What is a Daruma? The Traditional Japanese Lucky Doll

What is a Daruma? The Traditional Japanese Lucky Doll

If you’ve been to Japan, this face might be familiar to you - the bold red head with gold décor, the pink face, bushy eyebrows and elaborate beard, the stern, single-line mouth, flared hemisphere nostrils and, depending on who they belong to, the hollow, pupil-less eyes. This is the face of the Daruma Doll - a rather ubiquitous one in Japan.

But whose face is it? What are they for and what are they looking at? What exactly is a Daruma, the infamous Japanese lucky doll?

From where they began, to what they mean in all their colourful forms, let’s take a look at the Daruma; a beardy man, a zen icon, thoughtful gift and an enduring symbol of good luck and perseverance.

What is a Daruma?

Daruma are round, hollow, hand-painted paper mache dolls from Japan. They come in a variety of colours, most typically red and depicting the face of the monk Bodhidharma.

They’re a popular gift, seen as a symbol of perseverance and good luck and have been popularised by Buddhist temples as an aid to facilitate the setting of goals

How are Daruma Used?

Aside from their symbolism, Daruma have an application too.

Upon creation a Daruma has a blank, white pair of eyes. The owner must draw a pupil in the left eye, while focusing on a goal they’d like to achieve or wish they’d like to come true. The Daruma serves as a reminder of this goal, looking towards it and at you should you forget. Once the goal is achieved you may colour in the other pupil.

At the end of the year, if both eyes are filled in, it’s tradition to return the Daruma to a temple for a traditional burning ceremony called the daruma kuyō, where completed Daruma are piled up, a ceremony performed by monks and then Daruma set aflame before new goals are set and new left eyes filled in for the year ahead.

How are Daruma made?

Daruma are traditionally made via a form of paper mache using Japanese Washi Paper.

They are still for the most part made by hand by generational Daruma artisans, apart from, in most cases, the initial moulding process.

Since the Edo period, a wooden mould was carved and then wrapped in papier mache, laminating together and moulding layers carefully layer-by-layer to form the Daruma’s iconic features.

Nowadays this initial process has largely been sped-up by vacuum moulding, with each pre-made mould being dipped in liquid paper mache and the air inside sucked out via a pump to keep it hollow. As well as wooden moulds, some makers use clay or even metal ones for extra longevity.

After casting, the handcrafting begins when a weight called a ‘’hetta’’ is attached to the bottom of the Daruma, to fill the vacuum hole and to serve as a base for it to sit on. This is usually made from recycled paper and soil from the region.

Next, the Daruma is undercoated in a bright, white pigment of natural glue (nikawa) and ground shell powder (gofun). This initial layer helps to strengthen the Daruma’s body and bolden the colour of the following coat of paint. Then the Daruma is left to dry in the sun.

The majority of Daruma (around 80%) are still made in Takasaki, Gunma, Japan’s cultural Daruma home. Fortunately this region has one of the highest sunshine levels in Japan, making it perfect for the frequent drying required in Daruma production!

Once dried, a top coat (traditionally red) is applied over the whole Daruma and it’s left out to dry for another day before the brushwork begins.

Next the face is painted and once dried, craftsmen and women expertly paint on the facial details using traditional brushwork in a series of about 10 steps.

Apparently, in some workshops, apprentices are only allowed to draw faces after a decade of dedication, while the beards are reserved for store owners as a signature of their work.

What do the different colours of Daruma mean?

A Gold, Red and Pink Daruma on a Shelf at the Happy Piranha Store.

While the traditional Daruma is red for good luck and good fortune, the symbol of the Daruma has expanded to take on different forms and different colours, each specialising in a different area.
  • Red - the traditional all-encompassing Daruma, promoting general positive energy, good luck, good fortune and safety in all areas.
  • Black - the colour of protection, for warding off negative influences and preventing loss, in this way it promotes business fortune too - by keeping your business out of the black.
  • Gold - the colour promoting wealth, good business and prosperity.
  • Yellow - similar to gold, the colour of ambition and financial luck.
  • White - the colour of purity and peace, promoting refreshment in body and mind, new beginnings and new life.
  • Pink - the colour of romance, promoting love, harmonic relationships and marriage.
  • Purple - the colour of inspiration, confidence, self-improvement and personal growth.
  • Green - the colour of vitality, promoting good health and healing.
  • Blue - promoting personal achievement, independence, career and academic success.
Sometimes makers will also craft daruma to promote different regions or events, including those depicting styles or colours reflective of different animals or regional fruit and veg for example.

The Anatomy of a Daruma.

As well as they’re iconic empty eyes, the classic Takasaki Daruma’s holds significance in other areas.

A Darumas Eyebrows and Whiskers

Takasaki Daruma are often characterised by their facial hair, with the Daruma’s eyebrows hiding the shape of a crane bird, while it’s whiskers/ cheek hair is fashioned in the form of a tortoise, both which are symbols of longevity and good luck, referencing the Japanese proverb "The crane lives 1000 years, the tortoise 10,000 years".

A Daruma's Belly and Kanji

Most commonly written on the belly of the Daruma is the Japanese Kanji ''Fukuiri''. Fuku means “luck”, iri means “insert”. Placed together they show that the Daruma “contains good luck”. Sometimes you may find Daruma with other Kanji on them, such as ''longevity'', ''victory'' etc.

Larger Daruma may also have kanji written on their body or around the face in gold, depending on what area the owner is looking for good fortune in

The Daruma's Base

As well as providing a solid base / support, the 'hetta', a Daruma's paper/soil base is also symbolic of one's ability to keep getting back up again.

Daruma's are an evolution of the tumbling doll, whose round, weighted base enabled it to right itself when knocked over, representing the ability to overcome adversity. It's firm centre of gravity represents a strong and calm heart, capable of dealing with difficulty.

For this reason, Daruma are often depicted alongside the Japanese phrase "Nanakorobi Yaoki", meaning "seven times down, eight times up". If you fall down seven times, you'll get back up eight. Failing isn't a bad thing, it's a chance to learn from and part of the process of life. If like knocks you down, humbly get back up again like the Daruma.

Where Did the Daruma Come From?

A depiction of the monk Bodhidharma

Bodhidharma, the Monk With the Enduring Gaze

The classic red Daruma is said to be based on the figure of the red-robed 5th/6th century CE Buddhist monk Bodhidharma, who is often credited for bringing the foundations of Ch’an (Zen) buddhism to China and Japan.

Little is known about him, though several legends exist, including his enduring stare and reputation for wall gazing. One account mentions how he was meditating, gazing at a wall for so long (9 years), that his arms and legs fell off from atrophy! Another story of how his anger at falling asleep when doing so resulted in him cutting off his eyelids, so that he couldn’t fail again!

One story mentions how it was believed Bodhidharma's red robe would protect from smallpox.

Whatever the case, it seems that Bodhidharma had steely, unrelenting eyes, sharp will and a clear goal in mind, much like a Daruma.

Bodhidharma is often depicted as a red-robed. ill-tempered, beardy, wide-eyed, more western looking person and referred to as "The Blue-Eyed Barbarian" in old chinese texts. A good fit for the stern, hairy-faced red Daruma we know today.

Takasaki, Japan’s Daruma Town

A big stack of red Daruma Dolls.

The modern day Daruma doll is believed to have been introduced to Japan in the Edo period. It is thought to have originated in part at Shorinzan Daruma Temple, in the city of Takasaki where the founder of the temple would hand out charms depicting Bodhidharma and his parishioners would keep them to promote good luck, prosperity and protection from 'red diseases' - illness such as smallpox.

After some time the temple was in need of a solution for the growing request for new charms, so entrusted the villagers with the making of their own Daruma near the beginning of the Meiwa period. The temple made the wooden moulds for the people to use, who would then layer the paper mache over them to create the Daruma dolls.

Takasaki Daruma are also said to have begun with a man named Yugoro Yamagata, a wooden mould expert who began carving wooden Daruma moulds upon moving to the village of Kamitoyooka during the Bunka and Bunsei eras. As a result farmers in the nearby area began to make more Daruma, which developed in style from the Edo period Daruma to the Takasaki Daruma we know today.

Silk farmers in neighbouring regions relied heavily on luck for their silk production and as such would buy Daruma from the Takasaki farmers that made them in the hope of the Daruma bestowing them with good fortune too.

Over time this resulted in Daruma workshops being created and Daruma spreading throughout Japan as the iconic symbol of good luck it is today.

Daruma Today

A Black Daruma Doll on a Desk.

Who’d have thought an ill-tempered, beardy monk would have inspired such a thing?

The symbol of the stern faced Daruma is one that has permeated throughout Japanese culture, from Buddhist temples, to childrens toys, tourist shops and high end artisanal stores.

Snowmen are called ‘Snow Daruma’, in Japanese, Daruma appear on children's toys and books, as souvenirs on socks, fans and fridge magnets. You’ll spot them sitting sternly on shelves overlooking stores and homes and, if you’re able to visit, stacked up high in a menagerie of wide-eyed colours and sizes at Daruma-Dera and Shorinzan Daruma temples in Kyoto and Takasaki.

As a symbol of good luck and fortune, it’s a representation of focusing on your goals with a steely gaze in order to make them come true. Over time it’s been adapted and evolved as a usable lucky charm for various areas of life and as a gift it’s a good one in our opinion too; good-willed and handmade, a craft kept alive by generational artisans and, for a stern bearded guy, pretty cool looking too.

Always keep an eye on your goal. When in doubt, your Daruma will remind you where to look and when life knocks you down, get back up again. This is the way of the Daruma.
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