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March 19, 2007

Billiken, a good luck charm in Kobe

At the rear of a building at the crossroads between Nakayamatedori and Kitanodori, in central Kobe, a metal fence is opened every night to reveal a peculiar stone statue. The figure is lighted up which makes it even more eerie. A plaque at the back tell that this is a good luck deity called "biriken."

[Billiken statue in Kobe]

Thanks to the Wikipedia, which has an excellent article on the subject with many links, I found out this was a statue of Billiken, a charm doll created in 1908 by American illustrator Florence Pretz, who apparently saw the mysterious figure in a dream. She patented the image in 1911, with the characteristics of elf-like pointed ears, a mischievous smile from ear to ear and a tuft of hair on his pointed head. Billiken had short arms and usually sat with his legs stretched out in front of him.

Some other things regarding Billiken:
  • He was named after the newly elected President of the United States, William ("Billy") Howard Taft, with "ken" as suffix to make the name cuter.

  • Many Billiken toys were produced in 1909 but after a few years the fad blew over (and Kewpie dolls came into fashion, which share certain characteristics but are nicer as they are small kids and not an old guy).

  • When Billiken reached Alaska, Eskimo carvers began carving his likeness, leading to the false impression that it was a native Eskimo deity.

  • Billiken was called "the god of things as they ought to be" and rubbing his outstretched feet was regarded as auspicious.
In Japan, Billiken also became very popular. He was seen as a modern Ebisu and counted as no. 8 among the Seven Deities of Good Fortune (who were anyway already mostly of foreign - Chinese - origin). His most famous statue was enshrined in the Lunar Park in the Shinsekai in Osaka in 1912 and the establishment thrived on Billiken souvenirs (as manju) until its closure in 1923.

A new statue was put up in 1980 in the Tsutenkaku Tower, also in Osaka, and there he still has his feet tickled by tourists on the fifth floor observation deck. The originally very American Billiken became a sort of ambassador of Osaka, and in 1996 he figured in the movie Billiken made by Osaka-born director Sakamoto Junji.

In fact, in the early decades of the 20th c. Billiken statues were enshrined throughout Japan, but often removed again in the war years. Kobe had its share too, and it seems justice that international city Kobe has this Billiken statue on display, all be it at the back of a building housing restaurants...

It is also a statue that from an inter-cultural perspective is quite fascinating. Take the murky origins in European elfish lore... the strange popularity among Eskimo carvers... and why would the Japanese with their myriads of deities want Billiken as a new good luck charm? Why did it appeal to them?

[Billiken in Shinsekai area, Osaka]

That does not make me very fond of the little imp. He may be called elfish, but I find him almost devilish - especially here - in contrast to effigies from Japan, as Ebisu and Daikoku, who just exude jolly good fun, this old geezer based on ancient European lore is somehow, well, evil...