Vegder's Blog

August 30, 2015

The 7 Propitious Gods: Ebisu/The Leech-child – 恵比寿 or 恵比須 or 戎 or 夷 or 蛭子

I don’t know about you, but just the mention of leeches gives me the creeps. It is something visceral – with me at least. That said, a person can’t spend any time studying the nature of the god Ebisu without talking about leeches. However, if I started off with those disgusting bloodsuckers then I might lose you forever. So, instead, let’s look at a few other representations of this particular lucky god before we deal the the darker elements. Some of the images are so lighthearted it will be hard to see Ebisu as anything other than benign at the least. A good place to begin is with one of my favorite depictions of him, a print by Kunisada, ca. 1810, at the very beginning of his very long and productive career. It even gives us a sense of how great this artist was going to be.

Mead_Kunisada_Ebisu_tai_7b   Mead Art Museum, Amherst College

Leaving aside his birth for the moment, let’s look at several versions of Ebisu as a child and children as Ebisu 

Oberlin_Shigemasa_Boy_as_Ebisu_7b   Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College – Kitao Shigemasa, ca. 1770s-80s

Kumon_Eizan_Ebisu_child_7c   Kumon Institute of Education – Kikugawa Eizan

Ebisu as a god and a protector

It says in The Sociology of Japanese Religion that “…it is Ebisu-gami (god of wealth) that is most deeply concerned with fishermen among fishing gods. Ebisu-gami is, as I have already mentioned, widely enshrined in Japanese households no matter what their occupations, and is especially popular as a fishing god among fishermen. Usually he is enshrined in a small shrine built at the harbour entrance or at the top of a headland. Before a fishing boat with a large catch enters the harbour, its fishermen pay homage to this god, called Ebisu-mairi. Fishermen of a bonito boat slice a bonito for sashimi (edible raw fish) and offer it as hatsu-ho (first catch) to Ebisu. Then, they bring the hatsu-ho back to their home and share it among their families.”

Ebisu-gami was originally worshiped by fishermen and their communities to bring abundance from the sea, but eventually this god became more generally identified with abundance itself in any form. His believers could only benefit from their devotion to him – at least, in principle that was the idea.

VMFA_Hasui_Gosho_ningyo_Ebisu_tai_toy   Virginia Museum of Fine Arts – 1935 Hasui gosho-ningyo of boy as Ebisu with toy tai float

Ebisu was first seen as a god for fishermen, most likely, during the Heian period (794-1185). He was not only their protector, but was supposed to bring them luck at sea. The main shrine was and is at Nishinomiya near Osaka. By the Middle Ages his protection had extended to the Inland Sea and shell-gatherers everywhere. Soon he was protecting market places and was seen as a major benefactor of commerce, in general. Itsukushima, which I have written about elsewhere, came to represent him as did many other shrines and temples.

Stand-ins for Ebisu

There is a category of Japanese woodblock prints called mitate. I won’t go into a discussion of what that word means – it seems to mean different things to different people – but… I will give a couple of examples here – loosely interpreted. First is a print by Nagahide from 1814 showing Miyagiku of the Kyō Izutsuya as a Fashionable Female Ebisu. Notice that while Miyagiku is wearing Ebisu’s hat and carrying his fishing rod, the tai is part of the decoration of her robe. It definitely seems to be looking up at her. Why? Your guess is as good as mine. Maybe better.


Ebisu as a calendar print and then again not as a calendar print – There is a 1765 Harunobu print in the Tokyo National Museum, a mitate or representation, of a young man posed as Ebisu with his fishing rod and hooked red tai, only as a toy – it has wheels. How do we know it is a calendar print? According to David Waterhouse, a brilliant contributor to the field of ukiyo scholarship, “The shape of the toy fish incorporates the characters dai (large), 2, 3, 5, 6, 8, 10 and there is a seal…” probably of the person who commissioned the print. The young man’s robe is decorated with toy boats, boats being another image commonly link to this god of fishing and prosperity.

Waterhouse goes on to tell us that this print is probably the right-hand panel of a diptych. On the left would be a young woman as a stand-in for the god Daikoku. That one too is a calendar print for 1765. Waterhouse also notes that there is only one other known copy of the print being shown here and it is in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. However, that one appears to be from a different printing where some of the emphasis on the calendar months are not as apparent.

TNM_Ebisu_mitate_7b   Tokyo National Museum   TNM_Ebisu_mitate_7_fish_toy_detail_2   The numbers and character for dai to be searched out on the fish are 大 (just behind the gills), 二, 三 (the gill slits), 五 (right above the back wheel), 八 (the lines above and below the eye?) and 十.

Money makes the world go round, the world go round, the world go round: Ebisu and commerce

Ebisu and the New Year’s connection 

BM_ToriI_Kiyomine_Ebisu_writing_'Good_luck'_at_New_Years_7b   British Museum – Ebisu writing the characater for ‘good luck’ surrounded by New Year’s symbols – The print is by Torii Kiyomine.

MFA_An_Expensive_Feast_Utamaro_Ebisu_7b – This Utamaro print is from a series of the gods and courtesans. This one is referred to as ‘An Expensive Feast’ celebrating a prosperous New Year.

In The Life of an Amorous Man Ihara Saikaku (井原西鶴: 1641-1693) notes that all debts are to be paid off “…on the last day of the year, and there is nothing so excruciatingly damaging to one’s dignity and peace of mind as one’s inability to pay them.” His protagonist hides out on the day before the New Year. He can’t pay. He is frightened by the sound of everyone who comes to his door. But if he can’t just get through to the next day this kind of thing won’t happen again for another year. Of course, he will have to live with the shame of it, but at least he will be off the hook until then.

Then the New Year dawned quietly and brilliantly.
Soon on the street below, hawkers were crying their
wares: “Fans for sale! Fans for the New Year!” “Ebisu

pictures! Get your pictures of the god of wealth for the
New Year!

Ebisu as a Manzai dancer – Manzai dancers would go house to house at New Year’s performing with the belief that this would bring good luck. They were paid with rice or money.

in the mountain village
Manzai dancers are late –
plum blossoms


Below is another great print from the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. It shows Ebisu and Daikoku performing a Manzai (万歳)* dance for a beautiful woman. There is something very curious about this elegant Utamaro print. Notice the difference between the strongly-inked printing of the woman and New Year’s symbols seen slightly behind her and the much more delicately-inked figures of these lucky gods who are performing for her. Are they really there?… incarnate?… or are they meant to represent something more spiritual which can only be sensed by those they serve? Just wondering. Great print!

*The term 万歳 might literally be translated as “a 10,000 year event.” Like the character manji (卍), the swastika, which also represents the number ‘10,000’ – in the loosest sense, is meant as a symbol of longevity combined with happiness. Manzai may have started in Japan in the 8th century and may have originated in China. Of the two characters, one plays the straight man, the tsukkomi (突っ込み), and the other the fool or goofball, the boke (惚け), if you like. Their banter is often witty and amusing. By the 17th century they were referred to as tayu and saizo. The tayu is the one with the fan which he uses to convey different parts of a story. Today, “The tsukkomi… often slaps the boke‘s head with his fan. The Japanese find this very funny and the audience frequently bursts out in laughter.”


The Festival of Ebisu held in the Tenth Month, the Ebisu kō (恵比寿講) – These days there are two festivals devoted to Ebisu. The first is on January 10th and the second on October 20th.

An early 18th century example of this sub-genre can be seen in a Masanobu print from ca. 1711-16. Notice that it is hand-colored and predates the nishiki-e or brocade prints, i.e., colored prints produced with multiple blocks, introduced about 50 years later.


Below are two example in Japanese woodblock prints of the celebration. The first is by Eishō from ca. 1797 and shows only the center and right panels of a triptych. I chose to show it rather than the full composition, because the colors are so great and the other example I could find just don’t compare. The second example is a much more whimsical giga print by Toyokuni I and was produced about 15 years later in 1811. The first one is from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and the second is from the National Diet Library, Tokyo.

MFA_Ebisu_Festival_2_panels_of_3_Eisho_7c – notice the Ebisu altar in the back and the woman holding the red tai

NDL_October_Ebisu_festival_7   National Diet Library – notice the tai and the abacus

But the term Ebisu kō also has a second meaning: “One concerns the meetings of merchants and craftsmen concerned with the same product. They not only facilitated the celebration of worship but also provided an opportunity for making fruitful contacts.”

As if leeches weren’t bad enough, there is also an Ebisu sōōmallpox connection – Prints produced in red were used as amulets to protect households and especially their children from smallpox. The print by Tozando Suryo – a name I am completely ignorant of – shown below is probably one such example. Remember that when it was originally printed it would have been much redder than it is now. It shows Ebisu, his tai dangling from his fishing line, atop a float. Two children seen to be either clambering onto it or directing it. Probably mid-18th century.

BM_Suryo_Ebisu_float_with_children_8b   British Museum

What is with the fish? The fish is a red tai (鯛), Pagrus major, is also known as red snapper.


Robbie Swinnerton wrote in the Japan Times on January 6, 2012:

Few [foods] are more auspicious, or supremely delicious, than madai, known in English variously as sea bream or red snapper.

More often simply called tai, this is the fish you see depicted under the arm of the deity Ebisu (most visibly on the labels of
Yebisu beer). It’s an essential course at wedding banquets and other felicitous occasions. Partly this is due to its hue, red being
the color of good fortune; partly because the word “tai” is thought of as a contraction of medetai (“celebratory”).

Swinnerton goes on to say that the best madai caught in Japan come from the Naruto Strait with its turbulent, roiling waters filled with “violent eddies and whirlpools. The fish caught there are considered the best in Japan.” By itself “The texture is full and firm. The taste is mild, not at all oily and with a light, underlying sweetness.”

NDL_Naruto_Whirlpools_Hiroshige_7b   National Diet Library – Hiroshige’s Awa Province: Naruto Whirlpools from 1855

Let’s think about the term Pagrus major for a second 

I don’t know about you, but whenever I run across a term, a word, a name I don’t know, I always see it as a challenge, a door which needs to be opened, unlocked or forced. Sometimes this feels like Kafka’s parable “Before the Law“. This happens all of the time – especially whenever the taxonomy of a plant or creature (or mineral) is involved: animal, mineral or vegetable. Latin, Greek, chemistry… I live in ignorance. I chip away at it, but sometimes it feels like digging a hold in the sand on a beach. The more I did, the more collapses in on me. This may be why I get so many things wrong and always have to revisit my mistakes. That said: Where in the hell does Pagrus major come from?

Let’s go back to the time of Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) and his use of the term φάγρος. Georges Cuvier (1769-1832) said that what Aristotle was talking about was the “…the pagri or pageau, the fragolino, &c. names of a fish of a red silvery hue…” Linnæus (1707-78) had his Sparus pagrus. Of course there are others: Ovid, Oppian, Athenæus, et al. Somehow, no matter how divergent the spellings, there is a thread in there somewhere. Then in 1843 Temminck and Schlegel named the Pagrus major.

Then there is the Pagrus pagrus, the ordinary sea bream, named by Linnæus in 1758. How did I find this? I was looking up the word ‘braize’ which it turns out is the Pagrus vulgaris. Sheesh!

In 1908 William George Ridewood wrote in  a British Museum publication that “Another species of Pagrus is the famous Red Tai (Pagrus major) of Japan, a crimson fish which is as much a national emblem of that land as the rising sun and the chrysanthemum.”

Fishermen fix fish – Recently I bought and read a book by Eric C. Rath called Food and Fantasy in Early Modern Japap. He is an assistant professor of Japanese history at the University of Kansas, a school I know well. One of the things which I learned from this book was the nature of ceremonial food preparation. Often as ritual foods were selected and elaborately prepared and then never touched or eaten. There is one section of Rath’s book entitled “The Emperor’s Uneaten Breakfast”.

Every morning in the early modern period, following a custom that began before the mid-sixteenth century and lasted until 1868,
a man named Kawabata Dōki brought the emperor a breakfast that the emperor would not eat

This family never charged for the breakfasts, but they did seem to do a lucrative business supplying other foodstuff to the Imperial court. But it was the ceremonial aspect which was held in the highest esteem. The Kawabata family even had their own entrance way into the royal grounds, the Dōki Gate. Every morning Dōki would deliver the breakfast, the emperor would come in, look at it, and leave. Wow!

Even the preparation was ritualistic. The way the knives were handled, the knives which were chosen, the placement of the food, the display afterwards. Everything about the process was for show. The reason I mention this is because quite a few prints of Ebisu preparing fish seems caught up in this mystic. Not only that, but the kind of fish seems to have been a point of curiosity for Japanese artists. It wasn’t always the ubiquitous red tai. And since it wasn’t always a red tai, then, I guess, you would have to say, it wasn’t really ubiquitous. Below I am posting a number of this pictures. They remain a total mystery to me. Perhaps there are scholars who could delve into their true significance.

Harvard_Utamaro_Ebisu_preparing_tai_7b   Harvard Art Museums – Utamaro of Ebisu preparing a red tai

MFA_Hokuju_Ebisu_preparing_fugu_7b – Hokuju of Ebisu preparing a fugu or blowfish

LOC_Ebisu_catfish_7b   Library of Congress – anonymous – notice the smile on Ebisu’s face as he is about to cut into a catfish

What does the typical sea bream dream about?

LOC_Toyohiro_bream_Ebisu_dream_7b   Library of Congress – Toyohiro print of Ebisu counting his money. What does Ebisu dream about? Same thing probably.

Ebisu, the giant catfish and the great quake of ’55  – At about 10 PM on the 2nd day of the 10th Month* there was a horrific earthquake in Edo. It was strong, but not inordinately strong. But it must have been shallow enough to cause a huge amount of damage and a large, unmanageable fire. Approximately 7 to 10,000 people died and 14,000 structures were destroyed. Naturally the Edoites needed to blame this catastrophe on something and that something was the giant catfish or namazu that lived underground. The catfish’s head was located directly below something called the ‘pivot rock’ or kaname-ishi. Normally this rock was guarded by one of the more important gods, Kashima (鹿島), whose job it was to protect this area against such catastrophes. However, Kashima and all of the other important gods of Japan would travel every year during the 10th Month to Ise, a sort of sabbatical from their normal responsibilities. In fact this was known as the month without gods. According to some accounts Ebisu was supposed to keep an eye on things for Kashima, things like that rambunctious catfish. Ebisu was the temporary rusugami (留守神) or caretaker god. Ooops!

*A note on the date shown above, the 2nd day of the 10th Month: Despite what most Westerners would think, that date does NOT mean October 2, 1855. Actually by modern calculations, the date was November 11th.

MFA_Ebisu_begging_forgiveness_for_the_catfish_7b – Print by an unknown artist ca. 1855 or 56 showing Ebisu begging forgiveness for the damages done by the catfish in the Edo quake of 1855  – 恵比寿天申訳之記. Notice that the fish in the robe with the staff keeping order is Ebisu’s tai.

Just so you know, most earthquake/catfish prints don’t include Ebisu – Take, for example, the print shown below. First you need to know that I can’t read the text. So, I will have to speculate what it means. I will have to make up a story until I learn otherwise. My interpretation: the catfish which caused all of the damage – notice the building left in shambles in the lower right -is ordering the wealthy victims to vomit and excrete money that will be needed for reconstruction.

NDL_namazu_shitting_puking_money_ca.1855_7b   National Diet Library

An aside: I can’t help think of Geoffrey Chaucer’s line from his prologue to the Canterbury Tales and how shocked and startled I was by reading it: “A shitten shepherd and a clene sheepe”. That was written in ca. 1386 in England – more than 530 years before the big shake in Edo. [The double ‘t’ may come from a 1508 printing of this tale.]

And here is a picture of both Kashima subduing the giant catfish and an inset showing the sacred ground with the ‘pivot rock’ in its sanctified enclosure. I found this at commons.wikimedia.


So, where does all that money needed for rebuilding come from? Trees, of course! Money trees!

MFA_Anonymous_earthquake_fire_Ebisu_Daikoku_money_tree_7b – This anonymous money-tree or kane no naruki (金のなる木) print is entitled ‘Earthquake’ (大震) and ‘Fire’ (出火) – Daisin shukka. Instead of showing the typical pairing of Daikoku, sitting on his bales of rice, and Ebisu, holding his fishing rod and paired with the red tai, is another figure which may well represent Bishamon, another of the 7 Propitious Gods, who not only represents war, but also financial success.

A more traditional money-tree

Database_Folklore_Ebisu_Daikoku_Kunimasa_money_tree_7b   Database of Folklore Illustrations – Utagawa Kunimasa print of Daikoku and Ebisu and their traditional money-tree.

But if you want true wealth, then hang with any or all of the propitious gods – it can’t hurt

Database_Folklore_Kunitoshi_7_gods_riches_7d   Database of Folklore Illustrations – Kunitoshi triptych showing all of the gods frolicking with their riches.

There were Ebisu temples all over Japan 

Since Ebisu was a god of prosperity and wealth there were lots of temples devoted to him for the hopeful and the greedy. Below is an photo from the Smithsonian showing the ‘Yebisu Temple in Nagasaki. It was produced sometime between ca. 1860 to 1900. I chose it not only because I find it charming, but also because we know how well all that praying turned out.

Yebisu_Nagasaki_Temple_ca1860_to_1900_7b   Freer/Sackler Galleries

Here is another view of that temple as seen in a postcard from the Meiji era. It too is hand-tinted.


Ebisu temples had other functions: Women wanting to give birth to a healthy child would pray to Ebisu. Women wanting to get pregnant and then giving birth to a healthy child would also pray there. And women who had had miscarriages would pray for the soul of their lost child.

Keeping up with the times – Ebisu would be taking selfies – The contemporary Ebisu probably has Facebook and Twitter accounts. How do I know? Because as recently as the early 20th century he was making business calls using that new-fangled telephone. The proof is seen below.

MFA_Ebisu_doing_business_over_the_phone_7b – This postcard has a 1909 cancellation mark.

What does Humphey Bogart have to do with Ebisu? Just wait… I’ll tell you later.


Here is a clue.

Pinterest_African_Queen_Bogart_Hepburn_7b   Shot from the African Queen found at Pinterest

***Please note that today is August 30, 2015 and I have just started this post. There will be much more to come in both pictures and words in the next few weeks. So, please come back often to see what has been added.

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