Ep. 024: Japan's Seven Lucky Gods

Counterparts to China's Eight Immortals--with a twist

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Note: I took the individual photos of the Shichi Fukujin shown here on November 12, 2001, in the courtyard of Yashima-ji Temple, Number 84 on the Shikoku 88-Temple Pilgrimage.

Imagine a party in Paradise--Heaven, Valhalla, whatever. Two Indian gods and a goddess show up; they're joined by three more from China, both Daoist and Buddhist; and one more comes, from Japan.

Seem unlikely? Not if you know anything about the Shichi Fukujin, or "Seven Lucky Gods" of Japan! Which you will after this episode of

TEMPLE TALES!


A Little Background

Though each of these seven "gods" has a history of over a thousand years, there are numerous stories about how they were relatively-recently formed into a group. One says that in 1420 in Fushimi--part of Kyoto famous for its Shinto shrine--a procession was formed of the Fukujin (Lucky Gods) in imitation of that of a daimyo (lord). Another tale tells that, a half-century later, a group of bandits dressed up as the Seven and conned honest people out of their goods.

But one of the best-attested origin stories centers on the Buddhist priest Tenkai, a favorite of the Tokugawa shoguns. It was Tenkai who founded Kanei-ji, mentioned in Episode 018. He also carried out the wishes of Ieyasu, the first shogun, after his death, and directed that Ieyasu would be known as a gongen--a buddha manifesting in the form of an indigenous kami or Shinto deity, rather than a myojin, the title usually given a kami without Buddhist implications.

At any rate, as the story goes, Iemitsu, the third shogun, and grandson of Ieyasu, was deep in conversation one day with Tenkai about the nature of "nobility." Tenkai maintained that a person who possessed seven virtues--longevity, fortune, popularity, sincerity, kindness, dignity, and magnanimity--could be considered noble, regardless of birth. Iemitsu loved the answer, and commissioned Tenkai to choose seven gods that manifested these virtues. What resulted was the "canonical" list of the Shichi Fukujin, the Seven Lucky Gods.

I bought this hand-colored certificate and had stamps placed on it as I trudged from one "Lucky God" temple to another in an old neighborhood of Tokyo.

I myself have visited the Munificent Seven numerous times, one on a walking pilgrimage through a Tokyo neighborhood. This yielded a truly elegant certificate bearing images of the Seven, and stamps to verify my visits.

In the following entries, the virtue promoted by Tenkai will be added in parentheses after the name. Further, I will name them in the same order as Tenkai did, which is somewhat different from the usual (being Ebisu, Daikokuten, Bishamonten, Benzaiten, Jurojin, Hotei, and Fukurokuju).

I have also given a list of professions of which each of the Gods is a patron (for some professions, there's more than one patron). This is derived from information given in Reiko Chiba's little book, The Seven Lucky Gods of Japan, and gives a better indication of how the people perceived these gods' qualities.

Incidentally, "ten" (天) when added to Daikoku and Bishamon, and always there for Benten (or Benzaiten), means simply "god" (though it can also mean "sky" or "heaven" in other contexts).


The Seven Lucky Gods

This Jurojin is accompanied only by his staff.

1. Jurojin (Longevity): The relationship between Jurojin and Fukurokuju (#3 on my list) is a little... weird. Jurojin's name simply means "Old Man Longevity," but that first character--Ju--is Chinese Shou, and he is one of the Sanxing or "Three Stars" known in China as Fu, Lu, Shou. (Specifically, he is Canopus, which plays a similar role in the Southern Hemisphere to the North Star; so he is called "the Old Man of the South Pole.")

So here's what's weird: Fukurokuju's name is written with the same characters as Fu Lu Shou--so while Jurojin is one of the "Three Stars," Fukurokuju is all three of them! We'll talk more about that in a moment.

As I mentioned, Jurojin's origin is rooted in China. He is usually shown with a deer--symbol of longevity, as deer were imagined to live to a very great age; he is often seen with the crane or the tortoise for the same reason. Likewise, he may bear a peach, symbol of immortality; and a gourd is often tied to his staff, containing the elixir of immortality.

There is a certain intellectual quality to much of Jurojin's patronage, though how this squares with bartenders, fortune tellers, and gamblers is hard to fathom. Jurojin is the patron of the following: accountants, administrators, astronomers, clerks, editors, engineers, explorers, inventors, journalists, judges, mathematicians, philosophers, politicians, professors, scientists, secretaries, and teachers; also, airmen, bartenders, fortune tellers, and gamblers.


Daikokuten with his hammer and a bale of rice

2. Daikokuten (Fortune), sometimes called just "Daikoku," is along with Ebisu one of the "original" lucky gods, who, as gods of business and trade, were especially popular with the merchant class. This is quite a come-down, in fact, because he originated as a fierce Indian deity named Mahakala, meaning "Great Death." (The name Daikoku softens this a bit, and means "Great Darkness.") Mahakala is a form of Shiva the Destroyer, and also serves as a Buddhist temple guardian.

He may also derive from a Japanese source, a Shinto kami or god named Okuninushi, who is ruler of the unseen world of spirits and magic. His Thor-like "lucky hammer" brings riches; the bales of rice he stands on and the treasure sack he carries also signify Fortune. Thus, he is a god of wealth, and an analog to the Chinese "Kitchen God" made famous in the title of a book by Amy Tan. As such, he presides over the well-being of the household.

Daikoku is patron over a number of fairly work-a-day professions, to wit: advertising agents (!), artisans, bankers, beauticians, butchers, carpenters, craftsmen, farmers, financiers, gardeners, ironworkers, millers, miners, and undertakers. (That last one may have more to do with his "unseen world" aspect!)


Long-headed Fukurokuju with staff and scroll in hand

3. Fukurokuju (Popularity), as I mentioned, has a complex relationship with Jurojin.

When I first moved to China (after five years in Japan), I was delighted to meet a "new" group of gods, the Three Stars. I wrote quite a bit about them on my very first temple site (thetempleguy.com), and will summarize some of that here.

Properly called Fu Xing, Lu Xing, and Shou Xing, they stand for--in at least one translation--Blessings, Prosperity, and Longevity. Fu Xing is generally shown as a court official, Yang Cheng, governor of Dazhou in Hunan, who stood up to his emperor for abusing midgets for entertainment. Lu Xing was a poor man born with the name Shi Fen, who rose to a high position in court through sheer hard work. Shou Xing (who is also Jurojin) was nine years in his mother's womb, and was born with an extraordinarily large head.

The characters for Fu Lu Shou (福禄寿) are identical to those for Fukurokuju--making him all three in one! Yet he is portrayed much like Shou (who is supposed by the Japanese to be Jurojin), with the long, dome-shaped head. He may also have a fan, or a staff with a scroll (containing all the world's wisdom) tied to it. So similar is he to Jurojin that he is sometimes left off the list, and a woman--Kichijoten or Kisshoten, based on the Hindu goddess Lakshmi--is substituted in.

Like Jurojin, Fukurokuju also has a "dark side." He is associated with Xuanwu, the Daoist God of the North Sky (as Jurojin is of the south); the Xuan in his name means "black" or "mysterious."

It is difficult to see a pattern in Fukurokuju's patronage, though "play" or "hobbies" may be one theme. He is patron of athletes, chess players, gardeners, jewelers, magicians, miners, scientists, and watchmakers. Perhaps this is connected with Tenkai's designation of Fukurokuju as the representative of "Popularity."


Ebisu with a fishing pole--and a fish

4. Ebisu (Sincerity) is extremely well known. If the words "Kirin" and "Asahi" are important to you, then you may also have heard of "Yebisu." It's one of Japan's most popular high-end beer brands, and is named for the first of our Seven Luckies. (The "Y" results from an archaic spelling of the name.)

Ebisu is usually shown holding a fish and a fishing pole, and is considered to be especially good for prosperity in business, including the fishing business (of course). Thus the merchants were quite fond of both him and Daikoku in the early days. Notice the workman-like jobs he presides over: administrators, attorneys, booksellers, butchers, clergyman, collectors, cooks, editors, executives, fishermen, housewives, merchants, missionaries, producers, publishers, and sailors.


Beautiful Benten with her biwa (lute)

5. Benzaiten or simply Benten (Kindness) is the only woman in the bunch (unless Kichijoten has been swapped in for Fukurokuju), and thus is often placed in the center of artistic groupings of the Seven Luckies. (I suspect her attribute, kindness, derives from the imposition of stereotypical female roles?) She derives from Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of knowledge, music, art, wisdom, and learning (as we'll see in her patronage), and is, in a sense, the muse of civilization itself.

She is usually seen holding a biwa, a kind of lute, and sometimes--as at Enoshima, near Kamakura--appears starkers; in that case she is called Hadaka Benten, or the naked Benten.

She is the patron of various kinds of artists and arts-supporters, as well as beauties, including: actors, advertising agents, airline hostesses, artists, beauticians, booksellers, composers, dancers, designers, directors, dramatists, entertainers, models, musicians, painters, photographers, publishers, sculptors, and writers; also, gamblers and sword makers--I guess there's an art to these?

And, she is lovely.


Fierce-ish Bishamonten with a cudgel and pagoda

6. Bishamonten or Bishamon (Dignity), sometimes called Tamonten, is a fierce-ish looking general. He is actually one of four, the Shitenno, who although called "Heavenly Kings," are actually generals guarding temples. (The other three are Komokuten, Zochoten, and Jikokuten). Bishamonten is the only one of the three likely to be seen separately from the others.

His figure is derived from the Indian Buddhist god Vaishravana, who in turn comes from the Hindu god Kubera. He is often seen holding a spear or other weapon in one hand and a pagoda--a symbol of the Buddha's body, and the temples which Bishamon protects--in the other. His armor breathes authority--and dignity.

As one would expect, he is patron of various kinds of fighting men, as well as medical personnel and a few others: airmen, ambassadors, clergyman, dentists, doctors, explorers, interns, jewelers, missionaries, nurses, physicians, policemen, reporters, sailors, and soldiers.


Hotei's bare belly, and a bottomless bag slung over his shoulder. And a fan.

7. With Hotei (Magnanimity), at last we come to one of the best-known of the Seven outside of Japan. The story of how he is also the "Laughing Buddha," China's Mi'le Fo, was told at length in Episode 003 of Temple Tales, entitled "The Laughing Buddha and the Scowling General." Suffice it to say here he was a real Chinese monk who died in 918. His big, bare belly and the bottomless bag he carries (and from which he gets his name, which means "Cloth Sack") are indications of his generosity--magnanimity--to all who came across his happy path, perhaps especially children. Yeah, like Santa Claus.

Almost inexplicably, he is the patron of: attorneys, collectors, cooks (okay, I get that one), fortune tellers, and politicians.

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Well, that's it. I have loved these Seven Luckies for over two decades now--yet, unlike the Eight Immortals discussed last time, I don't have proper miniatures of them. Gonna hafta fix that! I'll let you know when I do.

Until next time, then, may you and your loved ones and all sentient beings be well and happy.

Adios, Amigos!


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In the next episode: Let's take a trip to California's grassy foothills and the old Spanish mission of San Antonio de Padua--and find out what it has to do with the progenitor of America's ninth-richest family.