Nambu World: O-mamori (Good Luck Charms)

        O-mamori, also called o-shugo, are good luck charms purchased at a Japanese Shinto shrine or Buddhist temple. People still buy them in large numbers today hoping to ensure such things as traffic safety, academic success, etc. Some of the new ones even have images of pop culture figures like Sanrio's "Hello Kitty" (I have one with that image). Nowadays they are usually fancier than the ones shown here, with a fancy cloth covering. Given the deep roots of this tradition, and the reliance of shrines and temples on the revenues it generates, it is not surprising that during wartime shrines and temples sold good luck charms intended to ward off the dangers of combat. They were inserted in thousand stitch belts and other items from home, or just carried by themselves in a pack or wallet. The ones I have are very old and appear to date back to the Russo-Japanese War of  1904-05. At least, I got them as part of a grouping of artifacts from that conflict. There were several dozen in all, but here I will show only the ones with specifically military slogans. The ones above all bear the ubiquitous wartime slogan bu-un-cho-kyu, "eternal good luck in war", or perhaps more colloquially, "may you always be lucky in battle". The one at the far right has the name of Narita-san, a large and famous temple belonging to the Shingon sect of esoteric Buddhism. It is located near Narita International Airport and still exists today. The squiggly marks at the top of that one are Sanskrit and have esoteric spiritual significance. The one second from the left on the bottom also has Sanskrit at the top. The red, wreath-like designs on these two are the flame-like design that surround Fudo Myo-o, the object of veneration at Narita-san (for more about Fudo Myo-o, see Fudo Myo-o (Fudou Myou-ou) - Wrathful Messenger Who Protects & Serves Dainichi Buddha, Japanese Buddhism Art History. This design can be seen on several of the ones below, too, and it occurs with other similar Buddhist figures. Perhaps the soldier's family belonged to the Shingon sect. The one on the far left also has the slogan shintai kenko, "robust body", in the upper left column. It is called o-hada-mamori, or o-ki-shu (I am not sure of the pronunciation), literally a "body protector". The three that look the same size in the top row are from Shinto shrines.

        Here are close-ups of the kanji for three extremely common terms found on o-mamori. First, here are the characters for o-mamori:


        Here (below) are the ones for the synonym, o-shugo:


        Here (below) are the characters for bu-un-cho-kyu. On most of the o-mamori I have it is written in this fashion, read upper right, lower right, upper left, lower left, although they could be written in a vertical string top to bottom (the most common order before the war, horizontally right to left (the second-most common order before the war), or horizontally left to right (the most common order after the war).

    Usually o-mamori are about the size of a finger, though sometimes wider. These next two both say gunchu, "while you are in the army". The one on the right again has Sanskrit at the top (Sanskrit and Pali are the two ancient languages in which Buddhist sacred works were originally written). The one on the right has gunchu written across the top, from right to left, while it is the first two characters below the Sanskrit on the one on the right. The last (lower) three characters on each are o-shugo, the other term commonly used for o-mamori.


        These two both look similar, with the same Sanskrit at the top and the same flame symbol in red in the centre, The left one is from Narita-san, as indicated by the three characters in the lower right. The slogan on it is gunjin anzen sensho, "may our troops be safe and victorious". The one on the right is seiro gunjin sensho, "may the troops sent to conquer Russia be victorious", a reference to the enemy in the Russo-Japanese War.


        I have two that are the same, so this shot shows the front of one and the back of another. The front (left side) says heishi anzen, "for the safety of our soldiers". The right image is the back. It is a bit hard to read, but I think it is the name of the temple that it came from. The last character is -san, which is often the ending of the name of a major temple.


The first (top) three characters on this one are hodan-yoke, "protection from shelling/bullets".


        The one on the left has four smaller characters at the top. They are read upper right-lower right-upper left-lower left and say riku-kai-gun-tai, "army and naval forces". It has Sanskrit on it and is from a Buddhist temple, probably Shingon. The one on the right is from a shrine to the Shinto God of War (Hachiman) and says bu-un, "good fortune in war".


        This one is a little wider than most and has two slogans down where the centre column splits into two separate columns of characters. The four on the left are the ultra-common bu-un-cho-kyu, "eternal good luck in war". The four on the right are koku-i-zo-shin, "raise our national prestige", i.e. through military victory to show other countries that Japan was top-notch.


        I have been asked many times what is inside o-mamori. They often feel like there is something hard inside. A Japanese friend told me that when he was a boy, he was told if he opened an o-mamori he would go blind. I don't think that is any more true than it is of activities young North American boys are warned against in the same way, but I would never damage an artifact by opening it. However, a number of the charms in the grouping I obtained had fallen apart with age, so I could see what was inside and confirm what I had read. If it seems to be very stiff and somewhat thick, it is probably a sliver of wood from the periodic rebuilding of shrines and temples. If it seems a bit more flexible, it is probably a cardboard image of a holy figure like a Buddha or Boddhisattva. If it is very flimsy it is probably a holy writing like a mantra, often written in Sanskrit and hence unintelligible except to scholars of that ancient language.

        These last two shots are of a related item. When I got the effects that included all the o-mamori (including a whole bunch more that do not have specifically military slogans and hence are not shown here), the grouping included this prayer vest. The writing on the back is rather indecipherable to a normal Japanese speaker (even my friend who was raised in Japan and got his university degree there couldn't read it), but it is unmistakably some kind of Buddhist writing: the character for Buddha appears twice. Buddhist sutras and other holy writings are often written in a form of Japanese that only the initiated can understand. I do not know whether this vest was worn by the soldier himself or by those who were praying for him, but I have seen photos of soldiers wearing vests with writing like this. Here is the front. It is 38cm wide by 51cm long (15" X 20").


Here is the back. If anybody who reads this is a student of Buddhism and can tell me what it says, or direct me to a reference book that would help me figure it out, please let me know.

            If you are interested in the links between religion and militarism in pre-war Japan, I recommend the book Zen at War, 2nd Edition, by Brian Daizen Victoria. Although the title refers to Zen, it also touches on Shinto and on other branches of Buddhism.


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Last updated: February 4, 2008. All contents are copyright Teri unless otherwise specified and may not be used elsewhere in any form without prior permission.