Lucky Japanese Symbols and What They Mean

Louie Anne Batac-Nguyen

From the lucky cat to the elegant crane, Japan is a land rich with symbols that are adored and revered. It’s practically impossible not to run into at least one of these symbols when visiting Japan, as they are intentionally woven into temple life and daily life. You can find them in shops, gardens and public spaces. Read on to learn about these lucky symbols and how they could bring you good fortune!

Seven Lucky Gods

Large statues of each of the Seven Lucky Gods at Byakugoji temple (白毫寺), located in Tamba, Hyogo prefecture.
Large statues of each of the Seven Lucky Gods at Byakugoji temple (白毫寺), located in Tamba, Hyogo prefecture.

“Shichifukujin,” or the Seven Lucky Gods, actually originate from various religions and countries. The Shichifukujin travel in a treasure-filled ship called Takarabune, bringing luck and good fortune. Three of the deities are Hindu-Buddhist from India, and the other three practice Taoist-Buddhism and come from China. That’s because historically, Japan is a nation that has imported different religions and made them their own.

One of these deities is Fukurokuju, the wise, mustached, scholarly god of happiness (“fuku”), wealth (“roku”) and longevity (“ju”). He carries a scroll said to hold all the world’s wisdom. This is the inspiration behind the sake brand Fukuju, and we love that wishes for happiness and blessings are imbued in each bottle of Fukuju “Blue,” Fukuju “Black,” and Fukuju “Green.”


The seventh deity is Ebisu, the only god from Japan and sole Shinto deity. He is depicted holding a fishing rod and sea bream, and is especially popular among farmers, sailors and the working class. Inspired by Ebisu, Wakaebisu “Honjozo” is definitely one to be shared with anyone, no matter their vocation. This sake is very easy to pair with meat, seafood and veggies, and can be served at different temperatures.

Shinto and Buddhism are the most common religions in Japan, and although they once competed with one another, they now coexist peacefully. Legend tells that those who leave a picture of the lucky gods under their pillow on New Year’s Eve will have good luck the following year. If you forget to leave a picture beneath your pillow, feel lucky anyway with a glass from Wakaebisu or Fukuju!

Maneki neko

Easy to spot in nearly any Asian business is the famous waving cat, with its paw in the air, sometimes swinging rhythmically up and down. But the “maneki neko” isn’t waving hello; it’s inviting good fortune. If the right paw is moving, it beckons money; if the left paw is waving, it beckons people.

There are many tales surrounding the origins of maneki neko. According to Gotokuji temple historians, a local ruler was hunting when the abbot’s pet cat beckoned him into the temple, saving him from a lightning bolt strike. The ruler then honored the cat as a patron of the temple. Today, visitors can pray for luck among the thousands of beckoning cats lined along the temple in Tokyo.

Dozens of maneki neko of various sizes. They’re the friendliest cats around!
Dozens of maneki neko of various sizes. They’re the friendliest cats around!

Another origin story tells of a poor old woman living in Imado who was forced to let go of her cat, unable to continue feeding her pet. In a dream, the cat instructs the woman to make dolls of the cat’s image and the cat would bring her good fortune. She does as instructed and sells the figurines at the shrine gates, which become popular and saves the woman.

The lucky cat has become a welcome sight for any patron. And for cat lovers especially, Tatenokawa “Tatenyan” Junmai Daiginjo is a charming bottle honoring its feline mascot who wandered into the brewery. Tatenokawa produces only junmai daiginjo styles and offers interesting collaborations, such as “Hansho” Blue and “Hansho” Silver with the Foo Fighters, and “Phoenix” with the French rock band of the same name.

Daruma

Bold and unflinching, the round red daruma doll sits looking ahead. Legend says that the doll is modeled after the monk Bodhidharma, founder of the Zen sect of Buddhism. He was known to gaze at walls, and after nine years facing a wall and meditating, his arms and legs fell off from atrophy. Another story tells that he fell asleep during his nine-year meditation, and in anger with himself, he cut off his own eyelids. Despite the somewhat disturbing legend, Daruma dolls are symbols of luck and perseverance, and are often gifted as wishes for success or recovery from something unfortunate.

When purchasing one, his eyes are blank. The user may make a wish and paint in one eye. After the wish is granted, the other eye may be painted in. Beyond simple wish-making, the Daruma serves to remind one of self-sufficiency, resilience and discipline. A common saying linked to the doll is “nanakorobi yaoki,” or “fall down seven times, stand up eight.” It is not a wish granter, so much as it is a reminder for you to continue to strive for your goals.

Notice the daruma with only one eye colored in; the wish has yet to be granted!
Notice the daruma with only one eye colored in; the wish has yet to be granted!

Koi fish and koinobori

An unmistakable icon of Japan, the carp fish (koi) is a symbol of courage and strength because of its ability to swim upriver and through waterfalls. Historically, banners were used by samurai in battle and some featured pictures of carp. The Edo period (1603-1868) saw the beginning of “koinobori,” or carp banners. Later, families flew black koinobori to honor their sons, and the Meiji era and westernization then brought koi of various colors. Today, colorful carp symbolizing different members of the family can be seen flying from Japanese homes in celebration of Children’s Day on May 5: black for the father, red for the mother, and blue and green for the children. You may also see koinobori flying horizontally across lakes and rivers, making for colorful displays.

Koi fish grace the label of Tozai “Living Jewel,” a light and dry junmai with gentle fruity notes. This sake is brewed by Kizakura from Kyoto prefecture, and also makes for a good cocktail base.

It’s easy to pass the time watching the colorful koi!
It’s easy to pass the time watching the colorful koi!

Tanuki

If raccoons are known for their antics, then the “tanuki” has a well-earned reputation as a prankster deity. This raccoon dog is a shape-shifter, but is usually depicted with a large belly and endowed male proportions, which it manipulates into makeshift drums, raincoats or weapons. It enjoys pranks, impersonates humans in order to buy alcohol and delicacies, and tries to pass off leaves or scrap paper as money. The creature is mentioned in Japanese folklore from as early as the 700s, describing how the tanuki transform into humans and sing songs. You may find statues of tanuki in front of bars and restaurants, as shopkeepers try to trick the tricksters into believing they or their kind had already been to that establishment. Despite their curious nature, tanuki are believed to bring money into businesses.

Tanuki are believed to bring good fortune. Depictions of the creatures can be found all over Japan, like this cup!
Tanuki are believed to bring good fortune. Depictions of the creatures can be found all over Japan, like this cup!

Cranes

Majestic, elegant and mysterious, the crane is an emblem of the Land of the Rising Sun. It is one of the largest and most recognizable land birds with a wingspan of over 2 meters and a distinguishable red spot on its head. The crane represents peace, good luck and longevity, and is also associated with wisdom and loyalty. Aptly, cranes mate with the same partner for life, so it is believed that spotting a crane before marriage is a lucky sign. It is also said that one may fold 1,000 paper cranes to have a wish granted.

Kawatsuru “Crane of Paradise” is made in the smallest prefecture, Kagawa. Like a paradise of its own, it lies between the Sanuki Mountains to the south and the Seto Inland Sea to the north.

Origami cranes are popular decorations that have become synonymous with Japan.
Origami cranes are popular decorations that have become synonymous with Japan.

Omamori

Feeling lucky? “Omamori” are amulets for good luck and protection often attached to bags or phone cases, and displayed in cars and around the home. Although used for general blessings, they can also have a more targeted focus such as success in business, fertility or passing exams. Rectangular in shape, the amulets are brightly colored and contain written prayers inside an embroidered pouch. They have a convenient, short strap to easily attach to personal items. You can find omamori at shrines or temples. If your amulet becomes dirty or stained over time, it is believed that the omamori has protected you from misfortune. Make sure to pick one up on your next visit as a memorable souvenir or gift!

This omamori comes with a small, gold-colored Buddha. On the omamori are the written words 心願成就 (“Shingan Jyoujyu”), meaning the realization of one’s earnest wishes or prayers.
This omamori comes with a small, gold-colored Buddha. On the omamori are the written words 心願成就 (“Shingan Jyoujyu”), meaning the realization of one’s earnest wishes or prayers.

More lucky sake at Tippsy

A number of sake breweries have been inspired by fortuitous symbols, which have been incorporated into their label designs. Here are a few of our favorites.

Tedorigawa “Iki na Onna” Lady Luck

Don’t wait to try this one, as “Iki na Onna” (“Lady Luck”) is brewed in limited quantities! On the nose are cinnamon and spice; on the palate, a classy, balanced daiginjo with notes of Asian pear and a splash of wild honey.

Amanato “Heaven’s Door”

Made in Akita prefecture in the northernmost region of Japan, which receives heavy snowfall, this sake label is inspired by the blessings of the Shinto sun goddess Amaterasu, who is believed to have helped cultivate Japan’s first rice fields. It is light and dry with floral, fruity notes. All the ingredients are locally sourced.

Tentaka “Hawk in the Heavens”

This umami-rich sake is inspired by the founder’s dream of a hawk, which is viewed as a fortuitous symbol in Japan. Locality is very important to this brewery, and they use only local rice and employ local people who grew up in Akita prefecture to brew their sake.

Fukuchitose “En” Happy Owl

Meaning “happiness forever,” this is a sake that can be enjoyed any time given its velvety texture and comforting notes of nutmeg and cocoa. Look closer and you might see the owl winking in its happy state!

Share good fortune with sake

Reverence for Japan’s beautiful mountains, waters and creatures lends itself to myths and legends, which are reflected in sake brewing culture. From the rice farmers to the brewery workers and storefronts, good fortune is shared in each bottle of sake. Which of these will you share and sip on? We want to know! Tag us at #tippsysake.

Louie Anne Batac-Nguyen

Louie Anne Batac-Nguyen

Louie Anne lived and worked in beautiful Okinawa, Japan for 10 years, and brings with her a deep appreciation for Japanese culture. As a cultural writer and editor, she seeks to share her experiences and bridge connections with fellow travelers and dining enthusiasts.

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