The number seven is said to be a lucky or holy number not only to Japan, but also all over the world. A lot of terms that have the number seven in them are Snow White’s seven dwarves, the seven wonders of the world, the seven deadly sins, et cetera. However, there is another term that goes along with the whole “seven is a lucky number” phrase. This is none other than the Shichifukujin (七福神) or the Seven Lucky Gods.
The Shichifukujin is composed of seven gods. These are Ebisu, Daikokuten, Bishamonten, Benzaiten, Jurojin, Hotei and Fukurokuju. They didn’t start off as one whole group. If anything, they were deities that came from different countries and religions. They were individually worshipped, which is a rarity nowadays. In the year 1420, they began to be mentioned as a group in order to imitate the processions of the daimyos in Fushimi.
These gods were selected by the priest Tenkai who was ordered by his shogun, Iemitsu Tokugawa, to seek whoever possessed the following virtues: longevity, fortune, popularity, sincerity, kindness, dignity and magnanimity. After a few years, these gods were portrayed for the first time by a famous artist named Kano Yasunobu. According to a Japanese legend, these gods travel in a ship known as Takarabune. It is a ship filled with treasures. It also comes from the sea, bringing fortune and prosperity to everyone.
The Seven Gods
Ebisu (恵比寿) is known to be the god of prosperity and wealth of business. He is said to be the only one in the Shichifukujin whose origin is purely Japanese. He is often identified with Hiruko, the first offspring of the gods Izanagi and Izananmi. Usually, he is often depicted wearing fishermen’s costumes like the typical hat or hunting robes. He would always have a fishing rod in his right hand and on his left is a freshly caught fish known as tai, which is a symbol of good luck itself. He is seen to be always smiling because of his successful catch.
Daikokuten (大黒天) was originally a Hindu warrior deity known as Mahākāla, however, once he was introduced to Japan, he became the leader of the Shichifukujin. Legend says that he is a demon hunter. He uses a sacred talisman and hangs it on a tree branch in his garden to trap and catch a demon. He is described to have short legs, a happy-looking smile and a hat on his head. He is also seen with a bag filled with valuable objects. He can also manifest as a female known as Daikokunyo (大黒女) which means “She is of Great Blackness.”
Bishamonten (毘沙門天) was originally from Hinduism, but he has been adopted into Japanese culture. He came from the Hindu god Kubera and was originally called Vaisravana. He is the protector of holy sites and of those who follow the rules and behave properly. This god is always described to be wearing full armor with his right hand wielding a weapon, and his left holding his main identifying attribute, the treasure pagoda. He is seen standing over one or two demons with a fierce look, symbolizing the defeat of evil.
Benzaiten (弁才天) is the only goddess in the Shichifukujin. She was originally known as a Hindu goddess of water. When she was adapted to Buddhism, she was given the attributes of financial fortune, talent, beauty and music. She often appears with Torii and she is represented as a smart, beautiful woman. She is seen around carrying a biwa, a Japanese lute or guitar and she is normally accompanied by a white snake. According to some traditions, she is married to a dragon to stop its attack on the island Enoshima.
Jurojin (寿老人) is said to be the incarnation of the southern pole star. He is of Chinese origin and is the god of wisdom and longevity. Some say that he was based on a real person who lived during the ancient times. He is 1.82 meters tall and he has a long head. Besides his distinctive skull, he is often described with a very long white beard but wears a scholar’s headdress. He is a joyful figure and he enjoys rice and wine. He is seen riding a deer and is accompanied by a crane and a tortoise, which symbolizes his link to a long life.
Hotei (布袋) is another one of the gods in the Shichifukujin that is said to be based on a real person. He is a god that is described in the most unflattering matter for he is depicted as a fat, smiling, bald man with a mustache, and he is seen half-naked due to his clothes not being wide enough to cover his enormous belly. He carries a bag on his shoulders which carries fortunes. He is often surrounded by children and is always seen smiling and laughing. This is where he lives up to his nickname the “Laughing Buddha.”
Fukurokuju (福禄寿) originated from China. Just like Hotei and Jurojin, this god is said to be based on a real person. He is the only god who can resurrect the dead. He is often characterized as a short man with a big, elongated head and a mustache. He holds a cane with one hand and the other hand holds a scroll with all the writings in the world. He is usually seen being accompanied by a turtle, crow or deer, which are animals that symbolize long life. It is also said that this god plays chess.
The Shichifukujin’s stories may not be as interesting as other gods, but it is refreshing to learn about them and how they came to be. If you want to be lucky for the next year, don’t forget to pray to these gods during the first three days of New Year! Legends do say that they pilot through the heavens during that time of the year. Who knows? Maybe they’ll answer and give you good luck and fortune!