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Culture

Ho, Ho, Hotei: The Japanese Santa Claus

Christmas is right around the corner so let's take a look at Santa's Buddhist counterpart in Japan!

By 4 min read

It’s the most wonderful time of the year again in Japan, and Santa Claus is coming to town. It may surprise some readers, but the big jolly man is quite popular in Japan. In 2020, All Nippon Airways (ANA) delivered more than 80,000 letters to Santa from children all over the country.

We can likely thank toy shops, department stores and supermarkets for making Santa a holiday icon in Japan. However, it’s also because Father Christmas is similar in shape and personality to another important character in Japan—the pot-bellied god of fortune, protector of children and patron of bartenders, Hotei.

The laughing Buddha

Photo:
A Hotei (Budai) statue at a temple in Koh Samui, Thailand.

In Japanese mythology, Hotei is one of the shichifukujin, or Seven Lucky Gods, which, besides Ebisu (the patron of fishermen), come from Mahayana Buddhism through Chinese and Indian religions. However, like Saint Nick’s true origins, Hotei may have been based on a real person—a Chinese monk named Budai who died in 916 A.D. and was later revered in Buddhism.

Like Santa Claus, Hotei is depicted as big, round and jolly. In Chinese, he’s known as the “Laughing Buddha.” So whenever you see a large, smiling Buddha showing off his fat belly, it’s likely Hotei.

In Kanji (Japanese writing), his name even means “cloth sack.” Hotei is often depicted wandering with a sack and howling with laughter. He’s also popular with children, represented in art squealing with glee whenever he’s around. Hence, it’s not difficult to see the similarities with Santa.

What’s in the sack?

Photo:
Hotei with Summer and Winter Landscapes (triptych)

Whereas Santa’s sack is filled with toys and presents, Hotei’s sack is a bit more mysterious. Depending on which legend you believe, it contains anything from modest clothing to a rice plant to the entire collected woes of the world. 

It might represent his role as a wandering monk, containing the few possessions a poor but happy vagabond would have. Still, some legends say Hotei brought fortune and joy to everyone he encountered thanks to his magic bag.

Belly full of soul

Photo:
The God Hotei and Chinese Children

Hotei is most happy when surrounded by children. It’s a trait that most strongly connects Hotei and Father Christmas. However, there are minor differences in their philosophies. 

While Santa is happy to provide presents for old and young alike, Hotei looks practically miserable when depicted with older folks—especially when shown with his fellow Lucky Gods. Perhaps Hotei isn’t a fan of visiting home for the holidays.

Also, whereas Santa’s belly is owed to one too many Christmas treats, some Buddhists in Japan believe Hotei’s large gut is thanks to his immense soul overflowing with love for humanity. In Japan, the soul was thought to rest the stomach.

Hotei is not even above taking something in return from the kids either. While there are several images of Hotei selflessly carrying children across rivers or letting them climb his belly, there are works where he allows the children to return the favor. Torii Kiyomitsu II’s piece, The God Hotei and Chinese Children, depicts Hotei reclined on a cart pulled by gleeful children. None of them have a bright red nose, though. 

Receiving Hotei’s blessing

Photo:
A wood print in Asakusa, Tokyo depicting Hotei and the Seven Lucky Gods.

Hotei is also a bit harder to reach. While children only need to write a letter to Santa to get what they want, one must gather with a group on New Year’s Eve to receive a blessing from Hotei, according to Reiko Chiba in her book “The Seven Lucky Gods of Japan.”

However, Hotei will only grant the wish if several people request the same thing. For this reason, most people keep it simple and ask for something that can be shared by the people present. 

Alternatively, anti-social people can place an image of him and the other seven lucky gods under your pillow and hope that your first dream is a fortunate one and something that Hotei is likely to grant.

Hotei’s magic robes and fan

Photo:
A marble sculpture of Hotei with children in the city of Danang, Vietnam.

Of course, simply granting the occasional wish is only the beginning of Hotei’s powers. For example, Santa Claus wears red robes for celebratory reasons, but Hotei’s robes protect him against disease and demonic attack.

Moreover, he’s often depicted carrying an oogi, a fan associated with Japanese aristocracy. In ancient Japan, wealthy landowners often used the oogi to indicate that a serf’s request would be granted. This custom seems to have influenced the Hotei myth, and he is said to make people’s troubles disappear with a single wave of his fan.

Children in Japan can rest easy knowing that not one but two magical beings are looking over them. So, this Christmas, let’s hope and aspire to all be smiling and jolly as old St. Nicholas and the Laughing Buddha.

What do you think about Santa Claus in Japan or any of the country’s seven lucky gods’ similarities to Western cultural icons? Have any stories you can share? Let us know in the comments!

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