Names in this site follow the Japanese custom of family name first.

June 16, 2012

Ema, votive plates (Japanese Customs)

Ema are votive plates dedicated to shrines and temples. Usually, they consist of a flat piece of wood decorated with a picture. People buy them during shrine and temple visits, especially at the New Year, inscribe them with wishes for a prosperous year and hang them on special racks as petitions to the gods. Common images are the animals of the twelve-year oriental zodiac or something related to the legend of the shrine. In February, numerous students offer ema that plead for success in the school examinations. But you can also collect them as a memory to your visit and use the colorful plates to decorate your home.

Tenjinmichi & Kitano Tenmangu
[Large ema in Kitano Tenmangu. Photo Ad Blankestijn]

The colorful tablets have a long and rich history. The name "ema" means picture (e) of a horse (ma) - these votive pictures evolved as substitutes for the live horses traditionally donated by powerful parishioners to prestigious Shinto shrines. Although the custom is many centuries older (probably dating back to the Nara period, 8th c.), the earliest ema that can be reliably dated go back only to the end the 14th century.

A century later, we find a vigorous folk art and two types of ema have evolved:
  • works of small size offered by ordinary people as an entreaty to a deity for help or in fulfillment of a vow; here, the picture is always related to the wish or problem in question, for example a nursing mother might donate a picture of a woman squirting milk from her full breasts; the ox symbolized success in business, tigers were believed to prevent cholera and dogs meant an easy birth; those pictures were painted by emashi (ema painters) and hawked at crossroads.

  • large works executed on commission by professional artists usually displayed in a separate open gallery called "emado" in temples or shrines. Here, horses remained a favorite subject, but we also find scenes from famous legends and the exploits of warriors.
Tenjinmichi & Kitano Tenmangu
[Faded ema in Daruma Temple (Horinji). Photo Ad Blankestijn]

You will find some good examples of gorgeous ema in the Annex of the Narita Reikokan Museum, or in the museum of Zenkoji temple. Kitano Tenmangu in Kyoto also has a large emado; another good place in Kyoto is the Konpira Ema Museum.