Daruma Doll: History of Japanese Wishing Dolls

Perseverance.

This is the meaning of a Daruma doll.

Tucked high on the shelf of many Japanese farmhouses, mom-and-pop shops, and tatami-filled homes, you’ll most likely see a Daruma doll or two.

Daruma on the shelf of a Japanese Restaurant.

Usually red and round and made of a special type of Japanese paper, the bodiless head stares with fierce determination. The eyes are left intentionally blank, so that it’s up to the user to draw in the pupils or irises.

The process of using a Daruma doll is simple:

  1. Have a goal, wish, or promise to fulfill. 
  2. Paint in one eye.
  3. Work for it everyday.
  4. When the dream is achieved, paint in the other eye.

Daruma dolls are constant reminders of the what the Japanese call the ganbaru spirit. Life is full of pitfalls and bumps on the road. It’s inevitable that you’ll stumble sometimes.

But it’s up to you to get back up. It’s in your own power and will to keep moving. The doll embodies this popular Japanese proverb: Nanakorobi yaoki. "Fall down seven times, stand up eight."

So it’s always about the work. No matter how tired, despite the circumstances, or even lack of rewards or motivation, the ganbaru spirit treads forward. Because clarity is truly realized and appreciated when the person who made the wish transforms into the person who completed the dream.

That’s why Daruma dolls have such determined expressions. They never give up. They are built to automatically bounce back when knocked over.

They are a metaphor of grit and endurance.

Was Daruma Based on a Real Person?

Like many religious figures, there is a historical person and the fanciful legend people spun from one generation to the next. Daruma dolls are based on Bodhidharma (or known as Daruma-Daishi in Japan), a sage monk who lived in the 5th-6th century. He is credited for introducing Zen Buddhism to China, Shaolin Kungfu, a type of meditation called Zazen, and green tea.

How’s that for a resume?

Bodhidharma (known as Daruma-Daishi in Japan) in deep meditation.

Unlike the other monks, he was a bit more eccentric and fanatical. The legend goes that Bodhidharma spent 9 years in deep meditation (with his eyes open!) staring at a blank wall. His perseverance for enlightenment was so firmly committed that his arms, legs, and body simply fell by the wayside and disappeared. Yet his undaunted spirit remained.

This is why his image is the foundation of Daruma dolls and why these charms are more than just toys but deep-rooted symbols of luck and good fortune woven into the Japanese culture.

The Design of Daruma

The multi-layered design of a Daruma Doll holds many meanings when carefully inspected. Red is the dominant color in most designs, because it’s believed that Bodhidharma wore red robes and because red is a very auspicious color in most Asian cultures signifying energy and good health.

The eyebrows are made to look like cranes and the mustache or cheek hair made too look like turtle or tortoise shells. 

Why?

Because cranes and tortoises represent longevity. 1,000 years for the crane and 10,000 years for the turtle shell. Not quite eternity but forever enough for several human lifetimes. Each Daruma is hand painted so no two Daruma have the exact same design.

The eyebrows represents cranes and mustache represents a turtle shell. Signs of longevity.

The Daruma is made of washi, traditional hand-made paper made only in winter. Because cold water is essential to making a more natural paper with little to no chemicals. 

The doll has a hollow middle to help keep it upright and bounce back up when pushed and tumbled. And of course, the expression is stern to represent the concentration towards the achieving the goal.

Where Are Daruma Dolls Made?

Takasai, Gunma is the epicenter of making Daruma dolls. The city accounts for 80% of the country’s Daruma production!

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The history of the dolls in Takasaki date back to the 17th-18th century. Local farmers crafted the first version of the dolls as charms to be blessed by monks. Every farmer depended on a good harvest, and for a superstitious culture, any luck no matter how big or small had to be practiced.

It was also a way to supplement their meager income during tough economic times.

As the decades went by, the popularity of the dolls, its meaning and practices moved beyond farmers to the rest of the country. That’s why many new (and old) business are almost always seen with a sizable Daruma tucked somewhere in the company. Good luck charms. Talismans. Guardians. The business of luck never goes stale.

Hence why the image of Daruma adorns many items and places in Japan. From murals to chopsticks, anime to even Hello Kitty, Daruma is ubiquitous.

Hello Kity dresses up as Daruma.

The Different Colors of Daruma

Today’s Daruma come in many different colors. There really isn’t a standard meaning to many of them. However, probably due to commercial purposes, some colors are given meaning to help customers aim for specific goals and wishes. 

Below is a general assumption of each color, however, some scholars and Daruma makers have conflicting and different meanings for the color, so view everything as a general opinion and not as fact.

  • Red: Good luck & fortune.
  • White: Purity 
  • Yellow or Gold: Money & fame.
  • Black: Prevention of Bad Luck
  • Orange: School Success
  • Blue: Education & Work Status
  • Green: Health & Fitness
  • Purple: Self-improvement & Personality
  • Pink: Love & Romance
  • Silver: Social Status

Like ice cream, when all else fails, stick with ‘vanilla’ color. Red. 

And Other Stuff You Shouldn’t (But Should) Know

Unfortunately, trolling existed well before the internet (sorry to burst your bubble), and many Edo-era artists often portrayed Daruma with phallic representations. After all, what else bounces back up with such vitality? Penis envy aside, the term ‘Daruma’ was also a nickname given to prostitutes during the Edo period, because they were also able to “tumble down” and “raise” the energy of their customers. Well, have to give some credit for that one.

The Ultimate Meaning of a Daruma Doll

All jokes and commercial intent aside, a Daruma doll represents three things: your goal, your action, and the outcome. While it heavily depends on luck and good spirits, the modern Daruma also asks that you take action and be proactive in working towards your dream and achievement. In short, each Daruma doll is a piece of you. And it’s up to you to be the one to opens both eyes. 

Shakespeare said it best, “To be or not to be…”

Be the person who goes from making wishes to achieving dreams. The Daruma doll is a mirror that shows what you've always been capable of.

A completed wish or goal Daruma with two eyes painted in.

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