Engimono: Definition, Origins, Significance

Maneki-neko or the beckoning cat
An example of Maneki-neko, one of the most common engimono in Japan.

Mr.nutnuchit Phutsawagung/Getty Images

Engimono are traditional Japanese lucky charms, often decorated with bright colors and designs, that signify different kinds of luck (e.g. marriage and love, fertility, success). The practice of keeping engimono dates back to Japanese folklore, though it also has strong roots in both Buddhist and Shintō culture and religious history. Engimono have distinct origin stories and often derive from different regions across Japan. 

Key Takeaways: Engimono

  • Engimono are traditional Japanese lucky charms. They are typically associated with sacred sites, temples, shrines, or important historical people or events.
  • Engimono are said to support the endeavors of those with goals and ambitions.
  • The most common engimono are the maneki-neko (the beckoning cat) and daruma dolls, but engimono come in a wide variety of forms and colors.

Defining Engimono

The word engimono can be broken into two parts: engi, meaning luck, and mono, meaning thing or piece. Engimono is anything that has luck. An engimono does not bring unrestrained luck to owners; rather, it supports the purpose and endeavors of the person who owns or keeps it, as long as that person continues to pursue their goals.

Often, engimono are associated with Shintō shrines or Buddhist temples where an act of greatness or profound luck occurred. For example, legend says that a great, golden dragon would often sunbathe at the the Sensō-ji Buddhist temple in Tokyo (and the Nakamise-dōri shrine located within the grounds of the temple), and dragons are widely considered to be forces of strength and protection in Japanese folklore. The Sensō-ji Temple sells more engimono than any other temple on an annual basis.

The practice and use of these good luck charms in Japan comes out of the intersection of Buddhism and Shintō. Brought to Japan by the Chinese, Buddhism helped to shape Japanese culture and belief, including Shintō, which emerged as a defined spirituality in response to Buddhism.

Amulets and talismans hold a sacred place in Buddhist beliefs, as Buddhists will often have at least one amulet or sacred object. Similarly, Shintō is rooted in ancient animism and superstition; Japanese literary history often features a variety of animals that can bring good or bad luck.

The Significance of Engimono

Shintō has helped to form Japanese identity since its prehistory, when stories of divinity were passed down by oral tradition. Shintō shaped history, culture, and even the physical landscape with ornate shrines as places of worship. Even in the modern era, these beliefs tie communities together.

Shintō reverence is observed not only in times of desperation or sorrow, but also in times of joy and ritual celebration. After babies are born, they are taken by their parents to a Shintō shrine to be placed under the protection of the kami, the essence or spirit that is inhabits the sacred space. During exams, students flock to shrines to pray for success in their academic endeavors. Shintō priests pray over ground-breaking ceremonies during construction projects. The main gate (torii) of a shrine remained at the airfields of Narita International Airport for years after the expansion of the runway system because locals didn’t want to disturb the site’s kami.

Reverence and respect for otherworldly phenomena is engrained in Japanese culture, including belief in luck, personified by the variety of engimono.

Popular Engimono

The most common engimono can be found almost anywhere in Japan. They can range in color in design, which often signifies a slightly different meaning or form of luck. Each engimono has at least one commonly accepted origin story, though most have more than one.

Maneki-neko (The Beckoning Cat)

The most easily recognizable engimono is the Maneki-neko, which began to appear frequently across Japan during the Meiji period (1868 – 1912). There are many myths associated with its origin, all of which are a variation of the following story:

There was once an old shrine where the priest kept a cat. One night, during a storm, a tired samurai took refuge under a tree. He looked around and saw a cat beckoning for him to come nearer, so he did. When he had reached the cat, lightning struck the tree, causing branches to come crashing down on the spot where the samurai had been sitting. The story ends with the revelation that the samurai was actually a wealthy man who became a patron for the shrine after the beckoning cat saved his life.

Color differences in Maneki-neko indicate different forms of luck: gold brings wealth, white brings happiness, and black brings good health.

Daruma Dolls

These round, red heads are symbols of endurance and hard work. Made out of a special Japanese paper, the eyes of the Daruma are left intentionally blank. The owner or keeper of the Daruma will color in one eye when he or she has a goal to accomplish and the other eye when that goal has been accomplished.

The personification is based off of the sage monk, Bodhidharma, who is thought to have brought Zen Buddhism to Japan. Legend says that he meditated for nine years with his eyes wide open in his quest to reach enlightenment. His perseverance was so strong that his body floated away, but his spirit stayed in place, unwavering.

Like Maneki-neko, differing colors indicated different meanings: red for good fortune, gold for wealth, orange for academic success, pink for love, purple for self-improvement, and green for health.

Tsuru (Cranes)

Cranes, particularly those made out of paper using Japanese Oragami, are thought to bring prosperity. Making a thousand paper cranes is said to make a dream come true. The story Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes illustrates this belief, as a young girl diagnosed with leukemia as a result of bombing of Hiroshima folds paper crane after paper crane in order to fulfill her wish to live. Though she does not defeat cancer, her story and her spirit live on forever.

Omamori

Omamori are pieces of wood with prayers written on them that are them sealed inside silk fabric. The fabric will have a design related to the shrine or temple where the omamori is purchased or received. Depending on the omamori, the engimono can bring luck, wealth, pregnancy, and even traffic safety for drivers and motorists. Opening the pouch where the omamori is kept is said to eliminate the purpose of the omamori.

Koi Fish

As engimono, koi fish represent fortune, abundance, and endurance. Known as a warrior fish, koi are used in ceremonies to represent strength because of their ability to swim against a current. According to legend, if a koi fish succeeds at climbing a sacred waterfall, it transforms into a dragon. 

Sources

  • "Daruma Doll: History of Japanese Wishing Dolls." Domo Daruma, 20 February 2016.
  • Lane, Verity. "Omamori: Protecting yourself in little ways." Tofugu, 25 June 2014.
  • Pho, Belinda, Derick Dang, Eric Pan, Sandra Youn, Robert Chirk, and Theresa Condon. "Maneki Neko." Anthropology, University of California Irvine, 2006.
  • Yukair, Maggie, "迷信 ( = meishin) + 縁起 ( = engi) Japanese superstitions." Maggie Sensei, 3 March 2010.