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Good Luck Comes in Small Packages

Omamori charms have had a centuries-long hold on Japan's psyche. Today they're used for everything from the lottery to SARS.

May 23, 2003|Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writer

TOKYO — Part rabbit's foot, part religious relic and part security blanket, omamori were created centuries ago to keep the devil at bay and the gods attentive.

These days, the tiny amulets are busy battling more worldly problems.

As Japanese have stressed out in the last few years over rising unemployment, mounting crime, record suicide rates and new strains of disease, they're rediscovering this ancient ally in their bid to fight off the gloom.

"Japanese feel more and more afraid, battered by problems beyond their control," said Shigetsugu Sugiyama, head of Kokugakuin University's Institute for Japanese Culture and Classics as well as a Shinto priest. "Omamori provide spiritual reassurance as people search for supernatural advantage."

Some omamori offer general protection, others have specific purposes. Most live their lives in pockets, wallets or purses, ideally in close proximity to any source of worry. Thus a shopkeeper faced with bankruptcy might place his between banknotes in his billfold, while a commuter fearful of accidents might attach one to her car keys.

There's little emphasis on touching or rubbing them as one might with a rosary or mezuza, although some angst-ridden Japanese have been known to grip theirs tightly during exams or job interviews.

Omamori use isn't limited to those who see the teacup as half-empty. Japanese astronauts, Olympians and baseball stars draw on them to attain new heights, golfers swear by them and trendy teenagers use them to adorn their most precious possession: their cell phone.

Most Japanese own at least one omamori and some boast several dozen, adding up to an estimated half a billion for a population of 127 million. Although they can take different forms, they're generally made of paper or thin slabs of wood the size of a matchbox, inscribed with sacred writings and encased in a colorful silk sack. Most are sold by Buddhist temples or Shinto shrines after a blessing.

Japanese tend to believe that omamori hold supernatural power, an outgrowth of the nation's animist tradition, and that they draw on spiritual forces linked to the temple or shrine that sold them.

"In the old days, Japanese believed there were spirits in rocks, trees and nature," said Hisami Nakahara, a 44-year-old computer graphics worker, who owns three. "As things are getting tougher, we're returning to the roots of what makes us Japanese."

Nakahara said she keeps at least three with her at all times -- one attached to her monthly train pass so she doesn't lose it, another with her keys so her house isn't robbed and a third decorative purple-and-white number for general good luck.

Many Japanese enter and leave the world in the presence of omamori. Michiyo Takada, 32, clutched hers recently in a hospital delivery room. It worked, said Takada, who gave birth to a lively son. "With all the medical malpractice scandals lately, I wanted the extra security," she said.

Between life's goal posts, omamori are in quiet attendance as Japanese fret over pink slips, divorce, sickness, test results, even finding that special someone.

"Maybe I would have met him without it," said Michiko Arai, a 30-year-old publishing industry worker who found a boyfriend after a five-year search. "But who knows?"

Junko Kezawa, 28 and unemployed, always carries a quartz omamori her aunt gave her. "If I forget it, something bad always happens," she said. "Five years ago, I fell down the stairs and was badly hurt. Then I checked and, sure enough, I'd forgotten it."

Yuri Fujishiro, 31, working in finance, relied on hers a couple of years ago when she got pregnant. "I wanted a girl," she said. "Sure enough, out she came."

Some people, however, like 34-year-old administrator Yoshinobu Kobayashi, think that omamori are a bit of hocus-pocus. "It's silly superstition," he said.

Others say the amulets are effective because the mind wants to believe in them, like a placebo.

"Japanese carry them for mental peace," said Shizuo Machizawa, a psychiatrist at the Mental Health Research Institute in Tokyo. "I'm not religious, but I have two jade omamori myself that calm me down when I'm upset."

Many people believe that the amulets' spiritual power wears down, like a battery, and replace theirs regularly, especially when the omamori is entrusted to do something vital like prevent car collisions.

"It's a bit of a hassle getting a new one every year," said Kanae Arai, a 61-year-old farm cooperative employee. "That's more often than you renew your driver's license. If I had an accident and didn't have it, though, I'd feel pretty bad."

Part of the amulets' attraction is their adaptability to each new concern that life throws one's way.

Office worker Eriko Sayama, 34, made sure that her brother had one to protect against SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, when he left the country recently. "Since there's no effective cure for SARS yet, we're placing our trust in the omamori," she said.

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