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How Japan’s Laughing Buddha Hotei is merging into Santa Claus

(The Dialog) — As Christmas approaches, kids in lots of elements of the world look ahead to a go to from the potbellied Santa Claus, who comes down chimneys carrying a sackful of items over his shoulder. In Japan, some kids additionally watch for Hotei, a jolly Japanese god with a rotund body who carries an analogous bag stuffed with treasures. Hotei’s go to, nevertheless, coincides with the brand new 12 months.

As a scholar of East Asian religions who studies deities’ transformations over time, I’ll typically clarify to my college students that cross-cultural encounters produce new understandings and pictures of gods.

Since the late 19th century, Japanese and Western observers have remarked on the similarities between Hotei and Santa Claus, and a few writers even identify Hotei as the Japanese Santa Claus. This identification has grown even stronger in post-World Warfare II Japan, the place Christmas turned a broadly celebrated vacation following the American occupation that lasted till 1952.

From Zen monk to Laughing Buddha

The identify Hotei is the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese language “budai,” which implies “fabric bag.” In Japan, Hotei is often known as Hotei oshō, or “monk Hotei,” which refers to his origin as a 10th-century Chinese monk.

Hotei belongs to the Zen college of Buddhism, which celebrates simplicity and rejects the will for fame and fortune. Zen texts painting Hotei as a wandering monk who’s content material to stay a humble, easy life. He carries a big sack stuffed with odds and ends and shares his “treasures” with kids.

A monk lying on a bed while children tug at the sheet and play with him.

Kids enjoying with Hotei.
Artist Kano Tanyu via Wikimedia Commons

Some texts even establish Hotei as a buddha. Buddhism teaches that there have been a number of buddhas up to now, and there will probably be extra buddhas to return sooner or later. The latest buddha – the buddha most Westerners consider once they hear the phrase – was known as Siddhārtha Gautama or Shakyamuni, and lived about 2,500 years in the past. The subsequent buddha will probably be Maitreya, or Miroku in Japanese.

According to one 13th-century Chinese text, a pal observed that Hotei had a watch on his again and acknowledged this as an indication of buddhahood. This identical textual content means that Hotei is an incarnation of the future buddha Maitreya.

One of many Seven Fortunate Gods

Hotei’s well-fed look and bag of treasures represented abundance in China and Japan. As an emblem of fine fortune, Hotei was included within the set of Seven Lucky Gods, which developed in Japan by the seventeenth century. Together with Hotei, this set introduced collectively different Buddhist gods – Daikokuten, Bishamonten and Benzaiten – with Chinese language gods of longevity and prosperity and the Shinto god Ebisu. Every god is related to a magical object and a particular advantage. Hotei’s object is his bag that magically stays full, and his advantage is generosity.

The Seven Fortunate Gods do play a task in a Japanese vacation – however on New Yr’s, not Christmas. Within the first few days of the brand new 12 months, the Seven Fortunate Gods steer their treasure ship from the heavens to earth. On the primary evening of the brand new 12 months, kids place below their pillows an image of the seven gods on their ship. That is purported to carry a very good dream, an indication of fine luck for the 12 months forward.

As certainly one of these fortunate gods, Hotei is understood for being keen on foods and drinks, and even serves because the patron deity of bars and eating places.

A Japanese illustration showing several figures on a boat.

In Japanese mythology, the Seven Fortunate Gods are believed to steer their treasure ship from the heavens to earth on New Yr’s Day.
Print made by Kitao Shigemasa, Tokyo, 1772/1780 via Wikimedia Commons

The Japanese Santa Claus?

Given the numerous similarities between Hotei and Santa Claus, together with the roles they play within the vacation season, it’s not shocking that individuals each inside and out of doors Japan have conflated Hotei with Santa Claus.

American Christmas differs from its European predecessors by combining elements from multiple countries, especially Germany and England, to create a brand new form of celebration. American representations of Santa Claus — together with the favored picture that first appeared in a Coca-Cola advertisement — additionally remodeled the European St. Nicholas, Father Christmas, Père Noël and Sinterklaas right into a distinctively American determine along with his purple and white swimsuit, sleigh and reindeer.

Japanese Christmas developed its personal distinctive customs, resembling eating at KFC and shopping for strawberry-adorned Christmas cakes. Whereas many People rejoice Christmas as a spiritual vacation, in Japan, with its tiny Christian population, Christmas is wholly secular.

A model of Colonel Sanders, founder of KFC, wearing a red Santa Claus attire, at a KFC in Tokyo, Japan.

Consuming at KFC is a novel customized for Christmas in Japan.
しんぎんぐきゃっと via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Accounts of Christmas in Japan typically emphasize Hotei’s function as Japanese Santa Claus, and describe Hotei with eyes on the back of his head in order that he, like Santa, can continually observe kids to find out whether or not they really deserve presents.

This reveals how cross-cultural encounters have modified concepts about Hotei: The attention on Hotei’s again has been reimagined as eyes on the again of his head so he can decide, like Santa Claus, if children have been “naughty or good.”

Hotei’s statue in Tokyo’s Maitreya Temple.

Nevertheless, not everyone in Japan is satisfied that Hotei is the Japanese Santa Claus. In Japan it’s nonetheless Santa Claus, not Hotei, who provides kids presents on Dec. 25. Nonetheless, yearly in December, revelers put a Santa hat and beard on the Hotei statue in Tokyo’s Maitreya Temple, or Mirokuden, which reveals how frequent the identification of Hotei with Santa Claus has grow to be.

(Megan Bryson, Affiliate Professor of Spiritual Research, College of Tennessee. The views expressed on this commentary don’t essentially mirror these of Faith Information Service.)

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