Have You Ever Heard of a Lucky Daruma?

Takasaki daruma
(Photo courtesy of Takasaki City.)

   A squat, round shape that is often painted red or another bright color. He looks like a hero, with a beard and eyebrows that make him appear a little strict. This is the lucky charm that we call a daruma. Said to have originated in the first half of the 1700s, the daruma has regained popularity among young people in Japan since the start of the 21st century, as new colors and designs have appeared that are different from the traditional ones.

So What Exactly Is a Daruma?

   The daruma is a lucky charm that watches over you to make sure that the wishes you ask for come true, and it is also used as a decorative talisman to ward off misfortune in the home and the workplace. The daruma is usually painted red because in Japan red has long been believed to ward off evil spirits and poor health.

A daruma with a completely red body. (Photo on the left courtesy of Takasaki City.)

   The squat, round shape seems to have its center of gravity at the bottom and reminds us of how we can stand back up, no matter how many times we get knocked down. This is why Japanese people traditionally ask the daruma to grant wishes, like overcoming illness or injury, keeping their family safe, or giving them the patience to persevere with something.

   One interesting thing about the daruma is its eyes. Many daruma are actually sold with blank, white eyes — this is so that the person who gets the daruma can fill in the eyes, in black. First you draw in the daruma's left eye (the right eye as you are facing it) as you are making the wish that you want to come true. This is called the kaigan (eye opening) and is said to signify "opening the eye of your own mind." If you look at a daruma with an opened eye, it will always remind you of your wishes and goals, and help you to strengthen your hopes and dreams. The daruma is a lucky charm that watches over you, but it is also something special that allows you to look yourself right in the eye.

The daruma's left eye is filled in when a wish is made.

   Later, if your wish becomes true, you fill in the daruma's right eye (the left eye as you are facing it) to express your thanks. This is called mangan, which means that the wish has been fulfilled. News reports often show footage of candidates filling in the left eye when they stand for election, and then completing the right eye if they win.

How Is a Daruma Made?

   Every year around 900,000 daruma are produced. One of the leading production areas in Japan is Takasaki City, which is located in Gunma Prefecture, about 100 km from Tokyo.

The traditional paper mache method, in which paper is pasted onto a wooden mold. (Photo courtesy of Takasaki City.)

   The Takasaki daruma has a history of more than 200 years, but over time the way that it is made has changed.

   In the past, everything was made by hand. Washi (Japanese paper) moistened with water was stuck onto the wet wooden daruma mold and then left to dry in the sun. After that, the wooden mold was removed from the back of the daruma and the pieces were glued together to form the shape.

A metal mold is needed to make daruma using vacuum forming. Look at all the countless holes. (Photo courtesy of Takasaki City.)

   These days, a process known as vacuum forming is used to make daruma. The metal daruma mold is placed in a water tank in which the raw material (paper) is mixed, and a strong pump is then used to suck out just the water. The paper mixed in with the water is then pressed close against the inside of the mold and formed into the shape of a daruma.

A daruma being taken out of the metal mold. (Photo courtesy of Takasaki City.)

   Once the paper has hardened in the mold, it is removed and left to dry in the sun.

The molded daruma are exposed to the wind as they dry in the sun. (Photo courtesy of Takasaki City.)

   Then the daruma are painted. Although using machines to make daruma has become the mainstream method, all the painting is still done by hand using traditional methods, including painting the base red and drawing on the beard and eyebrows.

The beard and eyebrows are still drawn by hand, even these days. (Photo courtesy of Takasaki City.)

Daruma Redesigned for the Modern Age

   There is also a trend for interpreting the orthodox daruma in new ways. Since around 2010, modern daruma have started to appear. These retain the traditional shape, but incorporate redesigned colors and patterns.

"Designers' daruma©" are a popular interior design item. (Photo courtesy of IMAI DARUMA NAYA.)

   For example, thanks to their cool look, black, white, and red daruma, painted with pigments made from crushed seashells to create a matte finish, have become popular as objects used in interior design. They are made in the same way as normal Takasaki daruma. They are also well known for being made in environmentally friendly ways, like using recycled paper as a raw material.

   The two words printed on the sides of the daruma are both Italian, with "cadere" meaning "to fall down"; and "rialzarsi" meaning "to get up." They are made in the hope that these daruma will spread the message to everyone around the world that "to stumble is a chance to take the first step toward the next path," and "we should not give up, even if we fail."

Colorful daruma. The design on the right is from kabuki, while that on the left is a Mexican skull. (Photo courtesy of Utageya ART Daruma.)

   These works were created by a popular daruma artist who incorporates street art designs and Japanese artistic expression into the daruma he paints.

   He says that he draws because he wants to use the daruma to convey the idea to people all over the world that wishes can only come true, and goals can only be achieved, when various causes and conditions are mutually related. That is why he decided to create daruma with pop-art designs that would catch the eye and grab people's interest. So, he decided to draw daruma featuring designs that people around the world find easy to understand, such as street art and kabuki designs. The people who buy these daruma are mainly in their teens to 30s, and it seems that they are often bought as a gift for a celebration.

   Isn't it interesting how both of the examples shown here have added new interpretations using color and design, without changing the shape of the daruma? In that sense, the main feature of the daruma seems to be its shape. This unique shape, which signifies determination to get back up no matter how many times you fall, seems to be striking a chord with many young people.