As 2021 draws to a close, this is a nice opportunity to review a fascinating aspect of Japanese spirituality: the Seven Luck Gods!
The Seven Luck Gods or shichi-fukujin (七福神) exemplify the syncretic nature of Japanese religion, because the seven gods have different origins including some native Shinto kami to Hindu gods who have undergone a long transformation from their original forms in India in antiquity.
Here are the seven gods as depicted on my wife’s tea tin from left to right:
|Name + Kanji||Aspect||Possible Origin|
|Commerce, prosperity, agriculture (hence he is depicted with rice bales)||Daikokuten is likely a blending of the native kami Ōkuninushi and (very indirectly) the Indian god Shiva through a Buddhist deity named Mahākāla.|
|Bishamonten (毘沙門天)||Victory, authority||Bishamonten has been a guardian deity in Buddhism for a long time, but is descended from the Indian deity Kubera.|
|Patron goddess of the arts||Descended from the Indian goddess Saraswati, imported via Buddhism|
|Prosperity, wealth||Ebisu is a native Japanese kami that has been imported into the Seven Luck Gods.|
|Longevity||Jurōjin is a Chinese-Taoist deity who symbolized the southern pole star, and now for his pronounced skull.|
|Longevity, happiness, wealth||Another Chinese-imported Taoist figure, Fukurokuju overlaps with Jurōjin in some ways, but is distinguished by the animals that accompany him.|
|Luck, guardian of children||Hotei is the so-called “fat buddha” in Asian tradition, but is in fact has a complicated history. TL;DR he is not a buddha, but kind of a saintly figure in Chinese-Buddhist tradition.|
As with the picture above, you’ll often see the seven deities riding a “treasure ship” (takarabuné 宝船) and/or smiling, laughing and playing games in a carefree manner. In times like this, such images are particularly comforting and something to hope for in the year ahead.
From a cultural standpoint, it’s fascinating to see how Japanese religious tradition has imported various deities and traditions from Chinese Taoism, but also from India via imported Buddhist religion, and how it all blends with native Shinto religion to form what we see today.
Here’s an example ofuda (お札) of Daikokuten we have in our home:
And I have an omamori charm from Enoshima Shrine from 2019 of Benzaiten I keep in my wallet;
These are just some of the examples of the Seven Luck Gods you’ll see in contemporary Japanese religious tradition.