Health-Related Votive Tablets from Japan

Ema for Healing and Well-Being

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Peter A. G. M. de Smet, Ian Reader
  • Chicago, IL: 
    Leiden University Press
    , May
     192 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Compiled as a catalog for an exhibition at the Japan Museum SieboldHuis, Leiden, this book presents over three hundred color photos of votive tablets (ema) relating to health and healing. As the bilingual “Introduction” (15-37) and “Commentary” (209-217) explain, Japanese Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines have displayed votive tablets dedicated by people visiting these places in search of good health, prosperity, well-being, success in business, and healing from illness since ancient times. In some cases, ema may be large, framed wooden panels hung prominently from the eaves of worship halls, works which a donor commissioned to be professionally painted and ceremonially dedicated. More frequently, particularly in contemporary Japan, ema are small, pentagonal wooden tablets around five inches wide and six inches tall at their peaks. One side is painted in patterns distinctive to the particular site, while the obverse is left blank. Visitors to temples and shrines may purchase ema, writing a prayer and recording their names. The completed tablets are generally hung on racks in a public space within a temple or shrine, and other visitors are usually at liberty to read those written by others. Ema are sold throughout the year, but New Year’s is a time of particular significance, as is the school examination season. As the book notes, ema expressing the hope to pass a school or university entrance examination are perhaps the most frequent type. 

The painted surface of health-related ema illustrate the purpose of each type. To name only a few motifs, an anchor figures in ema connected with dental problems, expressing the hope that one’s teeth would be strong enough to lift an anchor (127). Ema for hemorrhoids have pictures of red stingrays, the red color connoting inflammation, while the choice of a stingray suggests the intense pain caused by its stinger (143). The octopus appears in connection to a variety of illnesses, based on several legends relating it to the healing Buddha, Yakushi Nyorai (131, 183). In ema concerned with the desire for children, abundant breast milk, and other fertility-related matters, long-stalked mushrooms become phallic symbols, and large breasts may be painted on ema or conical shapes representing them can be attached to ema (79, 93, 123, 191)Slippery eels are found on ema inscribed with prayers for safe childbirth, based on an association between slipperiness and the desired easy release of the baby from the womb, and the fact that eels bear a huge quantity of eggs (86-87).

While the book’s title suggests that only ema relating to health would be included, in fact the volume includes helpful material introducing the subject more broadly, such as an overview of historical ema practices, continuity and change in the focus of ema and particular religious institutions as they strive to respond to devotees’ changing health concerns, and the means by which devotees locate a temple or shrine specializing in their particular concerns. In the pre-Internet age, people might have consulted printed guides to temples and shrines that identified the maladies to be addressed by the resident supernaturals, but nowadays websites have supplanted printed guidebooks (37). The diseases and health conditions most frequently addressed by ema have changed over time, as cancer has replaced earlier concerns with tuberculosis and trachoma, for example. The aging of Japanese society has likewise produced a new concern—the hope of preventing dementia—and now many temples, shrines, and their ema address that anxiety (166-67). It is particularly notable that drug companies are sometimes found sponsoring ema dealing with the diseases or disorders for which they sell specific medicines (169).

A close relation between religion and the arts has been a hallmark of Japanese religions since earliest times. This richly illustrated book addresses a folk form of religious devotion in artistic form that is accessible to all. Devotees’ written prayers offer many insights into the religious aspirations of Japanese society today, even as a declining proportion of the population maintains any formal religious affiliation. While this book does not present an in-depth analysis of all health-related ema throughout history, its “Reading Guide” (37) and references provide ample resources for those hoping to pursue the subject further.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Helen Hardacre is Reischauer Institute Professor of Japanese Religions and Society at Harvard University.

Date of Review: 
August 23, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Peter A. G. M. de Smet is a scientific adviser to the Royal Dutch Pharmaceutical Association in The Hague and professor of the quality of pharmaceutical care at Radboud University.

Ian Reader is professor emeritus and former head of Japanese studies at the University of Manchester.


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