This is something I’ve wanted to post about for a while. For anyone who’s traveled in Japan, you cannot go very far without encountering one of these:
These are small amulets you get in both Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples called omamori (お守り), which are for protection. In Tanabe’s and Reader’s excellent book, Practically Religious, they describe omamori this way:
Omamori are amulets that represent manifestations of a spiritual entity such as a god or buddha….These amulets normally consist of a prayer or some form of religious inscription, invocation, or sacred text placed in a brocade bag or similar container and carried on the person. Sacralized by religious rituals that transform them into busshin (spiritual offshoots) or kesshin (manifestations) of the deity, they are physical objects that contain the spiritual essence and powers of a deity or buddha. (pg. 46)
Spiritual offshoots is a feature of Shinto religion, but Reader and Tanabe also talk about the notion of migawari omamori (身代わりお守り, substituting for the bearer, taking on the bad fortune themselves) in the context of Buddhist amulets too. There are many stories of Jizō Bodhisattva for instance taking the place of someone in order to protect them from harm, both in antiquity and even contemporary life.
Anyway, omamori come in various sizes, styles, and for different types of protection: health, passing exams, safe childbirth, love, traffic safety and general protection. It’s very common to pick up one at a famous temple or shrine if you visit, and as you can see, I’ve picked up a few. These are not all the Omamori in our home, but the ones I could readily find:
- The Hello Kitty amulet is for my daughter. I bought it at the Kannon Temple in Ueno Park in April of 2010. She likes the pink color and the Hello Kitty logo.
- This is an amulet I bought at Yushima Tenmangu shrine in Tokyo, on the same day. This is for studies, or gakugyō (学業), particular for my efforts to pass the JLPT N2 exam.
- This is an amulet I purchased at Todaiji Temple in Nara, Japan, also in April 2010. This one is for wisdom, and is my favorite.
- This is an amulet I bought recently in 2011, while visiting Hachimangu Shrine for Hatsumodé (the first visit of the year). This is to help pass the exam, or gōkaku (合格).
On the reverse, you can also see that each one mentions what temple or shrine it comes from:
Over the years, I’ve learned some basic rules about omamori:
- You shouldn’t open the bag and see what is inside. It’s disrespectful. I admit I once did it anyway, and opened the Todaiji charm in particular. Usually it has a small card or piece of wood wrapped in paper with a blessing. I don’t know if it’s really is disrespectful or not, but I did feel bad about it later, so I haven’t opened up any others.
- In Japan, toward the beginning of the year, you’re supposed to bring the charms back to the temple you got them from (or any temple that’s convenient) so they can be ritually purified and burned. It is thought that as part of their protection, they absorb evil and thus need the special treatment. Throwing them away isn’t recommended. In Reader and Tanabe’s book mentioned above, they also explore this topic and explain that ritually burning the charm is also an expression of gratitude (as opposed to throwing them away like common trash), as well as symbolizing the cycle of renewal. This is similar to the practice in the US of burning an American flag when it becomes tattered, rather than throwing it away.
- Omamori work best when they are kept on your person. For example, it’s very common to see them tied to backpacks on children. We do that for our little girl when she goes to pre-school. I keep the Todaiji wisdom charm at work for some reason, while I use the Tenmangu charm as a small personal altar at home, mentioned previously. This is not really correct actually, since you’re supposed to use ofuda for home shrines, but I neglected to get one before, so I just use the amulet as a substitute for now. But I did take it with me when I took the JLPT N3 recently. If that isn’t an option though, I’ve been told by priests that it is also fine to hang it on one’s bedroom, too.
To reiterate though, if you purchase an amulet (or the related ofuda planks), you should not throw it away. It’s considered disrespectful to the deity in question, among other things. Instead, you are encouraged to bring it back the following year (or later) to any temple or shrine for disposal. As you can see, I haven’t done that yet, since I live in the US, but I when we go to Japan, we often bring a few old items with us if possible. If not, we try to do it the following year.1
Of course, most Westerners who see these at Shrines and Temples may be confused, or just treat them as souvenirs. So, this post is to help explain their cultural significance. I can’t say whether they really work or not, or really embody the deity or not. I honestly don’t know. To some degree though, it doesn’t really matter. As Reader and Tanabe write elsewhere, charms and amulets also offer a peace of mind and strengthening of faith (something tangible), but also don’t require faith for them to work. They simply represent the deity in question, and have a positive affect as a result.
Some things to consider the next time you visit a Shinto shrine or Buddhist temple in Japan. 🙂
1 There are overseas temples and shrines that will also ritually dispose of old items too.