Shichi-fuku-jin, or the Seven Lucky Gods of Japan, are a group of deities whose origins stem from India, Chinese and indigenous Japanese gods of fortune. Each of the seven gods have been recognized as a deity for more than a thousand years, however these gods were transformed from remote and impersonal deities to teleological patrons. The Seven Lucky Gods are: Ebisu, Daikoku, Benten, Bishamon, Fukurokuju, Jurojin, and Hotei. Although the gods go back much earlier in time, in Japanese tradition the first representation of the gods as a group of seven is in the 16th century CE in a painting by a member of the Kano family commissioned by Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542-1616 CE).
One of the many beliefs concerning the Seven Lucky Gods is that during the first three days of the New Year, they become sailors, and command a magic ship called Takarabune, the treasure ship that sails from heaven into human ports. On the second evening of the New Year, it is the custom to place a picture of the seven gods beneath the pillow on the ship to induce a lucky dream. The lucky dream is a sign that the rest of the year will hold good fortune. The cargo that the ship carries is known as the takaramono, or in Japanese literally “treasure things”. Some of these items are unusual: the hat of invisibility-kakuregasa, rolls of brocade-orimono, the inexhaustible purse-kanebukuro, the sacred keys of the treasure shed of the gods-kagi, the scrolls of books of wisdom and life-makimono, Daikoku’s magic mallet-kozuchi, the lucky raincoat-kakuremino, the robe of fairy feathers-hagoromo and Hotei’s bag of fortune-nunobukuro. Daikoku’s magic mallet has the quality of producing money when shaken or struck against an object, and Hotei’s cloth bag contains all the treasures needed by man, including food and drink. The lucky raincoat and the hat of invisibility allow whoever wears them to perform good deeds without being discovered, and the robe of fairy feathers enables the wearer the gift of flight. Even today, posters and pictures of the gods are still popularly believed to bring good luck, and in shops and restaurants, their statues remain a common sight.
• Ebisu is probably of Japanese origin; a Shinto god, the patron of work, specifically tradesmen and fishermen, and is usually depicted wearing Japanese costume and headdress. He has a portly figure, large swollen earlobes, and he usually has a fishing rod in his right hand whilst in his left is a large, freshly-caught fish – a tai (sea bream, sea bass or dorado), itself a symbol of good luck. He is very popular in fishing villages, rice farms and local marketplaces. He is always smiling, and it is believed that he is deaf; failing to hear deities called together for his own celebration. Traditionally, Ebisu is celebrated in an annual feast held on the 20th of October.
• Daikoku, mythologically hails from India. He is associated with accomplishments of one’s goals and with wealth. Stone statues show a jovial bruiser with a sack over one shoulder, sitting on bales of rice and wielding a mallet with which he grants wishes.
• Bishamon (or Bishamonten ) is the god of happiness and war, is the patron of warriors and protector of the righteous. He is depicted in full Chinese armour and carrying a lance in his left hand. In his right hand he has a small pagoda building, which represents a treasury. Shiga, the temple city founded around the 6th century CE, was dedicated to the god in thanks after Shotoku Taishi won a battle at the site.
• Benten (or Benzaiten) is of Hindu origin, and the only one of the group who is female. She is the goddess of love and reasoning. She is usually depicted playing the biwa, a type of lute or guitar, and riding a dragon or sea-dragon to whom she is married, according to some traditions and, thereby, ended the dragon’s attacks on the island of Enoshima. Her special messenger is a white snake, and she is often associated with the sea, where many of the shrines dedicated to her are located. For Buddhists, she is the patron of wealth, literature, and music, and she is also the embodiment of femininity.
• Fukurokuju is of Chinese origin, but his Japanese name signifies happiness (fuku), wealth (roku), and longevity (ju); he is, therefore, known as the god of wisdom and longevity. Traditionally, he is considered to have once been a mortal, and lived as Taoist sage and is commonly attributed the power of resurrecting the dead. He is depicted as short in height, but with a very high forehead, and is usually to be found in the company of a stork or crane.
• Jurojin is also of Chinese origin, and likewise a god of longevity and wisdom; he is usually represented with a stag at his side, and he carries a long stick to which is attached a scroll containing all the wisdom of the world. Like Fukurokuju, legend states that he once lived on earth as a Taoist sage. He is also represented as an old man with a white beard; but wears a scholar’s headdress.
• Hotei is also originally from China. Hotei represents thrift and philanthropy. He is portrayed as a fat, bald, and rather unkempt-looking Buddhist monk, with a big exposed belly and large swollen earlobes. However, always chuckling and often surrounded by children, he is perhaps the happiest looking of the seven gods and lives up to his Chinese nickname as the “Laughing Buddha”.