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Seven Lucky Gods of Japan

INTRO. The Shichifukujin 七福神 are an eclectic group of deities from Japan, India, and China. Only one is native to Japan (Ebisu) and Japan’s indigenous Shintō tradition. Three are from the Hindu-Buddhist pantheon of India (Daikokuten, Bishamonten, & Benzaiten) and three from Chinese Taoist-Buddhist traditions (Hotei, Jurōjin, & Fukurokuju). In Japan, they travel together on their treasure ship (Takarabune) and visit human ports on New Year’s Eve to dispense happiness to believers. Each deity existed independently before Japan’s “artificial” creation of the group. The origin of the group in unclear -- some say the Muromachi Era (1392-1568), others the 17th century. Today, images of the seven appear with great frequency in Japan. By the 19th century, most major cities had developed special pilgrimage circuits for the seven. These pilgrimages remain well trodden today, but many people now use cars, buses, and trains to move between the sites. Each deity is presented briefly below. Click any deity name for full textual reviews and photos. Why the number seven? 

SEVEN VIRTUES. Says the Flammarion Iconographic Guide : “This popular group of deities recalls ’the seven wise men of the bamboo thicket’ or the ‘seven wise men of the wine cup’ whose images are popular in China. [The Japanese group] was artificially created in the 17th century by the monk Tenkai 天海 (who died in 1643 and was posthumously named Jigen Daishi 慈眼大師), who wanted to symbolize the essential virtues of the man of his time for the Shōgun Tokugawa Iemitsu 徳川家光 (1623-1650 AD).” The seven virtues are candor, fortune, amiability, magnanimity, popularity, longevity, and dignity. See list below for deity-virtue identifications.

However, says JAANUS: ”These seven auspicious deities are first believed to have been grouped together and given the name ‘shichifuku’ during the Muromachi period. At first, the group’s members were not fixed and Benzaiten became one of the seven somewhat later. The group of seven may derive from the Chinese subject of Seven Sages in a Bamboo Grove (Chikurin Shichiken 竹林七賢) of the Wei and Jin Period (220-420 AD) or from a famous Buddhist term in the Ninnōgyō Sutra 仁王経 given therein as ‘shichinan sokumetsu shichinan sokushou 七難即滅 七難即生 (lit. = seven adversities disappeared and seven fortunes arose). From the 15th century, the Shichifukujin gained in popularity, especially among urban merchants and artisans, as an auspicious omen and motif of good fortune and longevity, and appear in many painted, sculpted and printed examples.”

Name & Origin
Ebisu 恵比須
Origin = Japan.
Shinto Name: Kotoshiro-nushi-no-kami
God of Fishermen, Good Forture, Commerce, and Honest Labor. Virtue = Candor, Fair Dealing
Holds a fish (tai or sea bream, red snapper), which symbolizes luck and congratulation (Japanese word for happy occasion is omede-tai); fishing rod in right hand; folding fan in other; grants success to people in their chosen occupations; son of Daikoku. Popular among fishing folk, sailors, and people in the food industry.
Daikokuten 大黒天
Origin = India.
Skt. = Mahakala
Intro to Japan 9th C. AD
God of Earth, Agrculture, Farmers, Wealth, Prosperity, Flood Control, The Kitchen. Virtue = Fortune
God of five cereals; rice bales; treasure sack (bag); magic mallet in right hand; sometimes wears hood; rat (found around food); often shown with Ebisu, who is said to be his son; merged with Shinto deity of good harvests, Okuninushi no Mikoto. Also a member of the TENBU. Popular among farmers, agricultural businesses, & traders.
Benzaiten 弁財天
Origin = India.
Skt. = Sarasvati
Goddess of Music, Fine Arts, Beauty, Eloquence, and Literature. Virtue = Amiability
Japanese mandolin, lute, magic jewel, snake, sea dragon. Only female among the seven. Member of the TENBU grouping. Popular among artists, musicians, and writers.
Hotei 布袋
Origin = China.
Chn. = Putai, Budai
Chinese Sage.
Budaishi (Jp. = Fuudaishiten)
God of Contentment and Happiness. Virtue = Magnanimity
Bag of food and treasure that never empties; oogi (fan), small children at his feet; supposedly only member of seven based on actual person (although Jurōjin / Fukurokuju might also be based on real person); known as the Laughing Buddha; rubbing his stomach is said to bring good luck; incarnation of Bodhisattva Maitreya (Jp. = Miroku). Popular among bartenders and all classes of people. Among the seven, the best known outside Japan.
Fukurokuju 福禄寿
Origin = China.
Taoist Hermit Sage
God of Wealth, Happiness, Longevity, Verility, and Fertility. Virtue = Popularity
Huge elongated head; long white beard, cane with sutra scroll,  crane, deer, stag, tortoise (symbols of longevity); scroll said to contain all the wisdom in the world; said to inhabit same body as Jurōjin (the pair are two different manifestations of the same deity); wields power to revive the dead. Popular among watchmakers, athletes, others.
Jurōjin 寿老人
Origin = China. Identified with Laozi (Jp. = Rōjinseishi), the founder of Chinese Toaism
God of Wisdom & Longevity. Virtue = Longevity.

Also spelled Jurojin.
Long white beard, knobbly staff with scoll of life attached; tortoise, deer, stag, crane; in same body as Fukurokuju (the pair represent two different manifestations of the same deity); scroll said to hold the secret to longevity; sometimes carries a drinking vessel, as he reportedly loves rice wine (sake). Popular among teachers, professors, and scientists.
Bishamonten 毘沙門天
Origin = India.
Skt. Vaisravana.
God of Treasure, Bringer of Wealth, Defender of the Nation, Scourge of Evil Doers, Healer of Ilness. Virtue = Dignity
Wears armor, carries spear and treasure pagoda; centipede is messenger; Vaisravana in Sanskrit; also known as Tamonten (the commander of the Shitenno or Four Heavenly Kings), and a member of the TENBU  Popular among soldiers, doctors, and certain Buddhist monestaries; the only member of the Shitenno worshipped independently.
Santen 三天
Origin = India
In Japan, there is another goddess (of Hindu origin) named Marishiten who is revered as a tutelary deity of the warrior class. In later centuries, she was worshipped as a goddess of wealth and prosperity among merchants. She was counted along with Daikokuten 大黒天 and Benzaiten 弁財天 as one of a trio of "three deities" (Santen 三天) invoked for good fortune during the Edo period. Marishiten is a member of the TENBU group, but her worship has been largely supplanted by Benzaiten.
Sanmen Daikoku
Origin = Japan
In Japan’s Muromachi Era (1392-1568), an esoteric three-headed form of Daikokuten emerged that combined the head’s of Daikokuten, Benzaiten, and Bishamonten. All three are members of the Seven Lucky Gods. This 3-headed version of Daikokuten is is believed to protect the Three Buddhist Treasures (the Buddha, the law, and the community of followers). This iconography is very similar to another kitchen deity named Kōjin-sama.  As the three-headed deity, Sanmen Daikoku awards followers with wealth and virtue.
Important Note: The member’s of the Seven Lucky Gods have varied over time. In the beginning, Benzaiten was not a member of the group. One later grouping included both Kichijōten and Benzaiten, but excluded Fukurokuju. In modern Japan, the group nearly always consists of Ebisu, Daikokuten, Bishamonten, Benzaiten, Hotei, Jurōjin, and Fukurokuju.

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