The Japanese Zodiac Animals and Ema Prayer Plaques

”A horse is a horse, of course, of course………”

~ Mr. Ed

Without contradicting the world’s most famous talking horse, let me just add that sometimes horses are also small pieces of wood, at least here in Japan. I offer exhibit A:

ema kyoto japan

The petite wooden prayer plaques in the photo to the left are called ema and in Japan they’re a common sight at shrines and temples.

Anyone can buy one for the equivalent of around $5 US and write a message on the back and the staff will add it to the others, so that the gods will take notice and hopefully grant the writer’s wishes.  Tje Japanese zodiac animals are but one motif of many that you’ll find on this small wooden boards.

The Evolution of Ema in Japan

Centuries ago though, parishioners offered horses to shrines to gain the gods’ favor. On a practical level, horses were valuable assets, and they were also thought of as divine messengers. So offering a horse was seen as a natural way for prosperous members of the flock to express their faith and offer their support.

But over time, the practice faded-after all, horses are beyond the means of most of us, and then there’s the issue of schlepping one to the shrine!

So at some point, some enterprising, innovative soul came up with the idea of simply portraying a horse on a piece of wood that could serve as a stand-in for the real thing and be sold at places of worship for a nominal cost.

Suddenly anyone could offer a horse, and in addition to the image of a horse on the front, the reverse side of the ‘ema’ plaque became a useful place for the the donor to write their wishes(often for good health, with prayers for exam success also a mainstay these days).

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If you’re looking for Japanese good luck charms, you might well have something other than ema in mind. Such charms, unlike ema, are kept, at least for a time, and are carried on one’s person or kept in one’s car and often come in very small, decorative drawstring pouches with kanji characters on them. They are also often protection against specific dangers, such as traffic accidents, etc.

You can see this rich history in modern-day ema if you look at their shape and at the name itself. There’s no hard and fast rule governing what a prayer plaque can look like, and many places these days strive to stand out by creating distinct styles or designs.

The most common though, are the sort in the photos in this post, a pentagonal piece of wood with a peaked top. This represents the roof of the barn that the horse is sheltered in. Originally, ema quite predictably depicted horses, and the name literally means ‘picture-horse’ with 絵(‘e’)conveying the meaning of a picture and 馬(‘ma’)representing a horse.

Over time places started to create 絵馬 with a variety of other illustrations, depending on that particular temple or shrine’s own history. The Kyoto shrine where I took the photo below, for example, has a strong connection to inoshihi(boar), so you’ll find an 絵馬 with a cute version of a tusker.

Ema and Japanese Zodiac Signs

Ema also often depict the creature in the ‘eto’ animal zodiac whose turn it is in a given year of the twelve year cycle. That’s why Kyoto’s Goh Shrine, also popularly known as the boar shrine, displays a giant ema with the animal of the annum on the side of one of its buildings. The picture below will tell you which animal’s turn it is this year, if you don’t already know.

ema

The boar by the way, along with the monkey above, is one of the animals in this zodiac, and yes, this particular shrine is especially festive when the Year of the Boar rolls around!

The horse is also in the animal zodiac lineup, and so in horse years, a great number of ema happen to be especially true to their name and their roots.

Here’s a nice example of all of the animals of the zodiac shown together, on a furoshiki cloth that features them on ema with a traditional repeat pattern called asanoha as a base.

I happen to be a horse, born in 1966.  If you don’t know what animal you are, check this list of the animals and their respective years:

Rat/Mouse

2008, 1996, 1984, 1972, 1960, 1948, 1936, 1924

Ox/Cow  

2009, 1997, 1985, 1973, 1961, 1949, 1937, 1925

Tiger  

2010, 1998, 1986, 1974, 1962, 1950, 1938, 1926

Rabbit 

2011, 1999, 1987, 1975, 1963, 1951, 1939, 1927

Dragon  

2012, 2000, 1988, 1976, 1964, 1952, 1940, 1928

Snake 

2013, 2001, 1989, 1977, 1965, 1953, 1941, 1929

Horse 

2014, 2002, 1990, 1978, 1966, 1954, 1942, 1930, 1918

Sheep

2015, 2003, 1991, 1979, 1967, 1955, 1943, 1931, 1919

Monkey  

2016, 2004, 1992, 1980, 1968, 1956, 1944, 1932, 1920

Rooster/Chicken 

2005, 1981, 1969, 1957, 1945, 1933, 1921

Dog 

2006, 1982, 1970, 1958, 1946, 1934, 1922

Boar

2007, 1983, 1971, 1959, 1947, 1935, 1923

Soooo………..What’s your sign?

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Originally posted 2016-09-15 14:31:11.