Folklore Snippets: Omamori, Pocket-Sized Luck

Omamori of Fujisan Hongu Sengen Taisha
By jetalone via Wikimedia Commons

It’s been a while since we’ve had a good look at some folklore, isn’t it? Under the spotlight today is a Japanese cultural and religious object – the omamori – which is a surprisingly common item of stock sold by our favourite occult tradesman:

Peggy straightened her notes. “Honestly, Jack, you’re never prepared. You never know when you might need something as simple as a pen and paper.”

“I’m prepared in different ways,” I said, patting the protective paper charms in my pockets.

“Jack, when have your charms ever actually worked?”

“They all work!” I said, indignantly. This, at least, was true. I don’t often lie to my customers (that’s a lie, part of me pointed out), it’s just that I sometimes omit important information. I will give a lifetime guarantee, on my word and my honour as a tradesman, that every one of my protective omamori charms are in fine working order. What I can’t guarantee, however, is what they protect you against.

From Episode 18: Stone Bridge, of The Jack Hansard Series

Omamori is a name given to a type of Japanese amulet: loosely translated, it means ‘protection’. Omamori normally take the form of a rectangle of patterned silk which contains prayers, the name of a god, or other religious text written on paper or wood. They exist as charms of good luck, or to act as wards against bad juju. Whether providing good luck to help pass a driving test, for example – or avoiding the bad juju of traffic jams – the main function of omamori is protection.

Sayamasanfudoji omamori
A traditional omamori.  Image Source
Omamori are a shared aspect of Japan’s two major religions: Shinto and Buddhism. Both have several varying branches of tradition so it’s hard to sum them up briefly – but I’ll try. You might describe Shinto as a religion that grew out of a rich body of native mythology and which is structured around belief in a huge host of gods and spirits (also known as kami) who can have both positive and negative effects on the world. Kami can include personifications of nature, natural forces, and even ancestral human spirits. Meanwhile, Buddhism was introduced later to Japan from its spread through China, and might be considered a more philosophical doctrine based heavily on the teachings of the Buddha – the central tenet being a realisation of the temporary nature of life and the ongoing cycle of rebirth.

Kyoto FushimiInari01
The Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine in Kyoto. Image by Mochi via Wikimedia Commons

Omamori charms are usually dedicated to one of these Shinto kami or a key Buddhist figure, and they are designed to provide a very specific brand of luck or protection. Charms to protect your health and ward off illness, for example, are quite common. If you’re going on a long journey, there’s an omamori to keep you safe while you travel – it’s particularly popular with bus and taxi drivers! A student might buy a charm specifically designed to bring luck in their education, especially during exam-season. If you can think of it, there’s probably an omamori for it.

“I’ve learned over time, and through an array of consumer complaints, that my stock of oriental paper charms can variously protect against finding moles in the garden, slight breezes, rains of fish, tripping over on a Sunday, burning your tongue on hot tea, sneezing in alleyways, and success – one charm so counter-intuitive that I could’ve sold it as a revenge curse if only I’d known what it did at the time.”

From Episode 18: Stone Bridge, of The Jack Hansard Series

If you hadn’t already guessed, these little amulets are still hugely popular in Japan today and can be bought from the vast majority of Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. The modern omamori is bright and colourful and most are designed to hang from things like bags and straps. You can even buy them in less traditional forms such as car bumper stickers, phone charms, and (my personal favourite) memory cards to protect your digital data and electronic devices! The key thing is that a true omamori will have been properly blessed and so infused with power before use.

Omamori of Dazaifu Tenman-gu
Many colourful omamori for sale. Image by Kanko via Wikimedia Commons

Good news for tourists: buying omamori as souvenirs is encouraged – it’s a nice way to participate in Japanese culture and support the shrine or temple you are visiting.

I for one am saving up my pennies. I’d love to visit Japan some day.

For further reading, try the following:

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