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Modern and Traditional Japanese Culture: The Psychology of Buddhism, Power Rangers, Masked Rider, Manga, Anime and Shinto. 在日イギリス人男性による日本文化論.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012


Talisman/Omamori/Good Luck Charm

Talisman/Omamori/Good Luck Charm by timtak
Talisman/Omamori/Good Luck Charm, a photo by timtak on Flickr.

The following is my explanation of the philosophy behind the good luck charms, or "Omamori" received from shrines and temples in Japan.

In Japan the lucky charms called "Omamori," (literally "venerated protectors") are said to work by being a decoy-self ("migawari) that attracts bad luck.

Hence any "impurity" or bad luck is collected in the charm instead of in the person. The charm is thrown away once a year, together with the bad luck.

There is quite a lot of theory behind this.

Omamori are basically very similar to the larger tablets bearing the name of the deity "ofuda" that one receives from a Shinto shrine. Both are termed "Shinpu" or deity tablets. These larger tablets are enshrined within the home on the Spirit Shelf (Kamidana). Omamori are also basically pieces of paper stamped with the name of the god.

Why should a piece of paper stamped with the name of the god be a decoy-self?

The easiest way to answer this question is by referring to Japanese "Buddhism". Japanese Buddhism concentrates on rituals for the dead. The dead are enshrined in the household inside a "Buddhist" altar or "butsudan" or (literally Buddha cupboard). Inside the Buddha cupboard there is an effigy of the Buddha, but perhaps more importantly there are a lot of little tablets (called ihai) which represent dead relatives. People open the butsudan and say "hello grandpa, hello grandma" to their grandfather, and grandmother (if deceased) in the form of their little tablets.

According to the Japanese ethnologist Yanagita Kunio, the Budda cupboard (Butsudan) and the Spirit Shelf (Kamidana) originate in the same practice. The spirit shelf was for the living and the "Bhuddist altar" was for the dead but basically in both there was a deity (Shinto Kami or spirit, or Buddhist Buddha) and in both there was representations of members of the household, living or dead. Before the introduction of Buddhism, people would receive spirit containing tags or earlier still branches and stones from their shrine. These would be periodically renewed, and eventually returned to the shrine after the death of its holder. With the separation of Shinto and Buddhism this cycle of spirit has been obscured.

Today in Japan there are few personal tablets for the living (other than omamori) but there are traditions of sticking the names of the living onto the shrine shelf in some parts of Japan. In the past, people received a part of the spirit of their local shrine and this in a sense gave them life. In other words a ticket or tag from the shrine represented a person, it was or is, another me.

This is why perhaps a "omamori" is a bit like a spare ID card. If you have some bad luck, like being caught doing a minor misdemeanour's then you charge it, or put it down to the spare ID, which you throw away at the end of the year.

The new year is said to be a rebirth, everyone gets a new identity. Everyone starts afresh with a clean slate.

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This blog represents the opinions of the author, Timothy Takemoto, and not the opinions of his employer.