The surprising story of Daruma dolls

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What are those interesting-looking, red Daruma dolls anyway? You’ve likely seen them in Asian restaurants around the world or hiding just about everywhere in Japan. But few know the interesting and somewhat dark history behind their cute appearance. 

Read on to learn all about Daruma dolls, where they came from and how to use your own to make a wish come true.

What is a Daruma doll?

A Daruma is a traditional luck charm rooted in 5th to 6th century Japanese folklore. They’re a symbol of perseverance in the face of adversity. Use Daruma to make wishes about a goal you’d like to achieve.

You can recognise Daruma by their rounded shape, bright colors (originally red), and striking, open-eyed face

History of Daruma dolls

Don’t be fooled by their cute looks! Daruma have a deep and surprisingly dark legend behind them. 

They’re modelled after the monk Bodhidharma. The origin of Bodhidharma’s story and exactly where he came from are now impossible to pinpoint. But, he was credited with a long list of accomplishments like founding Zen Buddhism, popularising Shaolin kungfu and inventing green tea.

Legend has it that Bodhidharma meditated in a cave for 9 years without so much as blinking. His persistence was so strong that when his arms, legs and eyelids fell off, he continued without pause. This story, along with Bodhidharma’s dedication, are the basis for the daruma’s round shape. Daruma were originally weighted at the bottom so they stand up no matter how many times they’re knocked over. 

Daruma with Kabuki face paint

Daruma in modern times

The commercialisation of the doll began in the 17th century with local farmers in Takasaki of Gunma prefecture. They crafted daruma to bring good fortune to their silk harvest, an intense job that relies heavily on luck. 

Over time, Daruma dolls became a sort of meme among the lower classes of Japanese society. Their shape slowly shifted to phallic shapes, or female “Lady Daruma,” which were made as jabs at the upper echelons of society. 

Even though their true meaning was mostly lost to time, Daruma dolls’ popularity continues to this day. You can see them in souvenir shops, local businesses and homes all over Japan.

Daruma doll kanji

Daruma can have any kanji written on them (usually a single big golden symbol on their belly). But these are the most common you’ll see:

  • 幸 (shiawase): happiness, blessing
  • 叶 (kanau): a wish coming true or being realised
  • 福 (fuku): good luck, fortune, a blessing

People can also paint their own kanji on the doll to represent their own goals and wishes.

Which colour daruma should I buy?

Traditional Daruma dolls were all red. This may be linked to the colour of priests’ robes. Or to win the favour of the god of smallpox during outbreaks. They believed the god loved the colour red and would spare a victim if he was pleased.

Today you can find Daruma in a wide variety of colours. Each serves a certain type of wish:

  • Red: good fortune in general wishes
  • Purple: health and a long life
  • Blue: success in school and intellectual pursuits
  • Gold: wealth and prosperity
  • Yellow: good luck in financial matters
  • Green: physical health
  • Black: success in business
  • White: love and harmony
  • Pink: for love, relationships and attraction
  • Orange: pregnancy and safety

student studying by Daruma doll

How to use a Daruma doll

Just buying a doll won’t bring you any luck according to Daruma legend. You’ll have to follow a few simple rules. The easy way to use a Daruma is detailed for you below.

Making a wish

You’ll notice your Daruma doll has no eyes when you buy it. So, you’ll have to fill them in.

Imagine a goal or wish you’d like fulfilled. It should be something possible to do within a year. It can be as simple or grandiose as you’d like. 

Once you’ve got it, fill in just one of the Daruma’s eyes (they say its left eye is best). This makes a pact with the spirit of the doll. Here’s the deal: It brings you the good vibes needed to fulfill the goal and then you fill its other eye in.

So, stay true to your word, meet your goals, and gift your Daruma with its second eye after a year has passed. Once your wish comes true or a year comes and goes, it’s time to return the spirit of the Daruma. 

Returning your Daruma

Return your Daruma to any temple for ritual burning, releasing the spirit for its service. Or, if you really want to send your doll off in style, check out the Daruma kuyō (だるま供養). It’s a Daruma burning festival in Nishiarai Daishi Temple. There, you’ll see thousands of Daruma ascending together in a blaze of glory.

It’s a real sight to see and the perfect place to buy a new doll for the coming year.

Make your own Daruma

Create your own Daruma out of paper with our template. Just cut along the outside edges and then glue together the white panels. You’ll have your own 3D papercraft Daruma in no time!

Download the template here.

Learn more about Japan

Want to learn more about Japan? No need for good fortune here. Discover all you’d like to know about Japanese life, culture, and language with Go Go Nihon. Follow us on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok.

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