Ebisu Festival

Ebisu Festival (Toka Ebisu)

Type of Holiday: Religious (Shinto)
Date of Observation: January 9-11, or October 20
Where Celebrated: Japan
Symbols and Customs: Bamboo Branch, Fukumusume Girls, Sea Bream


During Japan's Ebisu festival people seek the blessing of Ebisu, the Shinto god of good fortune, honest labor, and financial success. Shinto is an ancient Japanese religion that celebrates life and honors the sacred in the natural world. The name Shinto was first employed during the sixth century C . E . to differentiate indigenous religions in Japan from faith systems that originated in mainland Asia (primarily Buddhism and Confucianism). The word is derived from two Chinese characters, shen (gods) and tao (way). Loosely translated, Shinto means "way of the gods." Its roots lie in an ancient nature-based religion. Some important concepts in Shinto include the value of tradition, the reverence of nature, cleanliness (ritual purity), and the veneration of spirits called kami. Strictly speaking, kami are not deities. The literal translation of the word kami is "that which is hidden."

Kami (which is both the singular and plural term) are honored, but do not assert their powers upon humans in the traditional manner of deities or gods in other religions. People may be descended from the kami, and kami may influence the course of nature and events. The kami can bestow blessings, but they are not all benign. Kami are present in natural things such as trees, mountains, rocks, and rivers. They are embodied in religious relics, especially mirrors and jewels. They also include spirits of ancestors, local deities, holy people, and even political or literary figures. The human role is to venerate the kami and make offerings. The ultimate goal of Shinto is to uphold the harmony among humans and between people and nature. In this regard, the principle of all kami is to protect and sustain life.

Shinto believers have traditionally recognized many different spirits and gods. Ebisu is considered to be one of the Seven Gods of Luck, called the Shichifukujin in Japanese. Some scholars believe that the Seven Gods of Luck may have originated in China in ancient times and later migrated to Japan. In addition to Ebisu, the other six gods are Benten, the goddess of music, arts, and beauty; Hotei, the god of happiness; Jurojin, the god of longevity; Fukurokujin, the god of wisdom; Bishamon, the god of spiritual enthusiasm; and Daikoku, the god of wealth. Artists often depict the Seven Gods of Luck traveling together on a ship, called the takarabune, or treasure ship.

The god Ebisu figures in one of the Japanese creation stories, in spite of his suspected Chinese origins. In one story the gods Izanagi and Izanami, the eighth pair of brother and sister gods to appear after the formation of heaven and earth out of chaos, gave birth to Ebisu. They called him Hiruko, or "leech child." Hiruko had no bones at birth, so his parents cast him adrift in a reed boat. He not only survived, but also healed, and become the god Ebisu. Artists usually create images of Ebisu that show him to be a short, fat, jolly man who carries a stick and a large fish, specifically, a SEA BREAM . One of his titles is "the laughing god." Ebisu may also appear with jellyfish, another symbol associated with the god. Japanese folklore teaches that Ebisu is somewhat deaf, and so he sometimes misses the summons to his own festival. Though Ebisu is associated with all the Seven Gods of Luck, he is most closely associated with Daikoku, the god of wealth. Often Ebisu, Daikoku, and Fukurokujin are pictured together as the "three gods of good fortune."

In coastal areas, Ebisu is understood to be a god of good luck for fisherman. In some towns, at the beginning of the fishing season fisherman dive blindfolded into the ocean and bring up stones from the bottom of the sea. They turn these rocks into shrines dedicated to Ebisu. Some fishermen call out his name as they cast their nets into the sea. In urban areas, people view Ebisu as the patron of merchants. Large urban shrines dedicated to Ebisu as a god of commerce can be traced back to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. In farming zones, some people honor Ebisu as a god of agriculture.

The city of Osaka celebrates the Ebisu festival on January 9, 10, and 11, as do other towns in western Japan..This is one of the nation's most famous Ebisu celebrations. Osaka's Ebisu festival can be traced back to the Edo period in Japanese history (seventeenth through nineteenth centuries). January 9 is called "the eve of Ebisu.'' January 10 is the most important day of the festival, and the eleventh is called the "last helping of luck."

In Osaka Ebisu is known as the god of good luck in business. Over one million people visit Osaka's Imamiya Ebisu Shrine every year to pray for success in business and for happiness in life. Osaka's famous Ebisu bridge over the Dotonbori River was built to accommodate all the worshippers who come to pay their respects at Ebisu's shrine. Ebisu Festival


Bamboo Branch

Local merchants sell bamboo branches decorated with lucky charms as festival souvenirs. Folklore suggests that these branches will help festival goers keep good luck with them. The lucky charms include such things as little replicas of sea bream, bales of rice, and old, gold coins. In addition to buying the branches, festival goers enjoy shouting out a common saying associated with the holiday, "business is thriving, fetch the bamboo branch!" People save these lucky bamboo branches and display them in their homes and shops when the festival is over.

Fukumusume Girls

The Fukumusume girls, or "daughters of happiness," parade through the streets on January 10. This event, called the "good luck palanquin parade," features around 600 participants, including celebrities, geishas, and fukumusume girls. Bearers carry the fukumusume on palanquins. The fukumusume ladies distribute good luck charms to the crowds. These charms include decorated bamboo branches and miniature sea bream tokens. In Osaka, more than 3,000 young ladies apply each year for around fifty positions as festival fukumusume. Those selected as fukumusume experience a big boost in their status, and many receive marriage proposals as a result of fulfilling this role.

Sea Bream

The sea bream is considered to be one of the symbols of the god Ebisu. In Osaka on January 10, there is a special market dedicated to the sale of sea bream. Sea bream is often served on special occasions in Japan and is one the nation's favorite fishes. The custom of celebrating with sea bream may have developed because the Japanese name for the fish, mede-tai, can also mean "celebratory," "admirable," or "lucky." Its association with Ebisu has also turned sea bream into a symbol of prosperity.


Bellenir, Karen. Religious Holidays and Calendars. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2004. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005.


"Encyclopedia of Shinto," Kokugakuin University, Tokyo, Japan eos.kokugakuin.ac.jp/modules/xwords/entry.php?entryID=206 Japan National Tourist Organization www.jnto.go.jp/eng/indepth/history/traditionalevents/a04_fes_toka.html

National Museum of Ethnology, Osaka, Japan www.kikoman.com/forum/099/ff009.html
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009

Ebisu Festival

October 20
This Japanese festival is named after Ebisu, one among seven Japanese gods of luck, who is the protector of businessmen and fishermen. According to legend, all the other gods leave their shrines during October, which is known as "the godless month," and gather at the temple of Izumo to discuss issues of great importance. Because he is deaf, Ebisu cannot hear the summons and does not accompany them. The Ebisu Festival, observed on October 20, is a time for members of trade associations and political and literary societies to get together and socialize. Because Ebisu presides over trade and business, the festival is also a time to pray for prosperity. The main celebration takes place in Nara, where the streets leading to the Ebisu shrine are lined with booths selling figures of Ebisu and other objects that stand for wealth and good fortune. In the western part of the country, some shrines celebrate the Ebisu Festival in January.
Ebisu is a folk deity who probably originated in a cult of luck in fishing. To this day, Japanese fishermen bring up stones from the bottom of the sea at the beginning of the fishing season and make them into a shrine to Ebisu. As they cast their nets, they have also been known to call out "Ebisu!" to invoke the god's power. In urban areas, however, the Ebisu Festival is mostly celebrated by merchants, although even here the god is often depicted as carrying a fish.
See also Bettara-Ichi
Japan National Tourist Organization
1 Rockefeller Pl., Ste. 1250
New York, NY 10020
212-757-5640; fax: 212-307-6754
IllFestJapan-1993, p. 22
JapanFest-1965, pp. 116, 200
OxDictWrldRel-1997, p. 302
Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.