Making Japan's raw luck dolls

This weekend, the typically peaceful Jindaiji Temple in Tokyo will be overtaken by bright red, monochrome elements. Some will have no eyes at all.

But while this may sound like the whole of a Japanese horror film, the images, known as the Daruma dolls, symbolize the ability to overcome challenges and achieve their goals. They are found in homes and Buddhist temples all over the country, lucky charms are used by everyone from politicians seeking success in elections to those seeking love or good grades.

Daruma dolls play an important role at an annual summer festival taking place at Takasaki. Credit: Takasaki City

The Daruma event at Jindaiji Temple marks the beginning of spring in the lunar calendar. Named by the monk and founder of Zen Buddhism, Bodhidharma (or "Daruma" in Japanese), dolls are traditionally bought at the beginning of each year when old forms are burnt and exchanged for new ones.

"Daruma doll is valuable to the Japanese, but it is not considered a deity," said Chihiro Nakata, fifth generation craftsman Daruma, in a telephone interview. "Instead, it is a symbol of perseverance and new principles."

Happiness and longevity

Each of the 47 prefectures of Japan produces its own unique doll style. The Takasaki city in Gunma County, where Nakata works, is responsible for over 80 percent of Daruma dolls in the country, producing 900,000 of them a year, according to the National Tourism Organization of Japan. Nakata's employer, a famous Daruma store, called Daimonya, claims to produce 7,000 of the talcans each year.

To create hollow dolls, Daimonya craftsmen dive a metal mold into a wet napkin. The figurines are left to dry before being polished and coated with a white dye. Then, a base of clay is attached to the base of the doll to avoid its convexity. Finally, everyone sinks in red paint before pulling the rest of the face.

Each of the 47 prefectures of Japan produces its own unique doll style. Credit: Takasaki City

Faces are usually decorated using two animals associated with good luck and longevity in Japan – cranes and turtles. The first appear as eyebrows while two of them form a beard. The Japanese characters that indicate good fortune or happiness are usually painted on the trunks of the Daruma dolls.

After buying their figurines, people traditionally paint in the left eye with black ink to symbolize a desire. The right eye remains empty and completes only when the owner's wish becomes reality. Meanwhile, Daruma dolls are usually placed in a camid – a tiny south-facing altar, located in many Japanese homes.

"Daruma's right eye is facing the sunrise," Nakata explained. "This means that it symbolizes the fact that, as soon as the sun sets, you will be given the wish"

An evolving tradition

Farmers at Takasaki began to manufacture and sell the dolls about 200 years ago. They were thought to protect children from diseases such as pox, as well as promoting good harvests and facilitating childbirth.

The original designs appeared more human, with separate heads and corsets, and are believed to have been inspired by Daruma's pictures of Zen's meditation. However, as silk production flourished in Takasaki, farmers began to model their dolls in silkworm cocoons that functioned as goodwill protesters.

According to Hirose Seishi, high priest of Shorinzan Darumaji Temple in Takasaki, Daruma dolls that brought luck to their owners must be burned right after the New Year.

It is believed that farmers in the Japanese city Takasaki began to build Daruma dolls about 200 years ago. Credit: Takasaki City

"When we burn the Daruma dolls, they are turned into ash and come back to earth," Seishi said in a telephone interview. "The act of changing your Daruma every year is about renewing your heart and achieving new goals."

But the Daruma dolls are changing with time. Nowadays, sports modern designs such as polka dots, or painted with modern clothes can be found.

And while the craftsmen have traditionally painted red dolls, a color associated with good luck, these lucky charms now come in different shades, from pink (symbolizing love) to green (representing good health). New colors and designs have emerged as a response to the changing tastes of today's market, according to Nakata.

"These days, Daruma dolls are in different colors, as this gives people more choices," he said. "It's best to choose a Daruma color you like as you love it more."