Good Luck Daruma Dolls of Japan

Good Luck Daruma Dolls of Japan

Can a Japanese Daruma Make Your Wish Come True?

Every aspect of the Daruma doll has a fascinating and colourful significance in Japanese culture and history, but we in the West can enjoy them too – as art objects, as lucky charms, and for the focus they bring to self-improvement and in striving toward our life goals.

One-eyed red Daruma dollThe eyes of the lucky red Daruma doll are blank white circles to be painted in one at a time by the charm’s owner. The first eye is painted when its owner makes a wish, and the second eye is completed when that wish comes true.

Of course, there is just one catch. In order for the Daruma to do his good work, you have to do your part in making the dream happen!

Read on to learn more about the history of the traditional Daruma, how to use it to make a wish come true, and how to craft your own.

History of Bodhidharma and the Japanese Daruma Doll

The real-life historical person of Bodhidharma is the spirit behind and (perhaps within) the rotund doll that has been the recipient of so many wishes for good luck and good fortune. If you compare some of the old Japanese paintings and statues of Bodhidharma, the resemblance of his stocky bearded figure to the traditional Doruma doll is hard to miss.

Bodhidharma  statue in Kamitonda, Japan

Bodhidharma statue at the Daruma Temple in Kamitonda, Japan

Bodhidharma (called Daruma in Japanese) was an Indian monk who lived back in about the 6th century. He was the founder of Ch’an (Zen) Buddhism in China, and of the Shaolin school of Kung Fu. His teachings were centered on the important Sanskrit text, the Lankavatara Sutra, and the practice of meditation.

Tradition has it that Bodhidharma sat so long in meditation – one legend says it was for nine years! – that his limbs atrophied from disuse and fell off, which is why the Daruma tumbler doll has no arms or legs.

The blank white eyes of the Daruma doll are said to relate to a story that the monk Bodhidharma cut off his own eyelids so they wouldn’t keep closing in sleep, because sleeping would take him away from his meditation.

Katsuo-ji daruma

Daruma dolls at the Lucky Daruma Temple, Katsuo-ji, in Mino, Osaka, Japan

Notice how all of the Daruma collected here at the Katsuo-ji Temple have both eyes painted in? Each of these figures represents a wish come true.

How to Make a Wish

As photographer Chris Gladis explains, “You buy the Daruma from the temple, write your dream on it and fill in one eye. If you get what you wished for, you fill in the other eye…”

And then, if you happen to be in Japan, you’ll return the doll to the temple. (You might want to have a Buddhist monk paint in the eyes for you, a practice that’s said to bring an extra bit of blessing and luck.)

Daruma Burning Fire FestivalAdd your two-eyed Daruma to the ever-growing display of lucky dolls at the temple, to be burned in a gigantic ceremonial bonfire as a gesture of thanks for wishes granted.

In Japan, the Dondo-Yaki fire festival is held early in the New Year.

Those of us elsewhere in the world can just keep the Daruma as a talisman or reminder of the personal achievement that its two black-painted eyes represent.

Or instead of keeping your doll, you might want to hold your own burning ceremony – though it seems a pity to burn such an engaging little figure!

The Making of a Traditional Daruma

The master craftsmen of Takasaki, Japan, create the traditional Japanese Daruma dolls from molded papier mache today much as they have been doing for some four centuries. It’s believed that the Daruma figurine got its start in Takasaki, as a way for local peasants to supplement their income from farming, and about 80% of Daruma dolls produced in Japan are still made there.

These roly-poly good luck charms come in many different sizes and prices, to fit a wide range of budgets for the wide range of people who will buy one at the temple – and perhaps to fit the size of the wish or the goal to be fulfilled, as well.

Daruma dolls today can be found made of many different materials, from fine porcelain to molded plastic, to carved and painted wood of varying quality.  In the modern era, cheap factory-made dolls have become widely available at street markets and stores,  inevitably. On the other end of the scale, however, the Daruma figure has also inspired artists  working in a wide variety of media to take it as their subject.

Daruma Workshop Japan 1914-1918

Daruma workshop in Japan, photographed by Elstner Hilton circa 1914-1918.

Papier mache is the traditional material and still widely used in authentic Japanese craft for creating Daruma dolls and other decorative figures or lucky charms.

The 400-year-old Hariko method of paper mache involves the application of layers of Japanese paper or washi applied to a carved wooden form with rice paste. Sometimes lightly-used paper is recycled for the purpose. The paper mache is allowed to dry, then it is cut away from the wooden mold and the pieces are re-assembled as a hollow shape to be painted.

Painting the Daruma

Red is still the most common main color for the Daruma doll, although the figures is also found painted in blue or purple, yellow or gold, white, black, pink, green – almost any color you can think of.  Different colors are used to represent different types of wishes or goals, such as a long life, financial prosperity, a happy marriage, or the successful completion of a project.

Daruma dollsRed as used for the Daruma is said to be a nod to the red robes of a high-level Zen Buddhist priest, the same color of robes that Bodhidharma is often shown wearing in paintings and other vintage art.

After the red (body) and white (face) base coats of paint go on, and the eye area gets a quick spray of paint in a contrasting color – orange in the Takasaki workshop – then the features are painted on by hand. The swift strokes of the paint brush as the craftsmen add the distinctive beard and other details to each doll’s face is fun to watch.

Every detail of the Daruma painting has its own tradition and meaning, though the style will differ from one individual artisan to another, as you’d expect with any craft or art form, and from one region of Japan to another. Depending on where the Daruma is created, the shape of the eyebrows may represent the snake or dragon, or, more commonly, the crane, while the beard represents the tortoise, a symbol of very long life.

Dharma Daruma

DIY Daruma Crafts

If you’d like to learn how to make your own Daruma doll, check out these tutorials:

  • Cristy Burne’s instructions are available as a free PDF for printing out, as well as posted on her blog. She includes hints for using your doll to help you set “s.m.a.r.t.” goals and keep your New Year’s resolutions, as well as the step-by-step craft tutorial.
  • Daruma Doll Making is a video by Bre Pettis (co-founder of MakerBot!), prepared for his sixth-grade art class back when he was a teacher in Seattle: “In planning a paper mache project to make a daruma doll, I knew I would want to spend my time supporting students and dealing with the mess,” he said. “I made this little video to show them how to do use paper mache.”
  • The “My Daruma” project lesson plan from Dick Blick (the art supplies company) uses a plastic egg as the basic Daruma form. You put a weight in the bottom then cover it with instant papier mache and paint it up with acrylic craft paints.

I’ve seen a few quick-and-easy craft projects similar to the Dick  Blick one, where the Daruma figure is made using a ping-pong ball, ball-shaped plastic candy container or a fillable two-piece Christmas ornament as the base, but the egg shape is a slightly better match for the traditional shape –  thanks to the slightly broader bottom with a small weight in it, the Daruma wobbles but he always picks himself back up again!

Blind DarumaDoes wishing on a Daruma Doll really work? Will it help to make your wish come true?

Well, the way I see it (no pun intended), having a one-eyed Daruma staring at you day after day is a great tool for keeping you focused on what you want to achieve!

So, yes, I do think it works.

But as with any wish, it helps to root yourself in reality – and to actually work towards your goal. After all, wishing is not the same thing as just wishful thinking!


Photo credits: Shorinzan Darumaji Temple at Takasaki, Gunma Prefecture, Japan, by puffyjet [CC BY 2.0] on Flickr;  One-eyed traditional Daruma Doll, Kyoto, Japan, by Brücke-Osteuropa (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons;  Then one day he stood up (Kamitonda statue) by 顔なし [CC BY-SA 2.0] on Flickr;  Katsuo-ji daruma by Chris Gladis (Flickr) [CC-BY-2.0/CC BY-ND 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons;  Fire Festival (IMG_7051) by JP Bennett [CC BY 2.0] on Flickr;  Daruma workshop in Japan, 1914-1918, by Elstner Hilton, via A. Davey [CC BY 2.0] on Flickr;  Daruma dolls by masaki ikeda (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons; Dharma/Daruma, Daruma-ji temple, Takasaki, Japan, by Tanaka Juuyoh (田中十洋) [CC BY 2.0] on Flickr; Blind Daruma Doll by Timothy Takemoto [CC BY 2.0] on Flickr.

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likes to make and do and think and explore and share what is discovered. She is also incurably curious. If you are, too, you can find her posting as Flycatcher...r...r on Twitter and Google Plus.

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