'Ema': Japan’s Tradition of Votive Prayer Plaques

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Visitors to Japan’s shrines and temples cannot miss the hundreds of wooden votive plaques hanging on stands in a reserved area outside on the shrine grounds. On one side of the plaques are prayers inscribed by other visitors—for good health, protection from injury, or success in exams—offered up to the kami, or higher being, who is believed to reside in the shrine. On the other side are colorful images of the main deity of the shrine or the zodiac animal of the current year. At shrines to the Harvest God, Inari, ema decorated with foxes, considered Inari’s messenger and protector of the rice crop, are inscribed with prayers for successful harvests and wealth in general. At the shrines of Tenjin, thekami of learning, high school students scribble desperate prayers for success in university entrance exams on ema decorated with Tenjin’s symbol, the bull.
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Fox ema, Inari Shrine, Ueno Park, Tokyo, Japan. Photograph by Meher McArthur.
Centuries ago, ema evolved within the native belief system known as Shinto, the “Way of the Kami.” However, because of the syncretism that has long characterized Japanese spiritual expression, the Japanese are just as likely to offer their prayers on ema to a Buddhist deity as to a Shinto kami, and sometimes they do both. At Buddhist temples, ema are typically decorated with the image of the principal deity of the temple, perhaps the Buddha Amida (Skt. Amitabha or Amitayus) or the bodhisattva Jizo (Skt. Kshitigarbha). In both religious contexts, these colorful plaques have long given Japanese worshippers a way to directly and very specifically petition deities for help in times of distress.
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Votive Plaque (ema) depicting a sacred horse, Japan. 19th century, painted cryptomeria wood. H: 11 in. W: 13.75 in. D: 0.5 in. (H: 27.94 cm. W: 34.93 cm. D: 1.27 cm.). Gift of Marsha Serisawa in memory of Sueo Serisawa. Image Courtesy of Mingei International Museum, 2005-25-002.

Ema originally had a very specific purpose. The word literally means “picture [of a] horse,” and the first ema were supposedly painted pictures of horses offered to shrines instead of real horses. According to tradition, one of Japan’s first emperors made donations of horses to Kibune Shrine in Kyoto in order to either start or end the rain: in rainy years, he donated a white horse as a prayer to stop the rain, and in years of drought, a black horse as a prayer to bring the rain. In time the tradition evolved, with donors replacing real horses with less expensive statues, and in the early 11th century, with horse paintings instead. The earliest true “picture horse” was apparently presented along with a horse statue by a courtier to the shrine of Hachiman, the Shinto god of war.
For the next few centuries, ema were painted on wood and were fairly large, sometimes measuring 3 feet in width. These O-ema, or large ema, were often commissioned from well-known artists. When they were donated to a shrine, they were mounted on the walls of the main hall and preserved as shrine treasures. They were also offered to Buddhist temples, as in the case of an ema in the collection of the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, which features a mythical Chinese lion, or karashishi, with King Udayana (J. Utenno). The lion is the mount of the Buddhist deity Manjushri (J. Monju), the bodhisattva of wisdom, and Udayana is one of Manjushri’s four attendants. Presumably, this large ema was offered to a temple as a prayer to the wise Manjushri to help resolve a particularly difficult situation.
Although large ema were made until the 19th century, they were eclipsed during the Edo period (1603–1868) by the smaller wooden plaques we see today. At that time, more ordinary people were traveling around the country, often to visit shrines and temples. They couldn’t afford to make large, expensive offerings, so the shrines provided small wooden votive plaques shaped like houses (or perhaps stables?) and hand painted by artists either working at or for the shrines. The paintings on these ema are rendered in vivid mineral pigments, and as they were produced in large numbers, their style is highly abbreviated. Typically, the plaques were destroyed by the shrine’s priests in ritual fires at the end of each year, but the few that have survived reveal many traditional beliefs and are often very creative in their visualizations of prayers.
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Votive plaque (ema), Tokyo, Japan. Late 19th-early 20th century, wood and paint.
H: 6.1 in. W: 10 in. D: 0.71 in. (H: 15.5 cm. W: 25.4 cm. D: 1.8 cm.). Fowler Museum at UCLA. Gift of Dr. Daniel C. Holtom. X89.821.

Particular physical ailments were suggested by images of certain animals; for example catfish represented leucoderma (white patches the skin), as the Japanese word namazu means both catfish and leucoderma. In a similar play on words, a stingray represented hemorrhoids, while eels, known to be slippery, symbolized easy childbirth, and the octopus, with its many tiny suckers, signified a prayer to remove warts. Images of people also stood for various physical and psychological problems. Bare-breasted women, often squeezing out milk, represented a prayer for help with breastfeeding. One of the most surprising images is that of a man and woman standing with their backs to each other and separated by a tree. The tree depicted is the enkiri enoki (the Chinese nettle tree, which severs connections between people). The prayer offered might have come from a husband or wife who wanted a divorce, but it could also have been from a lover who sought to break up their relationship, the case for an example of this type in the collection of the Fowler Museum at UCLA.

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Ema, Zenko-ji, Nagano, Japan. From Flickr.com.
Most prayers offered via ema at Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples are prayers for solutions to problems like illness, injury, addiction, poverty, even dieting. Once, when I was attending a conference in Nagano, I was feeling lonely. The temple Zenko-ji was near the hotel, so I wandered over to see its famous large statues of six seated Jizos, which are believed to be able to save beings in any of the Six Realms of Rebirth. However, it wasn’t the Jizos that helped me overcome my loneliness, but the ema that were hung in a corner of the temple. I stopped and read some of the prayers—for a family member’s recovery from cancer, for success in an important exam, for a bigger salary—and started to feel a connection to the people whose prayers I was reading. These small votive plaques had always interested me as an art historian; now, they were speaking to me as a human being. 

Source: newlotus.buddhistdoor.com (Dec. 12, 2014)