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Ho, ho, hotei: The Japanese Santa Claus

3 Comments
By GaijinPot

It’s the most wonderful time of the year again in Japan, and Santa Claus is coming to town. It may surprise some readers, but the big jolly man is quite popular in Japan. In 2020, All Nippon Airways (ANA) delivered more than 80,000 letters to Santa from children all over the country.

We can likely thank toy shops, department stores and supermarkets for making Santa a holiday icon in Japan. However, it’s also because Father Christmas is similar in shape and personality to another important character in Japan — the pot-bellied god of fortune, protector of children and patron of bartenders, Hotei.

The laughing Buddha

Budai-hotei-thailand.jpg
A Hotei (Budai) statue at a temple in Koh Samui, Thailand Photo: iStock: idmanjoe

In Japanese mythology, Hotei is one of the shichifukujin, or Seven Lucky Gods, which, besides Ebisu (the patron of fishermen), come from Mahayana Buddhism through Chinese and Indian religions. However, like Saint Nick’s true origins, Hotei may have been based on a real person—a Chinese monk named Budai who died in 916 A.D. and was later revered in Buddhism.

Like Santa Claus, Hotei is depicted as big, round and jolly. In Chinese, he’s known as the “Laughing Buddha.” So whenever you see a large, smiling Buddha showing off his fat belly, it’s likely Hotei.

In kanji (Japanese writing), his name even means “cloth sack.” Hotei is often depicted wandering with a sack and howling with laughter. He’s also popular with children, represented in art squealing with glee whenever he’s around. Hence, it’s not difficult to see the similarities with Santa.

What’s in the sack?

Whereas Santa’s sack is filled with toys and presents, Hotei’s sack is a bit more mysterious. Depending on which legend you believe, it contains anything from modest clothing to a rice plant to the entire collected woes of the world. 

It might represent his role as a wandering monk, containing the few possessions a poor but happy vagabond would have. Still, some legends say Hotei brought fortune and joy to everyone he encountered thanks to his magic bag.

Click here to read more.

© GaijinPot

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3 Comments
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Great article. I doubt whether Hotei’s powers extend to Australia, so I’ll have to spend a Christmas in Japan sometime. Looking forward to it.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Father Christmas/Santa Claus/etc. is based on a real life Saint Nicholas who gave toys and goodies to poor families. After he died, he became 'larger than life' and many mythologies and images were made about him. This is a terrific article, it shows that despite our cultural differences, we're not really that different from each other.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Imagine happy children sitting on Santa lap. It is so wrong. I guess this is already banned all over the world.

-2 ( +0 / -2 )

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