 20,000 Daruma a year sometimes requires an extra boost

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