Understanding Omamori

This is something I’ve wanted to post about for a while. For anyone who’s traveled in Japan, you cannot go very far without encountering one of these:

Omamori charms

These are small amulets you get in both Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples called omamori (お守り), which are for protection. In Tanabe’s and Reader’s excellent book, Practically Religious, they describe omamori this way:

Omamori are amulets that represent manifestations of a spiritual entity such as a god or buddha….These amulets normally consist of a prayer or some form of religious inscription, invocation, or sacred text placed in a brocade bag or similar container and carried on the person. Sacralized by religious rituals that transform them into busshin (spiritual offshoots) or kesshin (manifestations) of the deity, they are physical objects that contain the spiritual essence and powers of a deity or buddha. (pg. 46)

The notion of spiritual offshoots is a feature of Shinto religion, but Reader and Tanabe talk about the notion of migawari omamori (身代わりお守り, substituting for the bearer, taking on the bad fortune themselves) in the context of Buddhist amulets too. There are many stories of Jizō Bodhisattva for instance taking the place of someone in order to protect them from harm, both in antiquity and even contemporary life.

Anyway, omamori come in various sizes, styles, and for different types of protection: health, passing exams, safe childbirth, love, traffic safety and general protection. It’s very common to pick up one at a famous temple or shrine if you visit, and as you can see, I’ve picked up a few. These are not all the Omamori in our home, but the ones I could readily find:

  • The Hello Kitty amulet is for my daughter. I bought it at the Kannon Temple in Ueno Park in April of 2010. She likes the pink color and the Hello Kitty logo.
  • This is an amulet I bought at Yushima Tenmangu shrine in Tokyo, on the same day. This is for studies, or gakugyō (学業), particular for my efforts to pass the JLPT N2 exam.
  • This is an amulet I purchased at Todaiji Temple in Nara, Japan, also in April 2010. This one is for wisdom, and is my favorite.
  • This is an amulet I bought recently in 2011, while visiting Hachimangu Shrine for Hatsumodé (the first visit of the year). This is to help pass the exam, or gōkaku (合格).

On the reverse, you can also see that each one mentions what temple or shrine it comes from:

Omamori charms, reversed

Over the years, I’ve learned some basic rules about omamori:

  • You shouldn’t open the bag and see what is inside. It’s disrespectful. I admit I once did it anyway, and opened the Todaiji charm in particular. Usually it has a small card or piece of wood wrapped in paper with a blessing. I don’t know if it’s really true or not, but I did feel bad about it later, so I haven’t opened up the others.
  • In Japan, toward the beginning of the year, you’re supposed to bring the charms back to the temple you got them from (or any temple that’s convenient) so they can be ritually purified and burned. It is thought that as part of their protection, they absorb evil and thus need the special treatment. Throwing them away isn’t recommended. In Reader and Tanabe’s book mentioned above, they also explore this topic and explain that ritually burning the charm is also an expression of gratitude (as opposed to throwing them away like common trash), as well as symbolizing the cycle of renewal.
  • Omamori work best when they are kept on your person. For example, it’s very common to see them tied to backpacks on children. We do that for our little girl when she goes to pre-school. I keep the Todaiji wisdom charm at work for some reason, while I use the Tenmangu charm as a small personal altar at home, mentioned previously. This is not really correct actually, since you’re supposed to use ofuda for home shrines, but I neglected to get one before, so I just use the amulet as a substitute for now. But I did take it with me when I took the JLPT N3 recently.

Again, one important rule custom should be observed: if you purchase an amulet (or the related ofuda planks), you should not throw it away. It’s considered disrespectful to the deity in question, among other things. Instead, you are encouraged to bring it back the following year (or later) to any temple or shrine for disposal. As you can see, I haven’t done that yet, since I live in the US, but I when we go to Japan, we often bring a few old items with us if possible. If not, we try to do it the following year.

Of course, most Westerners who see these at Shrines and Temples may be confused, or just treat them as souvenirs. So, this post is to help explain their cultural significance. I can’t say whether they really work or not, or really embody the deity or not. I honestly don’t know. To some degree though, it doesn’t really matter. As Reader and Tanabe write elsewhere, charms and amulets also offer a peace of mind and strengthening of faith (something tangible), but also don’t require faith for them to work. They simply represent the deity in question, and have a positive affect as a result.

Some things to consider the next time you visit a Shinto shrine or Buddhist temple in Japan. :)

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About Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.
This entry was posted in Buddhism, Japan, Religion, Shinto, Travel. Bookmark the permalink.

35 Responses to Understanding Omamori

  1. Really enjoyed learning more about omamori! Thank you for this. Is it OK if I link to your story from my own blog?

  2. Doug 陀愚 says:

    Hello and welcome to the JLR. Please go ahead and post as you see fit (and thanks for asking).

  3. Ela says:

    Hi, great post! I recently just went to Tokyo and while I was there, I actually picked up an omamori too. Unfortunately I don’t speak or read Japanese, so I’m not sure what my omamori is for. Would you be able to help me at all? I’ve uploaded a photo of the front and back of it to Flickr, here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/yl_926_533/with/6937009116/. Thank you!

  4. Doug 陀愚 says:

    Hi Ela and thanks for contacting me. The omamori you purchased is for a safe childbirth (安産), and it appears you got it at Ueno Park Kannon Temple correct?

    If you’re expecting, congratulations! If not, you’re welcome to give it to someone else who is, or just keep as a souvenir. :-)

  5. Ela says:

    Looks like I’ve got myself a nice souvenir. Thanks for all your help!

  6. Doug 陀愚 says:

    A nice souvenir and an amusing story hopefully. :-)

  7. Rae Williams says:

    Are there any amulets for people who have lost loved ones?

  8. Doug 陀愚 says:

    Hello Rae and welcome. Omamori don’t exactly work that way. They are charms intended for more mundane worldly benefits and Shinto in particular avoids anything to do with death. So I don’t believe such omamori would exist.

  9. luminary says:

    Doug, how do you dispose the amulet? Just go the shire and ask the shrine maiden/priest there? I go mine last July in Meiji Shrine and Todaiji, and are planning to go there next year.

  10. Doug 陀愚 says:

    Hi luminary and welcome,

    At the end of the year, temples and shrines will collect any such amulets and ritually burn then for you. Doesn’t have to be the temple or shrine either.

  11. luminary says:

    Oh I see, too bad I could only visit during summer. Is it fine if I just leave the Omamori at the temple?

  12. Doug 陀愚 says:

    I’d ask the temple staff about it.

  13. johnl says:

    Many (most?) temples have a box or a place to return any amulets, regardless of where they are from. It is customary to make a donation (any amount whatsoever). Or, at a small temple that doesn’t have a return box, just ask anyone (and don’t forget the donation).

  14. luminary says:

    Alright, thank you, I’ll look for something like that, the next time I visit.

  15. Betty Ganeko says:

    Hi my name is Betty. My son who is in college now lost his omamori he bought at Todaiji in Nara when we went this past April. It was the purple one just like yours and it was for education. He feels lost without it and would like to have a new one asap. Is there any way we can get another one by mail. I live in LosAngeles.

  16. Doug 陀愚 says:

    Hello and welcome,

    I don’t think shrines and temples in Japan usually do mail-order omamori. You might ask Tsubaki Shrine here in Seattle though since they’re in the US.

    Good luck

  17. Emily says:

    This is for Betty Ganeko, but I’m not sure I’m doing this right for it to show up as a reply. This is totally random, but I found this blog in searching for Omamori translations to prep for my trip to Japan (so I actually know what they mean this time around). I’m leaving to go to Japan next week, and I plan on visiting Nara – I can see if they still have that omamori and pick one up for you and mail it over if you want. It’s kind of a random offer from an internet stranger, but since it looks like you just posted the question a few days ago I’m guessing you’re still looking. I was crushed when I lost my prayer beads from Kiyomizu-dera from my last visit, so I understand the impulse to scour the internet for a way to order new ones :) Let me know.

  18. Briaunna says:

    I just visited the Tsubaki shrine with some friends recently and got a couple omamori there, as well as an ofuda. I got mine for protection from evil spirits and for recovery from sickness. So far, they work pretty well! I’m not sure if that’s due to the omamori or what, but as long as I’m feeling better and not experiencing cold spots and other activity, I’m happy! Thank you for explaining how the charms work. I feel a bit better about using them now that I know better how they work and what they represent.

  19. ACE KyoUno says:

    Good day. What a nice article you have there! Thanks for information.
    I have another question on topic.
    Uh, I have lost my gakugyou omamori from Toshogu shrine… I really wish I hadn’t. It’s not the thing I wasn’t careful with it, perhaps, even visa versa. I have been checking it every now and then, and – alas! – it is gone!
    So, could you tell me is it really bad from my side?

  20. Hi Ace and welcome to the JKLLR!

    If you lose an omamori, I would not worry. It happens to people all the time. You might not get the protection of the omamori anymore, but you certainly will not be punished or anything.

    On the other hand, if the migawari thing is true, then perhaps the omamori protected you from bad luck, and thus got lost.

    Something similar happened to me once. I bought a nice, new omamori in Japan at Kawasaki Daishi, but a few days later, it broke. Earlier that day, my family and I were eating outdoors and a pile of heavy boxes almost fell on my daughter, but I caught them just in time. Sometimes, I think the broken omamori had protected by daughter. :-/

  21. Pau Fexas says:

    Hi, I enjoyed your article. I was wondering if you could help me. I am making a painting for a friend and wanted to incorporate some Japanese prayers and symbols of good luck since he does not have a specific religion but respects a variety of them, Shintoism and Buddhism fit in with his way of thought along with the fact that I have studied some Japanese and can write it fair enough (and have always liked their writing system). I can write katakana and hiragana copy kanji no problem (even if I don’t know more than 250 kanji and that on a good day). Well, it was on my search for some that I came across your article so question is whether you know of where I might find some (online) or if it’s not too much trouble if you might know some. Thanks in advance for any help you might be able to provide.

  22. Hi Pau Fexas and welcome to the JKLLR.

    I thought about your question a bit and it’s a bit hard to answer. Unlike Western religions, there isn’t necessarily a set symbol or fixed prayer like the Lord’s Prayer. This is doubly true in Shinto.

    However at least in the case of Buddhism you can try to copy an excerpt from a sutra (a Buddhist text) since they often use Chinese or Sanskrit. Above you can look in the Buddhists’ Field Manual for sutras, particularly the Heart Sutra which is pretty well-known. Failing that, maybe a mantra perhaps?

    I have a version on this blog that includes the Chinese characters and probably would be suitable.

    Good luck.

  23. Alex says:

    Just wondering if anything strange happened after you opened the amulet?

  24. Hi Alex and welcome.

    Nope, nothing happened.

  25. David says:

    For Betty Ganeko. If you live in Los Angeles, the Koyasan Buddhist Temple in Little Tokyo sells omamori. You can get them (and recycle them) there.

  26. Will says:

    Old article, but I found some really well-crafted, customized zen charms on this Etsy website: http://www.zencharms.com/ – thought I’d share :)

  27. Ann Kim says:

    Hello! I found this very informative! I have been to Japan twice and visited temples. The only thing I have tried and it was during the new year was the Omikuji. I forgot about the Omamori!
    I’ll probably be going back on the first quarter next year and want to get some omamori for myself and my family. I notice that these are written in Japanese, and I’m not so good in reading Kanji yet, so is there by chance there are translations in the temple/shrine? Or can we ask the one in-charge? And how much do they normally cost?
    I might be going to Meiji or the one in Ueno.

  28. Doug says:

    Hi Ann and welcome. Usually they don’t have translations, but often at major sites the temple or shrine will have explanations of what each charm does in English. It’s not a literal 1:1 translation but it does ensure you don’t buy the wrong charm. I’ve done that once (young ladies charm for falling in love).

    Good luck!

  29. Benkaiser says:

    Hi

    Great informative piece! I just returned from Japan and bought a few omamori from various temples. I don’t have any plans to return to Japan next year or the foreseeble future so the question is what do I do with them next year? Can I still keep them or just put them aside?

    Looking forward to your response!

    Cheers

  30. Doug says:

    Hello Benkaiser,

    I am so sorry for replying late. This one fell through the cracks, no excuses. I’ve been in the same boat where I couldn’t return omamori in a timely manner. You can keep it if you like, there’s nothing really harmful about it especially since you’re not in a position to properly return it.

    However, I do know that Tsubaki Grand Shrine of America will take and respectfully dispose of omamori for a small fee I think. So, if you want to do the “Japanese thing”, you can reach out to them and inquire. I’ve talked with them in the past and they’re a friendly shrine and would be happy to assist.

    Hope that helps. :)

  31. grapiel says:

    Hi, thanks for this post, really help because I’m doing some research about omamori right now :)
    But, can I ask you something? Are we only can find omamori on the shrine or temple? Can we find it on other store ? Really happy if you can answer my question.
    Thank you :)

  32. Doug says:

    Hello,

    No, omamori are usually sold in shrines and temples only.

  33. Yazira says:

    Hi there Doug….

    Loved you blog post but are there any omamori’s for ill relatives, for helping me reapir my health and possible an omamori to help me attract the love of a specific shy guy??

    And I live in New York so how do I get my hands on one of each of my specific intentions I’ve mentioned above??

    I found this website/link http://kagura-se.com/products/omamori.html#
    that sends away for omamori charms for you and they mail you back one but not sure if they do it for a small fee or not? Or if this is legitimate?

    Thanks for answering my questions when you can Doug.

  34. Julian says:

    Hi i recently got one is it ok to keep an omamori forever? I dont’t want to throw mines away or return it.

  35. Doug says:

    Sure you can do that. It’s a personal choice.

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