Let’s face it, Santa is becoming a rock star in Japan! Whereas other seasonal traditions have never really taken off in Japan, the image of the grinning bearded man is pretty much everywhere from seasonal clothes all the way to Tohoku disaster fundraising leaflets.
One of the most surprising statistics about Saint Nick’s success is that in 2010, Japanese children were one of the top 3 countries for sending mail to the jolly Christmas character (per capita). While there are a lot of reasons why Santa has become such a beloved figure in Japan, one of the reasons may well be his similarities to one of Japan’s seven lucky gods (七福神), a god named Hotei.
For Kansai residents like myself, no article about Hotei would be complete without visiting Shitennoji temple where his gleeful face offers a nice contrast to the grim-faced guardians that he shares the grounds with. The first thing that strikes you about this image is how similar it is to Saint Nick with his pot belly and a permanent grin. Interestingly, whereas Santa’s obesity is owed to one too many Christmas treats, the staff at the temple explain that his Asian equivalent’s gut is due to his immense soul overflowing with love for mankind.
Yep, Hotei is an unusual character. Even his name is fascinating as its kanji literally translate as “a cloth sack” (布袋). The cloth sack in question is a favored possession of his which, of course, he has in common with Santa. Whereas Santa Claus’ sack is full of Christmas toys for children, Hotei’s sack is a bit more mysterious.
Depending on which legend you believe, Hotei’s sack may contain anything from modest clothing, to a rice plant, to the entire collected woes of the world. Despite all of these possibilities, my favorite legend is that Hotei’s sack contains gifts and trinkets for the children he encounters on his travels much like Santa Claus.
It is this love of children and giving that most strongly connects Hotei and Father Christmas. However, there are small differences in their philosophies. While Santa is happy to give presents to old and young alike, with the only criteria being that they register highly on his niceness meter, Hotei is more discerning. There are numerous stories of him even requesting alms from adults and not giving them anything in return.
Hotei is even not above taking something in return from the kids either. While there are plenty of images of him selflessly carrying children across rivers or showering them with presents, there are others where he lets the children return the favor. One of Torii Kiyomitsu’s most famous artworks is a depiction of Hotei reclined on a cart that is pulled by gleeful children. Sure beats bright-nosed reindeer!
While children in the West write letters to Santa to ask for the gifts they want, Hotei has always had a different M.O. According to Reiko Chiba in her book The Seven Lucky Gods of Japan, a group of people have to gather on New Year’s Eve and ask for their dream to be fulfilled in order to receive a blessing from Hotei.
However, being a bit trickier than the Western version, Hotei will only grant the wish if a number of people request the same thing. For this reason, most people keep it to simple things that are likely to be shared by other people present.
If this sounds too impossible to realize, you can alternatively place an image of him and the other seven lucky gods under your pillow to ensure that your first dream (初夢) is a fortuitous one and one that Hotei (Or one of the other gods) is likely to grant.
Of course, simply granting the occasional wish is only the beginning of Hotei’s magical powers. While Father Christmas wears red robes for celebratory reasons, his Japanese equivalent wears the color as it offers his followers magical protection against diseases and even demonic attack.
These magic robes is not the only mystical item that the Japanese god has. In most images, he is often seen carrying an oogi (扇), a kind of fan usually associated with the Japanese aristocracy. In ancient Japan wealthy landowners would often use 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 be able to make people’s troubles disappear with a single wave of his fan.
In this season, Japanese kids can rest easy, knowing that not one, but two mystical beings are looking over them. Maybe Hotei has got the right idea. When this season is over I hope to have put smiles on all the children in my life’s faces, although I suspect any large gut may have more to do with an abundance of beer rather than boundless love.