From 1903 to 1944, Coney Island, in the Brooklyn borough of New York City, was home to a number of popular amusement parks. One of the original parks is called Luna Park, named after a ride that simulated a fictional lunar visit.
Luna Park was the second major park to be built in the area and its popularity led to the opening of several other locations in the United States and Europe. Eventually, the park had locations all over the world, with the name Luna Park becoming synonymous with “amusement park.”
The first park to open in Japan opened in 1910 in Asakusa, a suburb of Tokyo. It was built by the then successful film company, Yoshizawa Shoten. Despite the park’s success, it burned down eight months later under suspicious circumstances. The fire coincided with fires at two theaters also owned by Yoshizawa Shoten. The timing could not have been worse for the company, as the entire domestic film industry was facing increased competition from American studios.
The owner of Yoshizawa Shoten decided to cut his losses and sell the company, though he retained the rights to the amusement park. He decided to independently rebuild Luna Park in Shinsekai, a newly developed area of Osaka.
At the time of construction, the largest tower in Asia was also being constructed in Shinsekai. It was called Tsutenkaku (通天閣), or the Tower to Heaven. Plans were then made to connect the Eiffel Tower-inspired structure to the park by aerial cable car.
This allowed visitors to enter the park from above, as if flying, and made the park stand out from the many other Luna Parks at the time. The park also featured many of the standard Luna Park attractions, such as an arcade, a fun house, a music hall, a theater, and several mechanical rides. It also had an onsen, or Japanese hot spring spa.
In 1925, Luna Park closed its gates forever in Japan. However, Tsutenkaku was still quite popular. After a fire ravaged the tower, the tower fell to ruin. In 1943, the tower was completely disassembled in order to use its steel for the war effort.
After the war, Osaka residents tried to build support for the rebuilding of their beloved tower. A private company took up the cause and built a redesigned version of the tower in 1956. The tower now towers over Japanese pubs and kushikatsu restaurants, with no trace of the amusement park that once was there.
What is a Billiken?
When I first moved to Osaka, I noticed these creepy little character statues everywhere. You can see the seated golden Kewpie-like character grinning mischievously on most of the tourist merchandise for Osaka. I thought that this must be some sort of ancient Japanese trickster god. Boy, was I wrong. My lack of knowledge about Billiken was a surprise to the few Osakans who knew about the origin of the character. I’m sure there are a few Saint Louis University students out there who are also shaking their heads at my ignorance.
Apparently, Billiken is an American character from the turn of the last century. Back in 1910, the character peaked in popularity and was chosen as a mascot for many different schools and teams, including Saint Louis University. As the God of Happiness, or the God of Things As They Ought to Be, this character was meant to promote optimism and luck during the then popular New Thought movement.
Its immense popularity in the United States ignited a Japanese interest in the character. Billiken statues were displayed all over Japan as The God of Things As They Ought to Be and a symbol of trendy Americana. In 1912, a large statue of Billiken was enshrined at the top of Tsutenkaku. From that point on, Billiken became a well known symbol of Shinsekai, Tsutenkaku, and the city of Osaka as a whole.
After the park closed in 1925, the original statue of Billiken disappeared. During World War II, most foreign gods, especially American ones, disappeared from public view in favour of traditional Japanese gods. In 1980, interest in the character returned and a new statue was enshrined in the rebuilt Tsutenkaku.
Since then, Billiken has remained in Tsutenkaku, only leaving in 2005 for an ambassadorial exchange with Tokyo’s Hachiko statue and in 2008 to visit Billiken’s “hometown” of Saint Louis, Missouri. After being worn to a blackened appearance, the old Billiken was replaced with a new one in 2012.
While you can still see people rubbing Billiken statues for good fortune in Japan, the character was like most fad toys and like Furbies and the Cabbage Patch Kids before them, the fervour died out and Billiken faded into obscurity over the years. Now it’s mostly remembered as a American school mascot or iconic character of Osaka.