Osaka Ali has been told that in the land of the Rising Sun, religion is a taboo subject of conversation. But I find it hard to observe this proscription, especially when spirituality can be so kitschy and cute. So, let’s broach it, shall we? Look at this urban diety:
Kind of makes you want bow to him with a handful of incense and then tickle his feet, don’t you agree? Who is this sidewalk god-ity? His name is Billiken, and he is a sort of patron saint of free wheeling-and-dealing downtown Osaka. If you are thinking what I was thinking the first time that I saw him, you are wondering where he came from. He could be the obscure love-child of an enlightened being and a Kewpie doll, for all we know.
In actual fact, Billiken is not native to Osaka, or Japan, or even Asia. Billiken is American, in a stranger-than-fiction turn of events. He was born in 1908 in St. Louis, Missouri, the brainchild of Florence Pretz, an American art teacher and inventor. Initially, her creation was designed to serve as a charm doll novelty to be marketed to children in the US who were fascinated by all things exotic.
Billiken’s popularity grew, morphed and eventually waned, but not before he made it to the shores of Japan. The figurine’s debut here occurred in 1912 at the opening of Luna Park, a long disappeared Osaka attraction. It has been said that Billiken idols were even installed in some actual Shinto shrines to be honored, but were removed when war clouds emerged over the Pacific and western cultural imports fell out of favor.
As immortalized in the classic film “Waterloo Bridge” (1940), buying a Billiken is good luck, but receiving a Billiken as a gift is better luck still. What are Billiken’s main attributes? It is hard to say, really. One part of the Billiken metaphysical philosophy might be “It’s all good”. Another part might be “No worries, mate”. But my favorite is found in the inscription on the bottom of this Billiken idol found on the streets of Osaka near Yodogawa station: The God of the Way Things Ought to Be. That’s groovy …
So, if you find yourself in Osaka and you are temple-and-shrine-hopping, make sure to make a pilgrimmage to visit the venerable Billiken. Rub his soles for good luck. Then imagine how things ought to be.
The Original Osaka Billiken idol can be found in the historic Tsutenkaku Tower located at 1-18-6 Ebisu-Higashi, Naniwa-ku, Osaka, 556-0002. Admission is ￥600 for adults, ￥300 for kids. The tower is open year-round. (http://www.tsutenkaku.co.jp)
Special thanks to Akie Watanabe of All Star Tours for first enlightening Osaka Ali about the legend of Billiken.