Explorations in Japanese Culture

Daruma (だるま)


For as long as I have been interested in Japanese culture, I have seen the little daruma dolls popping up all over the place. I was never really sure what it was, and I never really saw much of an explanation of them. The daruma fall into the long list of things that are so common in the Japanese culture that everyone knows what they are, but few take time to explain them to the new learners. I thought it would be interesting to take a brief look at these symbols of good luck and determination and provide a little bit of background of their origin.

History of the Bodhidharma

Before I begin explaining the daruma doll, it makes more sense to first start by giving the historical background on the Buddhist figure that they are based on. The dolls are named/modeled after the ancient Indian Zen Master, Bodhidharma, who founded the Ch’an sect of Zen Buddhism. Born as the third son to the king of South India, he later left his home country for China where he gained noiteriatary for his practice of wall gazing. The legend is that he lost the use of his arms and legs to atrophy after sitting in meditation for nine years. Another popular legend is that after falling asleep during his meditation, Bodhidharma was so angry that he cut off his eyelids to prevent this from ever happening again. After throwing his eyelids to the ground, the first tea plant sprouted from them. The tea was then used to aid future monks in staying awake during their meditation.

Characteristics of the Daruma

The characteristics of the Bodhidharma are seen in the features of the daruma. The face of the daruma is bearded, just as many depictions of the Bodhidharma show him to be. One of the most important features however is the lack of limbs on the daruma doll. Just as the Bodhidharma lost his limbs after years of determined meditation, the daruma is modeled without them to reflect this level of commitment. The daruma represents determination in achieving your goals, seen also in the non-toppling design (darumas wobble, but they don’t fall down!) Daruma dolls are often depicted as wearing red robes, because this is the color worn by the Zen monks who have achieved the highest level of spiritual attainment.  I have not read anything in particular to support this, but I would also suppose that the large wide eyes of the daruma doll are based on the legend of the Bodhidharma cutting off his own eyelids to stay awake. Also a strong symbol of determination and commitment to a goal. I find this all particularly fascinating, as it seems very Japanese for a cultural icon to be devoted specifically to determination and good luck.

How to use a Daruma

Darumas are produced with blank white eyes, which are left for the owner to color in themselves. The right eye is first colored in as the user selects a goal or wish that they strongly want and are willing to strive for. You then set the daruma in your home, office, etc. If you reach your goal or your dream comes true then you paint in the left eye to represent your accomplishment. At the end of a year it is tradtion to take all the daruma back to the temple from which they were purchased so that they may be burned a new daruma bought for the new year. This ceeremony is called the Daruma Kuyo and is usually held right after New Years Day. After expressing their gratitude to the daruma, they are turned over to the temple to be part of the ceremonial burning.

Below is a video from youtube of the traditional burning of the daruma dolls:


11 comments on “Daruma (だるま)

  1. starzyia
    July 23, 2011

    Hi, my name’s Starry, this is my first time reading your blog.
    I think you’ve done a wonderful job describing the dolls, and explaining the history and meaning of the dolls. I also laughed at ‘daruma’s wobble but they don’t fall down’.
    I was wondering if you have ever heard of anyone painting the two eyes a different colour (like one blue, one green)?

    • totorosan
      July 23, 2011

      I am flattered by your compliment! \(^o^)/ Thanks, I am glad you enjoyed the post and I hope you will continue to keep up with the blog!

      As for your question about the eyes, I have to say that I am unaware of any particular rules on the eye color painting. I am sure that black has been the chosen color for so long for aesthetic reasons and tradition. I will ask around to some friends and see what they have heard

  2. kanjidaisuki
    July 23, 2011

    Very well written! I love daruma dolls but didn’t know much about them. I should point out though that some images aren’t coming up…

  3. cookymama
    July 25, 2011

    Hi, I am Kumi, from Japan. I heard your blog through this page, your topic.
    I am surprised you know well about だるま。Yes, it’s so popular and we know Daruma expresses it’s owner’s mind, “Never give up”, because Daruma never falls down, he always gets up even if he has no legs(even if he in a hard situation). I hope you get him and put his eyes soon!

    • totorosan
      July 26, 2011


      I am glad that you liked the blog, I hope that you will read more of my blog. Please follow me on twitter or continue to comment!

  4. Hana
    July 25, 2011

    Hello! Thanks for the interesting post. I live in Japan, and my hometown is well-known for its daruma dolls at Kanto-area. There’re a festival at the daruma temple on 5th and 6th of Jan. You can bring your old dolls, and they’ll take care of them.

    There’re are many sizes of the dolls, and for the wishes, we should start from the smaller dolls and then bigger ones.

    By the way, did you find animals like cranes and turtles on the doll? There should be one!

    • totorosan
      July 26, 2011


      Where do you live?

      I did not see any of the animals, do you have any pictures?

      Does the size of the だるま depend on the wish?

      Can I e-mail you with some questions?

  5. Yo Kuribayashi
    July 26, 2011

    I am Japanese.I like Daruma,too.

    The word DARUMA reminds me of Japanede proverb

    “7 korobi 8 oki” (nana korobi ya oki)
    ( 7 falls 8stands up )
    (always rising after a fall or repeated failures)

    Usually Daruma dolls are made of paper,and are set weight
    at the bottom .That is for to keep balance.
    That’s why it never falls down.
    Hoping your success.

    • totorosan
      July 26, 2011


      I have heard that proverb once before, I should have mentioned it! Thank you for your comment, I hope that you will continue to read my blog and comment!

  6. Hana
    July 26, 2011

    Dear totorosan,

    Yes, I can see a pair of cranes, which disguised as eyebrows, in the darumas! My hometown is Takasaki in Gunma prefecture, but currently, I live nearby Tokyo. One of the famous daruma festivals is held at Takasaki’s daruma temple. (Though, you can buy daruma almost all the place in Japan.)

    The size of daruma does not necessarily depend on your wish, so you can start from smaller ones.

    You can e-mail me, of course. I like cultural anthropology and social studies in general, so it is nice to meet somebody who is also interested in those subjects. ^^

  7. Karen Lacy Hebert
    July 28, 2011

    So interesting and informative!

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This entry was posted on July 23, 2011 by in Japanese Culture and tagged , .

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