Ema (Japanese Wish Boards)

“I’ll stop gambling and smoking, and if I don’t, please punish me.”

A few days ago, when I was at my girlfriend’s parents home, we went to pray at the local shrine, Munakata Taisha (宗像大社), we took a nice long 8 km walk there (as we did last year) and there were lots of people, as almost every Japanese family makes a point to visit a/several shrines during the Japanese New Year’s period (which is considered the first 3 days of the New Year; January 1–3). One of my favorite things about this is that there is a raffle of sorts. You pay 500円 (~$5) draw a random ticket and it matches to a prize. None of the prizes are really that bad either, they’re classy traditional goods, often related to the Chinese zodiac animal of that year.

Nami and my ‘ema’ from our New Year’s visit.

Anyway, while we were there, we also filled out an ema (絵馬/literally: picture of a horse), which I always called “wish boards”. The idea of an ema is this; a person goes to a shrine and buys this wooden block (usually in the shape of a house) with a picture on one side and then the back side is blank. Ema usually cost around 500円 (again~$5). Once you buy one, you write your wish or desire on the back and then hang it up somewhere on the shrine grounds. This can be done any time of the year at any decent sized shrine, but one of the most popular periods is around New Year’s (正月).

Someone used a stamp for a big part of this one. “What is your desire?” “Family Mart Chicken, about 16 should do.”

Over the course of the last 4 days, I have gone to 10 shrines in the Fukuoka area and taken pictures of 60 of these things and translated them into English. The end result can be seen here. This has been a really fascinating experience for me to visit all of these shrines during this special part of the year for the Japanese people. Reading and translating all of these ema really have shown me a broad spectrum of Japanese humanity from boys wanting to be good soccer players to teen girls wanting to go to concerts to an elder wishing for their children to come home, and at the same time the cultural differences in desires between Japan and the west. Japanese consistently wished for health and to pass for exams, I can’t help but feel these are two things that wouldn’t be so high in a Western desire tally. It was also a good opportunity for me to learn new sentence structures, words, and kanji. If you have some time, check out the full album of pictures and read what people have to say.