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Japanese Daruma: New Year Good Luck Dolls

Daruma: this red round doll represents Bodhidharma, a priest and founder of the Zen sect of Buddhism. It is traditionally purchased at the beginning of the year for good luck and throughout the year for hope and courage. One eye is painted in when a wish is made, and the other when the wish is fulfilled. [Info source: Tokai Gifts]

I picked up a pair of charming figurines today -- a small red head, and a little bit bigger gold head bank. They are roundish, made out of papier mache / composition, and are hand painted. But they don't have a maker's mark, so I had to spend some time trying different search terms to find out what I had. My first impression was that they might be Russian as they reminded me of nesting dolls. (And well they might. See the Bonus Fact link below.) 

That search didn't work out. Finally I tried the simplistic "red painted head", and hit pay dirt. Turns out these are Japanese folk art toy dolls called DARUMA. Alas, they're not rare, but they are interesting. Mine appear to be vintage, so perhaps are worth a little more than the new ones available on Amazon. For now, they look great on my shelf.

Here's a little more info:

Daruma -- via Wikipedia --  a hollow, round, Japanese traditional doll modeled after Bodhidharma, the founder of the Zen sect of Buddhism. 

These dolls, though typically red and depicting a bearded man (Dharma), vary greatly in color and design depending on region and artist. 

Though considered an omocha, meaning toy, Daruma has a design that is rich in symbolism and is regarded more as a talisman of good luck to the Japanese. Daruma dolls are seen as a symbol of perseverance and good luck, making them a popular gift of encouragement.


A daruma doll with one eye filled in for wishing.
The eyes of Daruma are often blank when sold. Monte A. Greer, author of Daruma Eyes, described the "oversized symmetrical round blank white eyes" as a means to keep track of goals or big tasks and motivate them to work to the finish. The recipient of the doll fills in one eye upon setting the goal, then the other upon fulfilling it. In this way, every time they see the one-eyed Daruma, they recall the goal. One explanation how this custom started says that in order to motivate Daruma-san to grant your wish, you promise to give him full sight once the goal is accomplished. This practice might also have something to do with the "enlightenment", the ideal attainment of Buddhism. This custom has led to a phrase in Japanese translated as "Both Eyes Open". Referring to "opening" the second eye, it expresses the realization of a goal. Traditionally, the Daruma was purchased as a household, and that only the head of the household would paint in the eyes.

History and commercialization

The current popular symbolism associated with Daruma as a good luck charm in part originated with the Daruma-dera(Temple of Daruma) in the city of Takasaki (Gunma Prefecture, north of Tokyo). Josef Kyburz, Author of "Omocha": Things to Play (Or Not to Play) with, explained that the founder of Daruma-Dera would draw New Year's charms depicting Bodhidharma. The parishioners would keep these charms to "bring happiness and prosperity and ward off accidents and misfortune".

It is believed that the Daruma figurine then originated from this region when the ninth priest, Togaku, found a solution to handle the constant requests of the parishioners for new charms. The charms were always given with an effectiveness of one year, so the people required new ones every year. He solved this by entrusting them with the making of their own Daruma charms near the beginning of the Meiwa Period (1764–72). The temple made wooden block molds for the people to use. The peasants then used these molds to make three-dimensional papier-mâché charms.

Kyburz notes that though it is unknown when the Daruma figurine combined with the tumbler doll, the two were well recognized as synonymous by the mid-19th century. The doll quickly grew in popularity, becoming a mascot of the region. This was due greatly in part to fact that the majority of the families were silk farmers, a crop which requires a great deal of luck for success.

There is an annual Daruma Doll Festival held by the city of Takasaki in celebration of being the proclaimed birthplace of the Daruma doll. The celebration is held at the Shorinzan, the name of Takasaki's "Daruma-Dera". According to the Takasaki City website, "Over 400,000 people from all over the Kanto Plain come to buy new good-luck dolls for the year. Takasaki produces 80% of Japan's Daruma dolls."


Darumas are still usually made of papier-mâché, have a round shape, are hollow, and weighted at the bottom in a way that it will always return to an upright position when tilted over. In Japanese a roly-poly toy is called okiagari.meaning to get up (oki) and arise (agari). This characteristic has come to symbolize the ability to have success, overcome adversity, and recover from misfortune.

Daruma are also sold as a set of five colors - blue, yellow, red, white and black - called Goshiki Daruma. These days, daruma can also be found in colors other than red, including gold, which is meant to bring luck in financial matters.

Daruma Burning

Burning of the daruma

At the end of the year, all the Daruma are brought back to the temple they were purchased from for a traditional burning ceremony. This ceremony, called the Daruma Kuyo is held once a year usually right after New Years Day. 

At these events, people bring the Daruma figures they had used that year to the temple. After expressing gratitude to them, they turn it over to the temple and buy new ones for the next year. 

All of the old Daruma figures are burnt together in the temple. After a solemn display of the monks' entry, reading of the sutras, and blowing of horns, the tens of thousands of figurines are then set aflame.

Dharma is the Law that "upholds, supports or maintains the regulatory order of the universe".
Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, and Sikhism all have the idea of dharma at their core, where it points to the purification and moral transformation of human beings. Though differing in some particulars, all concur that the goal of human life is moksha or nirvana, in which the ultimate nature of dharma (as cosmic law) is apprehended experientially.
In Buddhist philosophy, dhamma/dharma is also the term for "phenomenon".
The Japanese daruma dolls are based on a supposed real man who had a beard -- modeled after Bodhidharma, the founder of the Zen sect of Buddhism. -- I imagine Bodhidaruma doll just became Daruma in translation from Chinese to Japanese.
Throughout Buddhist art, Bodhidharma is depicted as a rather ill-tempered, profusely bearded and wide-eyed barbarian.

Inline image 1


Bodhidharma was a Buddhist monk who lived during the 5th/6th century CE. He is traditionally credited as the transmitter of Ch'an (Sanskrit: Dhyāna, Japanese: Zen) to China, and regarded as its first Chinese patriarch. According to Chinese legend, he also began the physical training of the Shaolin monks that led to the creation of Shaolinquan.
Bonus Facts: 
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