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COLUMN ONE

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

That sort of thinking can be dangerous, counters Shinichi Hosokawa, a 30-year-old consultant. "I think it's a lot more practical to wear a face mask."

The oldest of these little talismans date from the 8th century, linked, some scholars say, to the peach-wood charm used by Chinese Taoists after the 2nd century BC to ward off evil. More than 1,000 years ago, Japanese warriors carried miniature protective swords and Buddhas into battle, while women and children back home adorned their kimonos with more decorative omamori.

In feudal times, they were affixed to the back of samurai helmets. World War II kamikaze pilots clutched theirs tightly on their final flights.

"Throughout history, you see Japanese becoming much more reliant on omamori during unstable times," said Hiromi Iwai, director of the Oita Prefectural History Museum.

Nowadays, omamori are offered through online auctions and by express delivery services. There are omamori for pets, "safe sex" condom omamori and virtual omamori for downloading onto mobile phone screens. Gangsters use them to ward off danger and gunshots, while street toughs operating protection rackets "sell" omamori to construction companies at inflated prices.

Chiaki Mukai, Japan's first female astronaut, had one sewed into her spacesuit, while journalist Toyohiro Akiyama took one along to complement his $2.3-million life insurance policy when he traveled aboard a Soyuz spacecraft in 1990. And Japanese baseball star Kazuhiro Sasaki brought along 22 omamori when he left home to join the Seattle Mariners.

For centuries, omamori were used to ward off evil in its broadest forms. Today's consumers have placed more emphasis on targeted -- even selfish -- applications such as winning the lottery, marrying someone rich or avoiding scratches to their Lexus, say scholars. Most omamori cost between $5 and $20 and play an important, if unspoken, role in helping shrines and temples pay their bills in tough economic times.

Themes that are embraced by a fickle public can pull in hundreds of thousands of tax-free dollars for temples, spurring quiet competition among monks and priests to come up with new "hits." The annual harvest for Japan's 80,000 Shinto shrines and 70,000 Buddhist temples is estimated at well over $1 billion.

Some religious sites gain visibility by being associated with sacred objects. The town of Usuki in Oita prefecture recently became a mecca for anxious office workers when the head of a Buddha statue was reunited with its body after a 300-year separation. In Japanese, "having your neck severed" is shorthand for getting fired, while reattachment suggests steady work.

At the Futami Okitama shrine in Mie prefecture, a frog statue draws those worried about overseas travel, terrorism, SARS and war jitters because "frog" in Japanese connotes safe return. And the Zensho Temple in Gunma prefecture offers hole-in-one, lower-your-handicap and avoid-getting-hit-in-the-head-with-the-ball omamori inspired by its statue of the goddess Kannon, who is depicted with 13 clubs on her back and something vaguely resembling a putter in her hand.

Other temples and shrines rely on wordplay. Japanese with ailing relatives flock to Saitama prefecture for amulets from the Pokkuri Temple, whose name also means "drop dead," hoping that loved ones will depart quickly and painlessly.

A secondary tier of omamori reflects Japan's rich folk history, although purists say these lack spiritual firepower because holy men or women haven't blessed them. Dried seahorse omamori, being shaped vaguely like a fetus, are said to reduce birth pains and danger when held during delivery. Grains of sand previously used to increase friction and help keep trains on their rails are sold in packets to anxious high school students hoping to gain "career traction." Pumpkin-shaped omamori are said to help stave off Alzheimer's disease, while the follically challenged collect tickets from Japan Railway's Mashike station because its Chinese characters mean "restore" and "hair."

Some young Japanese have turned them into a new fashion item. College student Rika Takahashi, 19, in black jeans and a peacoat, says color coordination and design are essential as she brandishes an off-pink omamori attached to her off-pink cell phone. Recently it also helped her snag a call from a boy she likes, she said, as she waited near Tokyo's Harajuku neighborhood, Japan's teen capital.

This is sacrilegious and undermines the omamori's high spiritual purpose, said Ayako Kawamata, a 60-year-old homemaker.

"I just don't understand how these young people think," she added.

Others take the (very) long view. "Actually, they were something of a fashion item on kimonos a thousand years ago," Shinto priest Sugiyama said.

Scholars say omamori bear witness to the faith, hopes and superstitions of the Japanese people. This leads some to wonder whether their power can be tapped to address the nation's economic and political malaise.

"Maybe if these worthless politicians got more omamori, they would be less self-absorbed and the nation wouldn't be in such a mess," Kawamata said.

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Rie Sasaki in The Times' Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.

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