The statues found in Japan are as unique and fascinating as the cultures that inspired them. Most of these figures are so ingrained in Japanese culture that they appear in popular media such as anime, appear in films and video games, they also appear as garden statues, decorative elements widespread around the world entire. For those unfamiliar with these waving cats or childish Jizō, here is an introduction to some of the most common statues in Japan.
The ubiquitous maneki neko (waving cat) known as lucky cat statues in English are widespread in Japan, China and Taiwan. These little figures have existed since the Edo period and are believed to bring good luck to their owners, but their exact origins are unclear. Legend has it that a Japanese bobtail cat, the breed typically represented by the statue, raised its paw to wave to a traveling nobleman. After approaching the cat, the man realized that he had narrowly missed falling into a trap that was set for him right in front. In addition to their paw, maneki neko often hold a gold coin. This is linked to the belief that they bring good luck, and therefore prosperity and wealth to business, and it is these types of maneki neko that are popular with businesses outside of Japan.
Tanuki are raccoon dogs and originate from Japan. Tanuki are meant to prevent fires and theft, but as statues they have many other functions. Like the lucky number eight in Buddhism, tanuki statues often feature the following eight characteristics: a hat to protect against bad weather and trouble, large eyes for observing and making good decisions, a tail for balance and strength, a promissory note for trust, a bottle of sake representing virtue, and a sometimes comically large scrotum (which wild tanuki actually possess) symbolizing financial luck. Finally, a big belly representing bold but rational decision making and a friendly smile.
Jizō statues are guardians of travelers, and are often found along roadsides and at junctions. The origin of these statues comes from Ksitigarbha, a bodhisattva who is represented as a Buddhist monk and who the savior of souls must suffer in the afterlife. He is also the patron saint of children, including deceased children. Due to Ksitigarbha's connection with children and particularly those not yet born or stillborn it is also common to see statues of Jizō in cemeteries or gardens reserved for prayer for children who have died on temple grounds. Parents pay to erect a statue in their child's honor and leave stones and offerings to ease the lost child's passage into the afterlife.
Komainu known as lion dogs in English are guardian statues found at the entrance to shrines, temples and other important structures that require special protection. They are believed to have been brought to Okinawa by the guardian lions of China, which have existed since the Han dynasty, around 200 BC. Komainu are believed to ward off evil spirits. As a couple, one usually has their mouth open while the other is closed, seeming to pronounce together the Buddhist syllable Aum the beginning and end of all things.
Buddharupas are statues made in the form of people who have obtained Buddhahood. Their name means “form of awakening” in Sanskrit. Historically, Japan is strongly influenced by Buddhism, and the different sects have succeeded one another through the ages depending on the power in place. Today, Shinto and Buddhism can coexist peacefully, as neither religion requires absolute adherence. Therefore, Buddhist statues are very common in Japan, and some have even become famous, such as the enormous statue of Amida Buddha in Kamakura.