Daruma are doll-like representations of the Indian priest Bodhidharma who founded the school of Buddhist meditation which became Chan Buddhism in China or Zen Buddhism in Japan. Bodhidharma, or Daruma, is popularly believed to have spent so much time in meditation that his legs atrophied. Hence, the daruma dolls have no representations of legs; they have a round, weighted bottom so that they right themselves if pushed over. Daruma became popular in the Warring States period, together with Zen, but achieved greater currency during the Edo period when they were held to be effective against smallpox, a disease introduced to Japan by European traders and missionaries in the 16th century. Anti-smallpox vaccination began by 1848 and may have been more effective.
Daruma are associated with major endeavors. Students studying for exams, couples trying to have babies, politicians trying to win an election, or businessmen launching a new enterprise will often purchase a daruma. They are produced with two blank eyes. The hopeful supplicant of Bodhidharma’s help paints in one eye and then paints in the other when eventually successful. Enterprises will purchase a larger daruma each year in hope of even greater success.
Daruma are made throughout Japan in many different styles. They are made from a variety of materials including wood, and papier maché. The large red-painted daruma which are commonly seen today in small business enterprises, or in the arms of a successful politician on election night, were traditionally made near Takasaki by farmers as a winter-time craft industry. The craft industry grew to the extent that daruma from Takasaki became famous throughout Japan. Daruma are purchased at shrine fairs throughout the country, especially in the Kanto area around Tokyo. Used daruma are returned to shrines at New Years time for burning at the end of their lives. The shrine at Takasaki is particularly famous for its connection with the traditional daruma-making industry.