🔖 5 min read

There are many objects in Japan that bring luck, good omens, or grant wishes to their bearers. Among them are Maneki-neko and Omamori; heck, even Kit-Kats are considered to be lucky in Japan. However, there is another that you may not know by name, but will have certainly seen before — the Daruma doll.

These Daruma dolls are not dolls in the typical sense of which you may be accustomed to. They are predominantly red, spherical objects that are seen all across Japan depicting the face of a man, and are commonly used and associated with setting and completing goals. Yet, they have become such a symbol of Japan that their likeness has also come to be used in other commercial areas as well as pop culture. 

Purpose and usage of a Daruma doll

A Daruma doll is seen as a symbol of luck but is more so associated with a tool for setting goals. To achieve this purpose, they are often sold with blank or unpainted eyes with the role of filling them in left to the individual who purchases one. Once the individual has a goal or target they want to achieve, they will paint one of the eyes; the other eye — and subsequently the entire Daruma doll — will only be completed once the goal has been achieved.  

We are not talking about short term targets here, but long term commitments. Due to this, people often buy a Daruma doll at the beginning of a new year in preparation for their new year resolutions. 

What makes a Daruma doll particularly useful, is the fact that they work as a constant physical reminder. People will place their Darumas in prominent or easy to spot locations, so that whenever they see it, it will jog their memory as to what they are trying to achieve. It gives a sense of motivation and is a goal in itself to complete it.

But what happens to them at the end of the year? Do you keep them forever?

Well, there is a general acceptance within Japanese society that many charms — including Daruma — are only valid for one year. Rather than throwing them away however, a ceremony takes place at the temple where they were purchased and are burned with an expression of thanks for the past year. This occurs even if the goal is not complete — another is bought for the following year in which to continue. 

Daruma doll design

YouTube video

The form and style of a Daruma doll plays an important role in reflecting what it represents. First off, consider how goals can be tricky to achieve, and how the idea of falling and recovering is part of the process on the way to their completion. 

This principle is seen within a Daruma doll due to its Okiagari-koboshi nature. That’s to say, when knocked over it will always return to an upright position. This is due to a weighted bottom along with its shape. Yet another physical reminder we could all do with. 

But it doesn’t end there. 

When many of us look at a Daruma doll we will see the face of a hairy, bearded man. In truth, the eyebrows are curved in a similar style of a crane and the lower facial hair that of a tortoise. This corresponds to an old Japanese proverb 

“The crane lives 1000 years, the tortoise 10,000 years”. 

A crane represents longevity and a tortoise good luck.

Lastly, while red is the traditional colour of a Daruma doll, further colour variations have been made available which correspond to specific goals or wishes — should you require a bit more help. These are as follows:

  • Red – Luck
  • White – Purity
  • Gold – wealth
  • Green – health
  • Orange – study
  • Blue – career
  • Pink – love
  • Purple – self-development
  • Black – protection

Origin and essence

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Like many traditional aspects of Japan, there are stories and beliefs that make Daruma dolls even more interesting. Their conception is based upon the story of Bodhidharma also known as Daruma-daishi (although less popular), a fabled buddhist figure who supposedly lived during the 5th or 6th century. 

We are led to believe that Bodhidharma sat in meditation staring at a wall for a period of nine years, during which — due to lack of movement — his limbs fell off with atrophy. Although this story is a little dark, it’s for this reason that a Daruma doll has no arms or legs. 

The lack of eyes could also be attributed to Bodhidharma’s meditation, where the state of having no eyes relates to the beginning of his journey, and the state of finally painting them relates to its completion. 

Because a Daruma doll is essentially made in the image of Bodhidharma, there are other subtle beliefs associated with them. For example: the burning ceremony at the end of the year is to supposedly release the soul of the Daruma, as well as the idea that Daruma is granting a wish in exchange for painting his eyes. 

This origin story certainly plays a role in how Daruma dolls can be, but it wasn’t until around the 17th century that the first came to be produced. Takasaki city in Gunma prefecture is credited to be the birthplace of these lucky charms. 80% of them are still produced there today. 

Daruma dolls in the modern world

Ramen Shop (2018)

Aside from all the tradition surrounding Daruma dolls, their iconic form and shape has led them to be used far beyond their original purpose. 

For instance, they have grown to be popular souvenirs among tourists due to their distinctive Japanese style; while traditionally being hand-made from papier-mache, you can now find ceramic versions with fully painted features that are designed to last. 

You may also see well-established characters taking the form of a Daruma doll. Those such as:

  • Mickey mouse
  • Hello Kitty
  • Doraemon 
  • Star wars characters
  • Mario

These are just some of the characters being produced as a toy or collectible in the image of Daruma. It is done by replacing its facial features with the characters own while retaining all other surrounding aspects. Speaking of characters, you may even find references to Daruma dolls, whether in name or appearance, in anime and manga. The pokemon Darumaka is one example.

Going even further, Daruma-san has become a character in his own right and heavily merchandised in the modern world. His face now appears on all manner of things such as T-shirts, keyrings and artwork. All the while, still bringing luck to those who hold them.

The power and popularity of a Japanese Daruma doll

Ramen Shop (2018)

Daruma dolls are somewhat of an oddity in the sense that they have one foot in the past and one in the present. Not many things in Japan can be said to straddle this fine line where tradition and modernisation are juxtapositionally opposed. 

Despite their inclusion in modern pop culture; many homes, restaurants, offices and public buildings make space for a traditional Daruma doll within their walls; thousands of people gather at temples in the new year to burn the old and buy the new; and Japan is still full of people waiting to paint on a second eye.

There’s something poetic about that fact and speaks volumes about the appeal that a Daruma doll still offers. 


About Nathan Monk

Nathan is a writer who loves nothing more than discovering the intricacies of Japanese culture. He also has a keen interest in films, gaming, and exploring off the beaten track.