Wish upon a lucky star: ema cartoon craze

July 14th, 2010 by Felicity Hughes

These ema at Chichibu shrine are the work of Sugar and Salt, a blogger who is doing a pilgrimage of Japan's shrines

These ema at Chichibu Shrine are the work of Sugar and Salt, a blogger who is doing a pilgrimage of Japan’s shrines

On a recent visit to Chichibu Shrine, I was surprised to find a few ema (wooden prayer plaques) decorated with colorful anime characters. While it’s common for ema to be decorated with pictures of animals significant to the Shinto religion (most typically horses), anime ema are a little out of the ordinary, so I decided to do some digging.

The ema pictured above are the work of blogger Sugar and Salt, who has been doing a pilgrimage of the country’s shrines since November 2009 with the aim of putting up 108 anime-themed ema. But Sugar and Salt is not alone in his/her quest. Just last week on July 7, armies of otaku converged at an unremarkable shrine in Washinomiya, Saitama, to put up “Lucky Star” ema which were for sale, one day only, at Washinomiya Station. The shrine was a setting for the popular anime and since 2007 on the occasion of the “Lucky Star” twins’ birthday votive plaques have been a big tourist draw. Sugar and Salt was reportedly there him/herself to pick up one of the limited-edition plaques.

Another attraction for anime fans is Kitano-Tenmangu in Kyoto, which was visited by the girl-band cartoon sensation K-On! during an episode depicting a school trip. It’s typical for ema to be inscribed with personal wishes and most of the K-On! plaques are drawn by budding musicians who are hoping to improve their skills on the guitar.

Anime-style illustrations have also been proliferating in gokoku jinja (shrines to commemorate war dead) due to a surge in interest in the Sengoku Period. The period of civil unrest lasting from 1560 to 1619 has been the subject of many popular TV series recently. Particularly popular with women, who are getting a little cheesed off with those wussy herbivore men, many ladies are visiting shrines like Migagi’s Gokoku Jinja and putting up ema that contain comic book-style illustrations of the heroes of the day. Sankei JP report that there were mixed reactions to the ema from older visitors to the shrines, some of whom thought the plaques were a little disrespectful to the war dead.

In Tokyo’s Rihouji Shrine (another gokoku shrine), there are many painted ema of Benten sama (the goddess of art and wisdom) in a cartoon style. The young men who put these ema up usually write a little prayer alongside the illustrations asking for success in work. A Buddhist priest at the site noted that the quality and number of the ema has risen as visitors try to outdo each other.

Sales of ema and o-mamori (good luck charms) are an important source of income for shrines, so we’re wondering if, for example, like o-mamori that have characters like Hello Kitty printed on them, shrines will keep up with the times by beginning to sell ema with anime characters already printed on them.

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