In Edo-period Japan (1603-1868), a long and happy life was believed to be the gift of a group of benevolent deities known as the Seven Gods of Good Fortune (Shichifukujin). This holy assembly of assorted divinities united four of Buddhist origin: Bishamonten, Daikokuten, Benzaiten, and Hotei; two derived from the Daoist tradition: Fukurokuju and Jurojin; and one borrowed from Shinto belief: Ebisu. To procure benefits from these gods of luck, people made annual visits to the temples devoted to their worship. Portraying the gods served the same purpose, thus they became an important theme in the ukiyo-e woodblock printing tradition, the major art form of the Edo period. Initially, representations of these deities were treated as sacred images. Over time, such prints evolved into often-humorous genre pictures. Many such images were produced for sale at the New Year.
The beings depicted in the works on view are not distinguished by a godlike appearance. Neither stately nor austere, often characterized by eccentric features and behavior, they smile amiably and look approachable, as befits popular deities who bring happiness and prosperity. This exhibition embraces a period of over 180 years—from early experiments with color woodblock prints up to the very end of their history as popular art. Designed by Harunobu, Toyoharu, Shigemasa, Hokusai, Gakutei, and others, these prints occur in a variety of formats, including narrow, upright “pillar prints” (hashira-e), large-size print panels (ōban), privately commissioned and published deluxe prints (surimono), sketchbooks (manga), and albums. The deities appear in their traditional guise and also in comic/parodied forms (mitate) as children or courtesans.
In addition, Japanese popular religion adopted the Chinese cult of established Daoist deities known as sennin, often referred to as “Immortals.” Usually claimed to be historical figures, sennin are said to have obtained the secret of eternal life, thus setting a promising example as ideal beings. Among the Japanese gods of good fortune, Fukurokuju and Jurōjin are associated with longevity through their Daoist origin.
The variety of visual interpretations for these seven personages is not surprising: the timeless human quest for happiness and longevity sparked artists’ imaginations. We continue to yearn for the generous gifts of the Gods of Good Fortune and only hope that technical progress will make them even more efficient. The 20th-century print by Raifu shows a treasure boat propelled by steam.