Wednesday 8 October 2014

Japanese Amulets: Uncovering the mystery of what is inside?

A contemporary shrine souvenir shop, Japan © Fusa McLynn
O-mamori and o-fuda (Japanese amulets) are quite popular even today. The majority of contemporary Japanese no longer follow religious practices, all the same, they still like to buy amulets for themselves, or for family and friends, when they visit temples and shrines. 

In such souvenir shops, they sell amulets which are not very different from those which B. H. Chamberlain collected in Japan and sent to the Pitt Rivers Museum about 100 years ago.

Amulet envelope containing a Sanskrit letter and image
of Kannon PRM 1908.82.309 © Pitt Rivers Museum
When I was a small child I was very curious about what were inside, although I knew to open the amulets to have a look was a taboo. 

Children were made to believe that something awful would happen if they did such a thing. But some bolder friends of mine ignored the warning. They told me that there was only a strip of paper with a phrase of a Buddhism sutra (and nothing bad happened to them after all).

Since I started to work on the Japanese texts written on the amulets in the Pitt Rivers Museum, I have seen many different things inside them. They are not only thin strips of paper with a bit of sutra as my childhood friends discovered. Quite a wide variety can be seen. Some bear the names of gods or their images, and others have the Sanskrit symbols representing the different aspects of Buddha.

More unusual ones contain leaves, grains of rice, fake gold coins, or small pills. 

PRM 1908.82.306 and PRM 1908.82.307
© Pitt Rivers Museum
For example, on the left you can see an amulet for those seeking a happy marriage, which is from Yaegaki Jinja (shrine) in Shimane prefecture and contains something which looks like a leaf. It is, in fact, a camellia leaf. Why? 

According to a legend, Princess Kushinada, the wife of Susano (brother of Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess), planted two camellia trees. These two grew into one, and became a symbol of eternal love. Even now there are three intertwined camellia trees in the shrine precinct. 

LafcadioHearn (1850-1904), who was a good friend of Chamberlain (although they would fall out later), possibly got this very amulet for him to send to the museum. Hearn lived in Shimane, and wrote about Yaegaki shrine in his book, “Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan”. Besides the camellia amulet, some of the other items he mentions in this book can be identified in the Chamberlain Collection. Follow this link to read the relevant section of his book about the camellia amulet.  

Fusa McLynn
Collections Volunteer 

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