The Suitcase Lady


December 29, 2020, 8:38 pm

The Japanese people know how to make a wish for the New Year. They flock to Daruma markets that pop up all over the country near shrines and temples. Here they purchase roly-poly, red dolls to wish on.

Here’s how it works. Daruma dolls come with blank, white eyes. The purchaser makes a wish (a serious wish, not one for frivolous things) and draws one eyeball on the doll. If the person works hard and persistently toward their goal, Daruma will provide the luck to make the wish come true. Then the second eyeball is drawn on. Whether the wishes are fulfilled or not, the dolls are taken back to the shrines on New Years and are burned in big bonfires. A new doll is purchased and the cycle repeats.

One Japanese city, Takasaki, produces 80% of the dolls which are all made by hand. Production began in the 17th century and flourishes to this day. Dolls can be as small as a grain of rice or bigger than a person. Female, or Lady Daruma dolls, are also produced.

The story behind the dolls is both fascinating and macabre. Daruma is said to be modeled after Bodhidharma, the monk credited with founding Zen Buddhism, who lived between the 5th and 6th centuries AD. Legend purports that he entered a cave where he stared at a wall and meditated for nine years. Because he was immobile, his arms and legs fell off.

The original dolls were impossible to tip over. If tilted, they would always return to their upright position, thus demonstrating the important value of perseverance. Politicians embarking on election campaigns, students pursuing degrees and workers starting new careers are all typical candidates who would wish for success from Daruma.  The belief that good fortune cannot come without hard work is deeply rooted in Japanese culture.

May we all have good luck in the New Year, no matter what we wish on; stars, wishbones, four-leaf clovers, wishing seeds or wishing wells. In my case, it will be birthday cake candles. I’m a New Year’s Eve baby.

3 Comments for this entry

  • Audrey

    I had forgotten this word, but I remembered the dolls. I loved visiting Japan 15 years ago. Happy birthday to you, Mary! Bring us a wonderful 2021 so I can travel again!

    You are amazing and persistent! I love reading your blog.

  • john

    I know my wish!

  • Elizabeth Levins

    I love this post, was in Japan 15 years ago on New Year’s eve. Went to the markets, but didn’t know about the Darumas.