Since New Year has come and gone, this is a time where people frequently purchase an omamori (御守り) charm for the year, while returning the previous year’s charm for proper, not to mention respectful, disposal. Because my family and I visit Japan every year since 2005 to see my wife’s family, I’ve picked up a number of omamori over the years, but it took a while to really appreciate what they were for. But what are omamori?
Professor’s Ian Reader and George Tanabe describe omamori this way:
Omamori are amulets that represent manifestations of a spiritual entity such as a god or buddha….These amulets normally consist of a prayer or some form of religious inscription, invocation, or sacred text placed in a brocade bag or similar container and carried on the person. Sacralized by religious rituals that transform them into busshin (spiritual offshoots) or kesshin (manifestations) of the deity, they are physical objects that contain the spiritual essence and powers of a deity or buddha. (pg. 46)Page 46, Practically Religious: Worldly Benefits and the Common Religion of Japan
The notion of spiritual offshoots is a feature of Shinto religion, thus an omamori from a Shinto shrine quite literally contains a tiny manifestation, essence or projection of the deity, or kami, being enshrined. The idea of a kami’s essence in religious objects also applies to the larger, enshrined wooden tablets called ofuda as well.
In the context of Buddhism, Japan’s other religion, Reader and Tanabe also talk about the notion of migawari omamori (身代わりお守り, that is substituting for the bearer and taking on the bad fortune themselves. For example, there are many stories of Jizō Bodhisattva, for instance, taking the place of someone in order to protect them from harm, both in antiquity and even contemporary life.
Omamori come in various sizes, styles, and for different types of protection: health, passing exams, safe childbirth, love, traffic safety and general protection. It’s very common to pick up one at a famous temple or shrine if you visit. For example, my daughter used to own a Hello Kitty amulet is for my daughter. I used to own an amulet that I pruchased at Yushima Tenmangu shrine, venerating Tenjin, in Tokyo, for luck with the JLPT exam back in the day. More precisely, the amulet was for gakugyō (学業, “fortune in one’s studies”).
More recently, I purchased an omamori in Japan at Enoshima Shrine in 2019 (my last trip to Japan before the pandemic):
This shrine venerates the kami Benzaiten, one of the Seven Luck Gods, and contains the text yakuyoke omamori (厄除御守) meaning “amulet to prevent misfortune (in general)”. The back contains the name of the shrine: enoshima jinja (江島神社, “Enoshima Shrine”). You will almost always find omamori in small brocade bags like this one, but the designs and color schemes vary quite a bit.
The other amulet I have in my wallet is from Zojoji Temple, head temple of the Jodo Shu sect of Buddhism, which we visit almost every year. This one provides protection (literally omamori 御守) and on the back is the name of Zojoji Temple (増上寺). Pretty basic, but I do love the color.
Since omamori are religious icons, there are certain customs that one should observe in order to be respectful:
- You shouldn’t open the bag and see what is inside. It’s disrespectful. Honestly, the contents of the bag, usually a small card or piece of wood wrapped in paper with a blessing, aren’t important anyway. What matters is the essence it carries.
- In Japan, toward the beginning of the year, you’re supposed to bring the charms back to the temple you got them from (or any temple that’s convenient) so they can be ritually purified and burned. It is thought that as part of their protection, they absorb evil and thus need the special treatment. Throwing them away isn’t recommended. In Reader and Tanabe’s book mentioned above, they also explore this topic and explain that ritually burning the charm is also an expression of gratitude (as opposed to throwing them away like common trash), as well as symbolizing the cycle of renewal.
- Omamori work best when they are kept on your person. For example, it’s very common to see them tied to backpacks on children. We’ve done that for our kids when they were smaller, and I always keep my omamori in my wallet, if it fits.
Of course, most Westerners who see omamori at Shrines and Temples may be confused, or just treat them as souvenirs. I can’t say whether they really work or not, or really embody the deity or not. I honestly don’t know. To some degree though, it doesn’t really matter. As Reader and Tanabe write elsewhere, charms and amulets also offer a peace of mind and strengthening of faith (something tangible), but also don’t require faith for them to work. They simply represent the deity in question, and the resulting positive affect.