The Japan Italy Bridge column continues to promote in-depth studies related to the world of Japan, today we talk about the Ema Tablets that we find in all the temples of Japan.

Raise your hand if you’ve never seen these curious wooden plates in an anime. Perhaps in a Shinto shrine, with a miko – the priestess dressed in red and white – going about her business. In any case, whether you’ve seen them before or not, today you can find out more.

Ema 絵馬 Japanese wooden votive tablets

Guest Author: Flavia

Translated as ‘Horse Representation’, Ema’s are flat plaques designed to transcribe wishes and fears to be addressed to gods/spirits (kami) and buddhas. In other words, they represent a way for people to write a little message to the spiritual world. Formerly made of clay, they later began to be made of wood. Once a prayer has been written, the Ema is hung in a dedicated space at Shinto shrines as well as Buddhist temples. It is in fact a custom of Shinto origin that later spread to temples. Since they are all displayed together ‘publicly’, anyone can of course take a peek at them (it is important that the kami do the same).

However, it is also possible to keep them for oneself, as an heirloom. The great variety of representations, colours and styles that characterise them has always attracted the curiosity of folklorists. Together with the inscriptions on them, they represent a veritable prism through which a wide range of life stories are presented to us. A cross-section of spirituality that can show us the different colours of Japanese reality.

Ema are not the only religious objects designed to ‘operate’ in this sense, but they are perhaps the most widespread and can be found just about everywhere. The fact that they can be left in place distinguishes them from other religious objects such as Fuda (札) and O-Mamori (お守り). With an average width of 15 cm and a height of 9 cm, they can be very varied in size, shape and colour.

ema

photo credits: sharing-kyoto.com/

The themes depicted can range from the following:

  • the kami/buddha to whom the shrine or temple is dedicated (there may even be tablets depicting Thomas Edison!)
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  • the specific benefits that kami (spirits/goddesses) and buddhas are empowered to bestow;
  • scenes on the origin and history of the place of worship;
  • religious or cultural objects, such as zodiac animals of Chinese origin (some shrines are specifically dedicated to an animal-sign of the zodiac)

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However, traditionally, particular importance is given to the representation of the horse, as suggested by the etymology of the name itself: e (絵) “image, drawing”, but (馬) “horse”.

Why the horse?

Short answer: because in ancient times people used to offer a horse to shrines and temples to obtain blessings and good luck. The figure of the ‘sacred horse’ still survives to this day, so much so that some religious centres use to keep one. And, if not in the flesh, in the form of a life-size model.

This sacredness of the horse originates from an ancient Shinto belief that saw the horse as an animal dear to the kami and as their messenger (although it is also important in Buddhism). One thing led to another, and so the horse quickly became a symbol carrying messages between the human world and the “other side”. Or the Higan (彼岸) as it is also called in the anime/manga Noragami. (Noragami is highly recommended if you are attracted to the ‘spiritual’ genre, so to speak. Even through the author’s fictional interpretation, it gives you a religious insight into Japan, and renders very well the relationship of the Japanese with spirituality).

Anyway, having established that our horse was considered special, the idea was to invoke a ‘hand from heaven’ in troublesome situations or events. For example, in times of drought they hoped for some rain (black horse) or, if not, for it to stop raining (white horse). However, in ancient times only a few people could afford to give a horse away easily. The majority of people tried to hold on to them as a valuable animal for their livelihood. Moreover, as the academic Ian Reader notes, such offerings could also prove costly for the temples if, at every prayer of some rich lord, they found themselves with a horse each time, which rightly had to be maintained, with the expense that this entailed.

ema

photo credits: japan-photo.de

It was in response to these contingent problems that the idea of depicting the horse began to emerge. Instead of using the animal in the flesh, why not make ‘e-ma’ (‘horse-image’) instead? An affordable solution, accessible to all.

Ema thus made their first appearance at the beginning of the 8th century (Nara period), while the first evidence comes to us from the mid-10th century (Heian period). The collection of Chinese poems and prose Honchō Bunsui or Monzui ( 本朝文粋 ) would be the very first work to mention the “ema”. Many others would follow, one of which was the Konjaku monogatari (今昔物語).

E-ma: the origins of the tablets

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Ema are said to have originated as a substitute for the horse in the act of conveying one’s prayers to the supreme otherworldly entities. Although some voices have been heard to the contrary of this general line. Another reading of the events would in fact have it that the plates took on the definition “ema”, simply because the horse design was more popular than other themes.

This is because the theme of the design changed depending on the request. Let’s say that the design of an Ema was that of a horse: the requesting party’s wish could concern the welfare of their horse (think of the case of the most humble, for whom such an animal was fundamental). If the wish did not concern a horse but, for example, a physical ailment, the design would depict the painful part of the body; and so on. So “ema” according to this view would not indicate that the tablets were given the same “agency” as the animal. Rather, it simply means that there were a lot of requests concerning horses, from which an extension of the designation would be triggered.

Another interpretation, however, emphasises that the sacredness of the horse is not a purely Shinto invention and that in Buddhism, too, the animal has its own significance. Thus, the origin of the Ema would perhaps be more to be found by looking back at the role of Buddhism, on which Japanese folk traditions draw extensively. In this regard, the scholar Gorai Shigeru saw a possible origin of the Ema in a particular folk custom, related to the Buddhist tradition O-Bon (お盆). This custom consists of carving horse forms from certain plants, again for votive purposes to the souls of the dead. Gorai seems to suggest that the origin of this custom may predate that attributed to the Ema or other similar forms of representation.

Both of these dissonant rumours about the origins of the Ema do not seem to be well supported by archaeology. In fact, the archaeological findings all seem to confirm the hypothesis of the need for an alternative means of transport to the horse, which at the same time ‘took its place’. Something equivalent, embodying its spirit, its symbol: its image.

tavolette ema

photo credits: shrine-temple-navi.jp

Ema as ‘living objects’

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The proof of this would come from the language itself. There are numerous ancient inscriptions on Ema that, from a linguistic point of view, unequivocally refer to the tablets as if they were talking about the horse itself. Let us look at some of them.

In the aforementioned Honchō Bunsui there is a reference to the Ema containing the symbol 匹 (“hiki”, “biki” or “piki”). Reporting from the Reader, the expression would be: “色紙絵馬三匹 “or” 3 coloured sheets of horse pictures”. Nowadays used as a counter for small animals, in Old Japanese the ideogram 匹 referred to stable animals, including horses. The combination of the word “ema” with this linguistic particle, whose function is to designate a living being, speaks volumes. Similar inscriptions have also been found in two shrines in Yamagata and Saitama, dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries. In this case, we find the ideogram 疋 instead of 匹, but the meaning and reading are the same. Again from Reader, it is: “shinme ippiki” (神馬一疋) and “ema ippiki” ” 絵馬一疋 “. That is, “a sacred horse” and “an image of a horse”.

However, although the hypothesis on the possible Buddhist origin of the tablets was not solid, Buddhism at least in retrospect is certainly present, given the Japanese syncretism. Among other things, in the temples, the Ema serve as a means of transmitting Buddhist religious doctrine, thus assuming a further function beyond that for which they were born. We are talking about those teachings about the importance of altruism or compassion (understood in Buddhism as ‘empathy’) or through images taken from stories about the Buddha. Although not entirely certain, it is estimated that the adoption of tablets by Buddhist temples began roughly between the 12th and 14th centuries (Kamakura period). Indeed, many of the Emaki – scroll artworks – of the period depict the Ema or horses themselves, both in Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples.

ema wood

photo credits: japan-photo.de

Wooden tablets as an art form

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Over the centuries, the designs of the Ema became more and more elaborate and varied, giving rise to a true folk art form. In particular, the Ō-ema (大絵馬), or “big ema”, proved to be an important step in the development of Japanese art. In fact, after the birth of the Ō-ema, several great Japanese artists would draw on the ema style.

Created between the 14th and 16th centuries (Muromachi period), these Ema were at least one metre in height and width. They were donated to temples and shrines as a sign of gratitude – even after the fact, not only at the time of the request – and were placed in special spaces, the Ema-dō (絵馬堂). The oldest Ema-dō seems to have been sponsored by none other than… Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 1606, for the Kitano shrine in Kyoto. Also in Kyoto, the famous Kiyomizu-dera (清水寺) has several Ō-ema, originally donated by merchants as thanks for the safe return of their trading ships.

The consequence of this artistic development was the emergence of a “caste” of artists specialised in ema painting, which flourished in the Edo or Tokugawa period. This period – of economic expansion, especially at the beginning – led to an increase in the demand for professionals, enabling them to make a living from producing small ema paintings alone.

photo credits: japan-photo.de

The Ema language: symbolism

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It was during this period that most of the symbols and themes reproduced on tablets originated. But to what does this need to put thoughts and feelings on paper – or rather, on wood – owe? This need is rooted in the folkloristic belief that a desire has a better chance of manifesting itself in reality if it is expressed in words, because by doing so, it gives it form. We must also bear in mind that in ancient times literacy was reserved for a small segment of the population. An alternative language to words, immediately comprehensible to all, was, therefore, necessary: this is the encounter between folklore and symbolism. Symbolic language thus proved to be the most effective way of doing this, through the depiction of specific problems or the desired ‘grace’.

The representations could range from the well-being of children to health, fertility and even sexual desires. If, for example, a wish concerning childbirth, an Ema with a dog was the most appropriate choice. While the image of the white fox still indicates prosperity and abundance. For requests concerning health, the part of the body with the illness was also depicted. For those concerning fertility and sexuality, well: the depictions were unequivocal.

photo credits: himawari-japan.com

The type of representation can therefore be purely symbolic, drawn from tradition (see the example of the dog) or directly portray the physical object of interest (body parts). In any case, let us remember that such symbology, whether analogical or realistic, is accompanied by the thaumaturgical function of the various religious entities worshipped (spirits/gods/Buddhas). As we said at the beginning, ‘protective deities’ of a particular sphere of life (health, education and so on) are also a main iconic subject of the Ema. These are just examples, as subjects and styles can be as varied as people’s requests and desires.

Ema language: forms and words

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In the transition to the contemporary age, the traditional themes depicted have not changed much compared to ancient times. Of course there has been an addition of new subjects (see Thomas Edison or, why not, anime characters). However, we can observe an increase in the use of verbal language. We have already seen one reason for this: literacy. Literacy has thus added verbal language to symbolic language, allowing ordinary people to no longer depend solely on the former. So it is not uncommon nowadays to resort to linguistic games of homonymy and assonance to accompany the symbology of images.

Typical is the case of those Gokaku-ema (互角絵馬) – pentagonal tablets – with an ‘educational’ theme. They are designed for students, constantly seeking the support of the kami for success in their studies. Here, these Ema owe their shape to a pseudo-omonimy between the expression “gokaku” (互角) – pentagon – and “gōkaku” (合格) which indicates success in study. The subject of the Ema can therefore also be conveyed by the shape of the tablet itself! And, as you can see, it can sometimes make use of verbal meanings. A case of symbolism using verbal language is that of an Ema depicting an octopus, “tako” in Japanese (蛸) used to request help in eliminating corns. The term “callus” is spelled differently (胼胝) but is also pronounced “tako”.

We can therefore see – to the delight of linguists and glottologists – that the ema language is made up of all these dimensions of communication. Symbols, shapes and words are thus integrated and intertwined in a single space. We should also remember that the graphic characters of the Japanese language derive from their ancestor pictograms, which directly represented visual objects!

ema

photo credits: blog.livedoor.jp

Verbal language is very helpful in interpreting the meaning of a tablet’s message. Because understanding the true meaning of symbolic language, needless to say, may not always be possible. Obviously, the use of verbal language does not guarantee 100% understanding, it depends on each case: there may be quite clear inscriptions, others more cryptic. The scholar Jennifer Robertson, who dealt with the Ema at the time of the Second World War, found a particular ambiguity in the tablets of this era. For this reason, she stresses the need to always take into account different possible interpretations.

Kogaeshi and Mabiki Ema, a special case

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There is, however, a special type of Ema, where the message is neither a concern nor a need for something that is desired. A request, yes, but different from the others: a request for forgiveness. We are talking about all those plates that concern the delicate case of children, foetuses, aborted or stillborn: the so-called mizuko (水子). Ema concerning mizuko are called Kogaeshi (子がえし – lit. “sending back the baby”). Or even Mabiki (間引き – let’s call it “reduction”) which can refer to general infanticide.

In Buddhist temples specialising in mizuko (to which memorials are also dedicated), Kogaeshi Ema are hung in a special space, just for them, next to the statue of Jizō. In Buddhism, Jizō is a protective figure of the souls of children who died before their parents. According to belief, their spirits cannot cross the Sanzu – the river that separates earthly life from the “Other Side” – because they have not accumulated enough good deeds, due to premature death. They would therefore be condemned to pile up stones on the bank of the mystical river, but Jizō would protect them from demons and allow them to listen to mantras.

ema

photo credits: hotoke-antiques.com

They differ from normal Ema, because their inscriptions are addressed to the spirit of the child, rather than to kami or buddha. Of course, they express all the anguish, sadness, regret of the mother or sometimes even both parents. The most common inscription, according to Reader, is a simple ‘Gomen ne’ (ごめんね) or ‘I am sorry’ [‘Forgive me’] together with the reason for the gesture. This phenomenon was particularly striking at the turn of the late Edo and early Meiji periods, when extreme poverty and famine hit the Japanese population hard. The use of Mabiki Ema, however, has continued until contemporary times.

Mukasari Ema, another particular case

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Another case of a death-related plaque is that of the Mukasari-ema (ムカサリ絵馬). In fact, these tablets were created for a singular purpose: to complete the CDs. Shirei Kekkon (死霊結婚), the marriages between dead souls. They belong to the category of large ema and, according to Robertson, their diffusion seems to be limited to Okinawa and the north-east of Japan, in the Yamagata Prefecture. “Mukasari’ would in fact mean ‘marriage’ in the Yamagata dialect (not coincidentally written in the katakana alphabet). In essence, these Mukasari-ema allow to “simulate” in the representation of the plate, the marriage of a person who died single or unmarried. It is a way of allowing the soul to find peace, preventing it from becoming a tormented spirit.

For if that were to happen, the spirit might remain anchored in the earthly world, through grief, for not having been able to experience the joy of starting a family. Thus, haunting the world of the living. It is thus also a way for the family of the deceased person, however fictitious, to realise that dream. In modern times, one can also resort to photographs, if any, of the person in wedding attire while still alive. Such Mukasari-ema were particularly used at the time of the Second World War, for the reason easily imaginable.

ema

photo credits: journals.openedition.org

These are two borderline cases, the exception to the rule. Because, as is now clear, the Ema are made with an eye to human wellbeing, in the here and now, be it individual or extended to the whole of humanity. But they are still part of the Ema world and, if there is something that they have in common with the others, it is a significant function: the psychological function of releasing an inner burden. The very act of ‘unloading’ onto the tablets what one has inside – thoughts, desires, needs and concerns – is a profoundly cathartic act. Especially if those desires and needs run counter to the norms imposed by society. As Reader notes, a way for individuals to survive in situations beyond their normal control and the only way to survive, from social control.

People’s desires

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But in general, what specifically do people who have recourse to EMA want? We could identify two macro-areas: protection and success.

Health is certainly one of them, and it is a major theme at all times. As mentioned in the introduction, kami and buddha are associated with healing powers, attributed by extension also to shrines and temples dedicated to them. Requests for ‘mercy’ from illnesses and diseases – or for preventive protection from any danger – may concern the applicant himself, his family members, or other persons. Requests for success, which is a very popular area, may also concern the applicant or third parties, or a ‘collective self’ of which the applicant is a part. This is the case of all those requests made to propitiate the success of one’s own company or institution of any other nature. There are Ema’s for example where the requester is concerned with the success of their favourite team (baseball is very popular in Japan).

But there is one realm that stands out above them all: education. The contemporary Japanese education system is very rigid and competitive, and the pressure of failure on children can be particularly taxing, psychologically speaking. So, you want for that reason alone. Or even for inspiration – seeing friends or groups of peers go to religious centres to write their plaques – the fact remains that students represent a good chunk of the Ema’s “clientele”. In addition to asking for ‘heaven’s favour’ in the success of tests and examinations, Ema registration can represent a moment of light-heartedness for the very young.

How could we not mention at this point the kami shinto Tenjin (天神), patron of culture and education, certainly popular among Japanese students. (Incidentally, Tenjin is the deification of a person who really existed between the 9th and 10th centuries AD! A Heian court scholar and politician, in life his real name was actually Sugawara no Michizane). His shrines are busiest in the cold months, especially January and early February, when the infamous “entrance exam hell” takes place.

There is no shortage of requests concerning material well-being as well as those concerning affairs of the heart. Even those to “sever ties” with the help of the special Enkiri-ema (縁切り) to express the desire to break the cord that binds to people, things (vices, addictions) or situations (diseases).

The incineration of the tablets

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Yes, this is an important stage in the life of the tablets: the final one. Both Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples periodically burn the tablets offered for a dual purpose: ritual but also practical. (In Japanese religiosity, the practical and spiritual dimensions manage to marry serenely). The pragmatic motivation is simply… the need to make space! After all, hundreds and hundreds of tablets accumulate over time.

Spiritual motivation, on the other hand, is that through the ritual of the bonfire, people’s wishes and requests can reach the realm of the kami and the buddha. Kami and Buddha who, I remind you, should have already read the Ema, always available in temples/sanctuaries, before the fire rituals. Once again Noragami comes to our aid, with its story so illustrative. It is not unusual to see the Tenjin himself wandering around in the sanctuaries dedicated to him, next to the Ema tablets. Noragami also touches on the theme of severing ties, which we spoke about earlier (in short, you get the hint: watch/read it).

ema

photo credits: https://youtu.be/Vn6AoThrXyc

When does this ritual take place?

The changeover to the new year is the moment that brings everyone together. However, it can also take place at other times, depending on each religious centre. Tenjin shrines, for example, usually do it at the end of October, just after the festivals dedicated to him.
The period around New Year’s Eve, O-Shogatsu (お正月), is however ideal for everyone, being a time of transition. What better time to symbolically release what has now had its day, releasing the wishes and demands of the old year? And at the same time, what more propitious time to usher in the new year, perhaps by writing new ones? Boy, so many commissions for these kamis and buddhas from the very first sighs of the new year! The phrase “Getting rid of the old to make room for the new”, in this context, can only fit well, lending itself more than perfectly to this dual interpretation.

Nothing rains from the sky!

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But be careful not to misunderstand. Don’t think that this is merely an act of superstition: nothing could be further from the truth! Resorting to the Ema is not the same as thinking of folding one’s arms and waiting for an otherworldly grace. Those who resort to the EMA generally know, even with a hypothetical “favour from heaven”, that 95% of the chances of success are given by their own commitment. And one’s own mental attitude. I refer, of course, to all situations where one has power of action. In cases where this is not possible, the only thing to do is to try to act, as much as you can, on your mental attitude.

Ema tablets testify to the search for change or safety from some risk or danger. They have the power to approach even the most “secular”, those who perhaps do not lead a great spiritual life. This may be the case for many young people, or for children, who may see in the tablets a playful side, as well as a support for their studies. The meaning of offering an Ema tablet is basically to cope with a crisis, of whatever nature, by resorting to the supernatural dimension, which has always been a source of support. In other words, the Ema performs a function of comfort and support. And, by extension, an important therapeutic function.