Make a wish at a temple by writing an “ema” in Japan

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Have you ever visited a temple or shrine in Japan and seen large amounts of wooden plaques hanging on display at the temple grounds? These wooden plaques, so called ema (絵馬), have a long history and tradition and are used for making a wish at a temple or shrine. 

Read on if you are interested in knowing more about ema in Japan!

Image of an ema board with cats drawn on

What is an ema? How do you make a wish with an ema?

An ema in Japan is a wooden plaque used to make a wish at a Shintō shrine in Japan. An ema is shaped like a shōgi (将棋, Japanese chess) piece and the wood used for making the ema is usually natural pine-based wood, such as spruce, fir, or white pine. 

On the wooden surface you can write just about any wish as long as it doesn’t harm others. Typical examples of wishes are the fulfillment of love, prosperous business, good health, and so on. What you typically write also depends on the temple or shrine you are visiting. Different temples/shrines house different kami (神, a celestial shintō deity) and therefore represent different things. Ema are also written and offered to convey gratitude to the kami once a wish has been fulfilled.

For example, one famous spot for wishing for the fulfillment of love is the shrine jishu jinja (地主神社). The shrine is located on the temple grounds in one of the most revered temples in Japan, the Kiyomizudera (清水寺) temple in Kyoto.

Usually an ema is written personally, much like you make a New Year’s wish for yourself. But there are cases where a group of people like a football team write a common wish together as well. Once the wish is written on the ema, the ema is hung on a rack called emagake (絵馬掛け), and thus offered to the kami.

Traditionally you make wishes with ema in connection to hatsumōde (初詣), the first temple/shrine visit of the new year. But ema can be written at any time you want to make a wish. For example, before the university exams, when a family member is ill, or when you are searching for a job.

One interesting thing to note is that you don’t “buy” an ema. Rather, you make an offering in cash for the temple (typically 500-1000yen) and in exchange receive an ema to make a wish to the kami enshrined at the temple or shrine.

The history of ema in Japan

The kanji used to write “ema” (絵馬) is “picture” followed by “horse”. And there is a reason for this. Once upon a time it was custom to offer a horse to the kami when making a wish or when your wish had been fulfilled. However, offering a horse every time you make a wish was uneconomical and ever since the middle of the Heian period (794-1185) the horses were replaced with plaques of wood that were shaped as horses.

For a long time, to write and offer an ema to the kami was a privilege reserved for the aristocracy. However, things gradually changed during the Muromachi period (1333-1573) and Edo period (1603-1868) and it became custom for common people to make wishes with ema as well. At the same time, the ema also came to resemble the shape that we see today.

Image of a pink colour ema board hanging at a temple in Japan, with the character for love (愛) and おねがい (please)

What to write on an ema?

There are no rules about what you can and cannot write on an ema (as long as it’s not wishing harm upon someone else). Here are some guidelines you can follow, though!

There is actually a grammatical sentence-ending construction specifically for making wishes in Japanese: “〇〇ますように。” (〇〇masuyōni), so making a wish and writing an ema should typically end with this. 

Let’s see some examples of typical wishes you can make with an ema in Japan.

Kyoto daigaku ni gōkaku dekimasuyōni.
I wish I can pass (the exam) at Kyoto University

Kokoro kara daisuki na hito to tsukiae, shiawase ni narimasuyōni.
I wish to be happy in a relationship with the one I love from the bottom of my heart.

Okāsan ga genki ni narimasuyōni.
I wish for my mother to get well soon.

Sometimes you also write an abridged version instead of a sentence, using four-kanji compound words called yojijukugo (四字熟語). Some common ones are:

無病息災 (mubyō-sokusai) – wishing for sound health.
合格祈願 (gōkaku-kigan) – wishing for passing an exam.
就職祈願 (shūshoku-kigan) – wishing for finding employment.
恋愛成就 (renai-jōju) – wishing for fullfillment of love
千客万来 (senkyaku-banrai) – wishing for roaring business.
一攫千金 (ikkaku-senkin) – wishing for striking it rich.
家庭円満 (katei-enman) – wishing for peace within the family.
安産祈願 (anzan-kigan) – wishing for easy childbirth.

Next time you have the opportunity to visit a temple or a shrine, we recommend trying to write an ema and making a wish. If you want to challenge yourself, try writing it in Japanese! Who knows, maybe your wish will come true!

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