Daruma Dolls: Guardians of Dreams in Japanese Culture

by Nana Young

To an outsider, the Japanese Daruma doll is just a goofy-looking toy. But to anyone who grew up in Japan, this doll means so much more. Find out the symbolism behind Daruma dolls and why they make magnificent souvenirs.

Introduction to Daruma Dolls: Exploring the Cultural Significance and History

A man making Daruma - Traditional Japanese Culture paper mache doll in Daruma workshop

A Daruma doll is a limbless traditional Japanese figurine that is hollow on the inside and round on the outside. It’s typically red but it can be a variety of other colors. The doll’s appearance is heavily inspired by Bodhidharma, a legendary Buddhist monk and founder of Zen Buddhism.

In Japan, a Daruma doll is seen as a symbol of good luck, happiness, and endurance. Many people see it as a talisman for warding off evil and ushering in good fortune. Daruma dolls were first publicized as New Year’s charms in Shorinzan Daruma Temple.

Today, Japanese Daruma dolls are given to friends and loved ones as talismans or gifts of encouragement. Some people use the dolls as deities, displaying them on shelves and mini altars. In this post, we’ll explore everything you should know about the Daruma doll. Get ready to learn their symbolism, origin, and design. 

Meaning and Symbolism: Deciphering the Enigmatic Message

Daruma from Shorinzan Darumaji Temple, colour daruma

When it comes to ancient symbolism, traditional Daruma dolls are full of them. Don’t be deceived by their seemingly simple appearance. Every subtle detail, from their shape to their eye color, has an elaborate meaning that only a few understand. To make it easier for you, we’ve broken down all of the Daruma doll’s symbolism into a summarized list.


The first feature you might notice on a Daruma is its bright red color. This color symbolizes wealth, prosperity, and good fortune. While red daruma dolls are the most popular type, there are many others, and each one has a separate meaning. We'll reveal the different colour Daruma dolls and their meaning below:

  1. Red: Good luck and wealth

  2. Black: Protection from evil entities

  3. White: Balance and purity

  4. Gold: Money, glory, and fame

  5. Green: Good health

  6. Blue: Success in career

  7. Yellow: Dreams coming true

  8. Pink: Romance and love

  9. Orange: Academic excellence

  10. Purple: Personal health and development


Daruma dolls have a round shape designed to make them self-balancing. This means that they will spring back up when you try to tip them over. This nature symbolizes perseverance, resilience, and endurance. Just like the doll bounces back up whenever it faces a setback, so will you! Most of the dolls have some facial hair drawn on them. The typical Daruma doll has eyebrows and cheek hair. The eyebrow represents the crane and the cheek hair is a symbol for the tortoise. But what do these animals have to do with anything, you might wonder? Well, their meaning lies in the Japanese proverb that says, “The crane lives 1000 years, the tortoise 10,000 years.” Hence, the facial hair on Daruma dolls symbolizes longevity.

Drawings and Writing:

Daruma dolls are typically sold with blank eyes. The owner of the doll fills the eyes when they are ready to do so. Drawing one eye is a ritual called kaigen, and it signifies the setting of a new goal. This way, they’ll be reminded of the goal they set every time they see the one-eyed Daruma doll. After that goal is achieved, the owner can thank the Daruma by drawing the second eye. According to tradition, you can only have one Daruma at a time, and after a year, it’s to be returned to the temple you bought it from and burned, whether you have achieved your goal or not. There’s nothing shameful in returning a one-eyed Daruma, as it simply means you’ll set a new goal or find an alternative means to get what you want. Sometimes, new Daruma dolls come with kanji writing of the words ”perseverance,” “luck,” and ”fortune.” You can also write your goal on the Daruma doll as an official statement.

Origin Story: Tracing the Daruma Doll Tradition

Takasaki Gunma Japan, Shorinzan Daruma-ji Temple (Daruma Doll Temple)

The origins of Daruma dolls can be traced back to the Buddhist monk Bodhidharma, who is considered the pioneer of Zen Buddhism in East Asia in the 5th century. Legend has it that Bodhidharma sat facing a wall and meditated for nine years without moving from the spot. This feat took a toll on his body, causing his arms and legs to fall off. There’s also a belief that he cut out his own eyelids because he fell asleep during this meditation period. That is why Daruma dolls are limbless and have no irises. The first Daruma dolls were made as good luck charms for members of the Shorinzan Daruma Temple in Takasaki City, Tokyo. The temple’s founder made these New Year charms and gave them out to the community. People would visit the temple to receive these charms in hopes that they would bring good fortune and ward off evil. 

Daruma dolls became more popular in the Edo period (1603–1868) as bringers of good luck, and by the 19th century, the general belief had evolved into assumptions that the dolls could make dreams come true. The Shorinzan temple still exists in Takasaki today and is the venue for an annual Daruma Doll Festival. Tasaki City also makes the majority of Daruma dolls in Japan using traditional hand craftsmanship.

Craftsmanship and Design: Appreciating Artistry

Daruma - Japanese paper mache doll making factory, Daruma workshop

Daruma dolls are made by using papier mache sourced from Japanese washi paper. Modern makers use a wooden mold to ensure that each doll is identical in shape and size. This mold is dipped in liquid papier mache and the air inside is sucked out through a pump. In the past, all of these were done by hand, but today, using machines to speed up some parts helps to meet quality and quantity demands. After sucking out the air, the unfinished Daruma is precoated with white paint and left to dry. A circular clay piece is then added to the base of the doll to make it heavy and lower its center of gravity, thereby keeping it from tipping over.

When the white coating is dry, the doll is then painted with its main color, which is typically red. The face is painted white and lines are used to make the outline. The craftsmen use various brushes to paint different parts of the doll. Every Daruma doll is unique because they’re hand-painted. Hence, the makers add subtle differences to each piece that you can only catch if you look closely. There’s very little limitation on how Daruma should be designed. Hence, you’ll often find the dolls designed with a combination of different colors and decorations.

Daruma Doll Rituals: Cultivating Resilience and Wish Fulfillment

Hatsu Ichi Matsuri. Daruma dolls burning ceremony

Traditionally, people use Daruma dolls to manifest their goals in a ritual called kaigen. This ritual is based on the Buddhist concept of the A-Un (beginning-end). As the owner of the Daruma, you begin the ritual by setting a goal or making a wish before painting the left eye of the Daruma to mark the beginning. After your goal is complete or your wish is fulfilled, which could take several weeks or months, you can paint the right eye to mark the end of the ritual.

After the Daruma receives its second eye, or a year after you bought it, you’ll need to dispose of it via a second ritual. Take it to the place where you bought it or to a nearby Buddhist shrine. During a memorial service, the Daruma will be ceremonially burned in a daruma kuyo (Daruma burning festival), ending its life cycle for good. If you’re abroad or can’t access a shrine, you can dispose of the doll by sprinkling salt on it and wrapping it with white paper before expressing gratitude and carefully putting it in the garbage.

Power of Persistence: Embracing Resilience

A round traditional Japanese doll "Daruma" with the letters "fortune" printed on the belly

Please note that the Daruma Doll is not a genie that grants wishes at will. You need to put in the work to reap the benefits. There’s a reason Daruma dolls are popular as gifts of encouragement. When someone gives you one of these Japanese dolls, they’re likely showing you that they believe in you and hope that you embrace the spirit of perseverance embodied by Daruma dolls, drawing inspiration from their message of resilience in the face of adversity. Also, the lack of symmetry you see when you look at a one-eyed Daruma is a reminder and encouragement to remain resilient until you achieve your goals.

Wish Fulfillment: Manifesting Desires with Daruma Dolls

painting a daruma san at a japanese cultural festival

When you buy a Daruma doll, it can assist you in attaining your wish, provided you work towards it. The Daruma is also believed to bring good luck to those who have it in their homes. This is the reason for the belief in the wish-granting powers of Daruma dolls. To invoke the powers of the doll, you need to perform the eye-painting ritual. With that, you basically motivate Daruma-san with a promise to show gratitude by giving it a complete pair of eyes if you get your wish. After that, you can go out into the world, confident that Daruma is working to make your dreams come true.

Daruma Dolls in Pop Culture: Influence and Representation

Set of cartoon stickers, patches, badges, pins. Daruma included

Daruma dolls have appeared in various forms of Japanese art and media, particularly in anime and manga series. One of the most famous appearances came in the first part of a horror manga series titled Kamisama no Iutoori. A sentient and evil Daruma doll was used in a deadly school competition in which only one student survived and advanced to the next stage. The manga was adapted into a 2014 film titled As the Gods Will. It followed a similar premise to the manga, where students were forced to participate in a deadly Red Light, Green Light game. After the release of the successful Squid Game movie in 2021, which had an identical fatal Red Light, Green Light scene, many people began to make comparisons between the two films, sparking controversy. However, Hwang Dong-hyuk, the writer of Squid Game, claimed any similarities were purely coincidental.

Collecting Daruma Dolls: Building a Treasured Collection

Japanese Daruma dolls or dolls of fortune in the souvenir shop.

While some people believe that you can only have one Daruma doll, others say they find nothing wrong with keeping a Daruma doll even after it has fulfilled your wish. Like most good luck charms, their powers tend to expire after a year, at which point they may become trinkets to add to your collection. Start by collecting as many unique Daruma dolls as you can, each one representing a different goal or wish. Popular unique options include vintage floral Daruma and Lady Daruma.

Daruma Doll Festivals: Celebrating Tradition and Community

Rituals happening before burning the daruma dolls. Tokyo, Daruma Festival

Various types of Daruma doll festivals occur in Japan throughout the year and at different locations. The main Daruma Doll Festival is an annual event at the Daruma-Dera temple in Takasaki. It features the sale of thousands of Daruma dolls and the 24-hour recitation of sutras by temple monks. The Hatsuichi Matsuri in Maebashi is another famous Daruma doll festival. It features people coming together in January to set a bonfire with their Daruma dolls from the previous year. 

Eye Painting Ritual: Symbolism and Tradition

An image of studying for an exam. Stationery and Japanese Daruma dolls

Earlier, we mentioned that the significance of painting the Daruma’s eyes and the rituals involved in this sacred tradition of wish fulfillment were related to the a-un concept. The left eye of the Daruma is "A,” the beginning; hence, it’s the first eye to paint. Its right eye is "Un," the end, and is the second eye to paint. Don’t worry if you make a mistake. Painting either eye is seen as a symbol of good luck. Simply leave the doll as it is and paint the other eye when you get your wish.

Daruma Doll Souvenirs: Where to Find Authentic Pieces

colorful “daruma”, Japanese traditional doll which is a symbol of good luck.

There are only two reputable sources for purchasing authentic Daruma dolls. The first is in a Buddhist temple or shrine, especially during their annual Daruma Ichi. The second is in a Japanese specialty handcraft store or center. The dolls are affordable from both sources. Getting the dolls outside of Japan is a lot more difficult. But you can experience a piece of the Japanese tradition and its good luck by eating Daruma rice crackers. It comes in eight unique flavors, including matcha, black sesame, and nori seaweed.

Daruma Doll Folklore: Legends and Tales Surrounding Japan's Beloved Wish Dolls

Daruma doll at katsuoji temple, Osaka, Japan.

There are several rich folklore and fascinating legends associated with Daruma dolls, and these stories have captured imaginations for centuries. One of them is the legend of the ninth chief priest of the Daruma Temple, who urged people in Takasaki to make and sell Daruma dolls to save them from a terrible famine, leading to the start of the Daruma Ichi or Daruma fair. In ancient times, any image of Bodhidharma was said to have magical powers, and he became the lucky god. Does the Daruma doll work? People say they do. But the only way to know for sure is to get one yourself.

If you can’t give your loved ones a Daruma doll, there are many other meaningful gifts you can offer that are rich in Japanese tradition.

Visit Bokksu Boutique and explore our endless collection of gifts for every season.

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