GOOD LUCK AND FORTUNE:
THE TRADITION OF THE DARUMA
"Daruma-san fell over!" The Daruma doll, most familiar from a phrase in a children's game, is part of traditional Japanese culture that has been handed down through generations. With its austere, rounded form, intense expression, and distinctive eyebrows, the Daruma doll is not only considered an ornament but also a symbol of good fortune and the ultimate lucky charm. When the left eye is filled in, a journey of perseverance to fulfil one's dream begins. We visited a long-established Daruma craftsman with a 200-year history to learn about its origins and outlook for the future.
THE ORIGIN OF DARUMA
We can start by tracing the deep origins of the Daruma doll and how it came to have its round form. It was modelled after the renowned Bodhidharma, a Buddhist monk who resided in India and was the founder of Zen Buddhism during the late 5th and early 6th centuries. His teachings were introduced to Japan and formed the foundation of present-day Zen Buddhism. Bodhidharma was known for his original Zen method of “hekikan” called "Hekikan-baramon" (Wall-facing Brahmin), with which by legend having it that after nine years of sitting facing a wall, his limbs rotted away, resulting in the creation of the archetype of the Daruma doll without limbs and with a prominently large face.
The Daruma doll created in China was then introduced to Japan in the Edo period (1603-1868), becoming popular as the Daruma we know today. According to legend, during a smallpox endemic the Bodhidharma 's red robe was believed to ward off smallpox and Daruma dolls exploded in popularity. Since then, Daruma dolls have evolved in various ways across Japan. After the epidemic subsided, they took root in Takasaki for a long time, largely due to the proximity of Kiryu, a city renowned for its flourishing silk industry and sericulture farming. The "Takasaki Daruma" is characterized by its "crane and tortoise" (a symbol of good fortune and longevity) hidden in its eyebrows and beard. People write various wishes on the body of the Daruma, including the fulfilment of great ambitions, safety in the home, and prosperity in business. The culture of worshipping Daruma dolls at home still remains in this region, and people welcome the New Year with a new Daruma in their homes.
Today, Daruma dolls are still made mostly by hand aside from an initial molding process using the latest technology. From the Edo period until about 50 years ago, molds were made by laminating layers of paper on wooden molds one by one, while vacuum molding is generally used today. The handiwork starts with attaching a weight called "hetta" to the bottom of a mold made of 100% recycled paper. The material used is sticky, fertile soil from the region, and the weight of the soil helps the doll to rise up when it is knocked over. After the hetta dries, the next step is undercoating, in which the entire body is coated with a pure white pigment made by mixing gofun (ground shell powder) and nikawa (natural glue). This process reinforces the body and enhances the colour of the pigment used in the subsequent top coat. Basically, only a single layer of undercoat is applied. The key to making a beautiful Daruma is not to make it too smooth and retain the texture of paper.
After the undercoating is done, the pure white, solid Daruma is left to dry in the sun for a day or so. Weather conditions are of utmost importance for Daruma-making as the process requires frequent drying. Japan’s region of Takasaki actually holds the highest rate of possible sunshine in Japan making it supremely ideal for the production of Daruma. For traditional red Daruma dolls, the top coat is applied entirely in red. Again, a single layer of topcoat is basically applied and after letting it dry for a day is ready for brushwork. After the face is complete, the generational craftsmen then carefully apply facial features with effortless brush strokes creating eyes, nose and beard in about ten steps. Artisans are allowed to draw faces only after a decade of apprenticeship, and only store owners are allowed to draw the beards that serve as the signatures of their stores. This demonstrates the continued dedication and commitment to traditional techniques.
THE FUTURE OF DARUMA
Recently, while traditional Daruma dolls are still popular, designer Daruma dolls are now available to suit new lifestyles. Unlike traditional Daruma, which has a glossy finish, they are designed to blend in with the modern interior by creating a matte finish with two layers of undercoat, using the same traditional methods. The innovation and tradition of Daruma making will surely be passed on to the future.
In a sense, a Daruma doll — crafted painstakingly by hand — is a capsule packed with perseverance and good fortune. When you receive a Daruma, first fill in the left eye, and at the same time make a wish for what you want to achieve or aim for in your life. Daruma has an unexplainable power to make you promise to yourself that you will challenge any obstacles that may come your way, in order to achieve your dreams and goals.
Text: Mio Koumura
Images: Momo Angela Ohta
Location: Takasaki, Gunma, Japan