How these Japanese prayer plaques became symbols of hope

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Giving ema remains at the heart of Japanese culture. It represents the country’s deep relationship with its two main religions, Shintoism and Buddhism, which are strongly intertwined, with many Japanese observing both religions.

But ema inscriptions aren’t just for gods and spirits, Robertson points out. Many are meant to elicit an emotional response from other humans. By including their name, age and address, the petitioners hope that people will absorb their message and respond with sympathy or empathy.

“Many who read other people’s ema realize that their problems are not unique to them; we’re all in the same boat, ”says Robertson. It’s “kind of like using the Internet to search for a problem – a family conflict, a self-centered boss, aches and pains – and literally finding thousands, if not millions, who share your problem.”

Ema, prayer flags, votive tablets and floating lanterns can all offer worshipers crucial solace in the face of adversity, says Donald Saucier, professor of psychology at Kansas State University. These items not only provide a channel for the gods, but remind people of the human support network around them. “Things like amulets and talismans can remind us of long-standing social bonds that can comfort us during difficult times,” he says.

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The coronavirus pandemic is just the latest in a history of disasters facing ema, adds Robertson. “Historically, ema have been offered in response to epidemics, famine, plague, epidemics and other hardships experienced collectively,” she says.

A traveler’s guide to ema

This ancient Japanese custom is not off limits to tourists. Foreigners are encouraged to display ema at religious sites across the country, says Takakazu Machi, who worked as a tour guide in Japan for 18 years. Before the pandemic, he regularly took travelers to admire or leave ema at the 1,000-year-old Kitano Tenmangu Shrine in Kyoto. He says tourists can hang plaques with respect by following the English instructions often posted near ema racks.


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