There are 8 million deities in Japanese tradition but only 7 of them are revered as “The Gods of Good Fortune” or Shichifukujin in Japanese.
As in the west, 7 is a lucky and auspicious number in Japan and its significance is observed in a number of traditions (a baby’s birth is celebrated on its 7th day of life, a death is mourned for 7 days and then again after 7 weeks, 7 principles of samurai philosophy, etc...).
Japan’s concept of Gods of Good Fortune began more than 1,000 years ago with a tradition among merchants and tradesman of worshipping two gods of business and trade, Ebisu and Daikokuten. This led people from other walks of society to seek out a figure to represent their profession.
In the 17th century Shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu sought to standardize the increasingly popular practice of praying to 7 Gods of Good Fortune and eliminate any confusion over which god was the patron of which profession or area of industry. With the help of a Buddhist monk he selected 7 deities (3 Indian Hindu/Buddhist figures, 3 Chinese Taoist figures and one purely Japanese figure) as the Shichifukujin: Ebisu, Daikokuten, Bishamonten, Benzaiten, Fukuroju, Jurojin, and Hotei. So just exactly who are these gods, what do they look like and what do they represent?
Fish has always made up an important part of the Japanese diet and as such the patron deity of fisherman Ebisu was chosen to be one of the Shichifukujin. Legend states that Ebisu came to Japan from overseas shortly after its creation. His is a god of prosperity, wealth in business, the abundance of food and a representation of honesty. He is also the only member of the Shichifukujin to have Japanese origins.
Ebisu is portrayed as a fisherman with a fishing rod in one hand and a large fish (usually a carp, sea bream, codfish or sea bass - a symbol of a bountiful harvest or catch) either on his hook or under his other arm. Legend makes Ebisu into the son of Daikokuten, another of the Shichifukujin and another god of commerce, trade and prosperity, and as such the two are often depicted together.
Originally a Hindu warrior named Mahakala who protected the world from evil, Daikokuten became a god of wealth and prosperity and a symbol of fortune after he was introduced to Japan by China in the 9th century. Daikokuten is the patron of farmers, cooks and bankers, bringing bountiful harvests and fruitful business transactions. He is depicted as a smiling and jolly man (his weight is an indication of his prosperity) carrying a sack of unspecified treasure over one shoulder and a magic mallet in his other hand. The mallet is supposed to strike gold or money out any object that Daikokuten strikes it against. Made the father of Ebisu by legend, Daikokuten is often depicted with his son.
A figure from Indian Buddhism, Bishamonten is the patron deity of warriors, one of the 4 guardians of Buddhism and a symbol of dignity who defends the world from evil. He provides luck in battle and defence and disperses treasure and good fortune to worthy people in need. As he is also the protector of holy and important sites, statues of him can often be found at temples across Japan. Bishamon is often depicted in a full suit of armor with a trident or spear in one hand and a treasure pagoda (from which he dispenses treasure and good fortune) in the other.
Benzaiten, sometimes shortened to Benten, is the only female figure of the Shichifukujin. She was originally a Hindu water goddess but became Japan’s patron deity of artists, writers and entertainers when she was adapted to Buddhism. Benzaiten is representative of joy and is said to protect worshippers from natural disasters and grants soldiers the wisdom to succeed in battle. Benzaiten is never depicted without her biwa lute.
Fukuroju, the God of Wealth, Happiness and Longevity is based on a Chinese Taoist figure who was an archivist for the Sung Dynasty. Depicted as a Chinese scholar with an overly tall forehead and a walking stick and a scroll, Fukuroju was well respected for his ability to perform miracles. He was even said to be able to revive the dead. His miracle performing abilities made Fukuroju into a powerful symbol of longevity and he is often accompanied by images of a turtle, a stag or a crane. He is a popular figure among athletes and watchmakers.
A smiling old Chinese scholar, much like Fukuroju, with a tall oversized forehead, long beard and a cane and scroll, Jurojin is a God of Wisdom and the patron deity of teachers and scholars. Like Fukuroju he is also often portrayed with images of a turtle, a stag or a crane, but Jurojin’s deer is black. He is sometimes depicted under a peach tree because Taoists believed that peaches could prolong one’s life.
Hotei, the God of Fortune, Popularity and Happiness, and the patron deity of children, fortune tellers and barmen, is the only member of the Shichifukujin to be based on a real person, the Chinese hermit and Zen priest Budaishi. Hotei’s date of birth is unknown but records state that he died in March of 916 or 917. Though Hotei was a Zen priest, his actions and habits and style of worship differed from the established ways. Hotei's unusual practices brought him to popularity during the Edo period (1603-1868) because of a legend telling of a “dubious ascetic” who was actually a manifestation of the Buddhist patron Miroku who practiced Buddhism in an unusual way because he could not attain enlightenment through the established practices.
The Japanese liked this story and adopted Hotei as a second Miroku. Hotei is depicted as a smiling man who is so fat his clothes can’t cover him completely. He carries an ogi ceremonial fan in one hand and has a large bag of riches slung over his shoulder. Statues of Hotei are often found outside shopping malls and department stores (a strange place for a god who tries to teach one the joys of being happy with what they have). Hotei is known outside of Japan as the Smiling Buddha. Anyone who has ever been to a Chinese restaurant has probably seen a statue of his likeness lingering around the cash register or sat with patrons in the dining room.
Legend says that the Shichifukujin sail around on a treasure ship called the Takarabune and pull into port in the human world every New Year’s to bestow their blessings upon the world. If one puts a picture of the Shichifukujin under their pillow on New Year’s Eve and has a good dream it is taken as a sign that they will have good luck in the coming year (so long as they don’t tell anyone about their dream). If one has a bad dream they are advised to set the picture of the Shichifukujin and their Takarabune afloat on a river or in the ocean to block or delay bad luck from finding them. There are also several shrines throughout Japan dedicated to the Shichifukujin as a group and to each individual deity.
Many people throughout the country make pilgrimages to these shrines in advance of important occasions to receive the blessings of the 7 Gods of Good Fortune.
Down on your luck? A trip to one of the Shichifukujin’s shrines might bring about just the adventure you need. Happy Travels!
Author: NARA Visitor Center & Inn