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January 14, 2019

Ebisu, The Leech Boy Who Became a God (Ep. 28)

Reading Time: 8 Minutes
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Come listen to me talk about Ebisu while binaurally recording a walk through Kyoto Station.


Happy New Year everyone. I hope you’re all doing well. Listen to the background. Do you hear that? It’s me walking around a bustling Kyoto station. I hope you can hear all the travelers, train announcements, and vendors hawking their wares. I don’t get to Kyoto very often, so it’s a real treat for me and I wanted to share. I’m going to put a binaurally mic’d version minus me talking just a stroll through Kyoto station up for my patrons later this week. I’ll give it to all tiers, so if you’re a patron and you’re listening, check that out. It should sound really cool in headphones.

Okay, I’d like to start 2019 off on an auspicious note and talk about the seven lucky gods or the seven gods of fortune, Shichi Fukujin in Japanese. More specifically, I want to concentrate on just one of them, the leech boy, or later he was known as Ebisu.

The seven lucky gods have been around for a very long time, first written about in Japan as a group back in the early 1400s. You can sometimes find them depicted alone or in pairs, but usually you’ll find all seven riding in their lucky boat, the Takarabune.

The Six other Lucky Gods

Okay, real quick, let me run through a brief introduction of the other six lucky gods, just in case you’re unfamiliar with them. I’ll start with Bishamonten.


Bishamonten originally comes from India and is the god of warriors and defense against evil. He’s easily identifiable because he’s dressed in armor, and while most of the lucky gods are smiling or have a pleasant demeanor, he’s the only one that has a fierce look on his face.


Second, we have Benzaiten or Benten. She’s special because she’s the only female on the team. She was originally the Hindu goddess of water, but after making her way to Japan, she’s become the goddess of the arts and knowledge. You’ll often find her with a biwa stringed instrument or a flute in her hands.


Next, we have Fukurokuju. This big headed guy hails from Chinese Taoism. He’s the god of wealth, happiness, and longevity, and he looks pretty much like a Taoist scholar. Elongated head, long white mustache, and a walking stick, and even occasionally a peach. He’s sometimes thought of as the patron god of sciences. Fukurokuju has a special trick though. He can revive the dead.


Fourth in line is Hotei. Hotei’s name actually means bag of old clothes. He is also from China and again, the god of happiness, abundance, and the guardian of children. Supposedly, he’s the only one of the seven gods who is based on a real Chinese hermit named Budaishi or Kaishi. He’s said to have died in March 916. I’m sure you’ve seen him because he’s the one with the big belly and the big smile, the one a lot of people outside Japan mistake as the Buddha. So much so that he even goes by the nickname again, only outside of Japan, laughing Buddha.


Then we have Jurojin, the god of wisdom. He’s an old man wearing a hat with a long white beard and he looks a lot like Fukurokuju, except Jurojin usually has with him a black messenger deer. If there’s no deer, it’s a bit hard to tell the two apart. And next we have the sixth lucky god, Daikokuten. His name means the great blackness. Originally a Hindu warrior, he came to Japan and became the god of wealth again and prosperity. In all the representations of him, he sports a big bag thrown over one shoulder and a magic hammer. He’s always smiling and he’s the one that often gets confused with my subject today, Ebisu.


Now let’s talk about Ebisu. Much like Daikokuten, he is always smiling, but he actually has a nickname, the laughing god. He usually wears a tall hat called a Kazaori-eboshi, literally a hat that parts the wind. He also holds a fishing pole in one hand and a large red sea bass in the other.

Remember I said he looks a bit like Daikokuten? Well, they’re often paired together too, both being happy gods of wealth and prosperity. Together they become an extra special good luck team for merchants and business owners. Indeed, you might very well go to some small restaurant or ramen shop in Japan and see their likeness displayed hanging on the wall or sitting on a shelf. Just remember, the way you can differentiate the two is, Ebisu has the fish and rod, Daikokuten has the hammer and the bag.

The neat thing about Ebisu is he actually is the only one of the seven gods who was born and bred right here in Japan. While the other gods have histories that go as far back as early Hinduism, Ebisu does not. He’s his own kind of dude and a weird kind of dude at that. At least his beginnings are. Let me tell you one of the versions of Ebisu’s story.

Izanagi and Izanami

Long, long, long ago, there was a god, Izanagi, and a goddess, Izanami. They were brother and sister and they got along quite well. So well in fact that after some time they married and became husband and wife. The two are most famous for having given birth to all the Japanese islands, the sun and the moon, and storms, which were shot from Izanagi’s nose. What is little known though is that their first child was born with no bones, or sometimes it’s told he didn’t have any arms or legs either. This was believed to be a punishment because the goddess, Izanagi, didn’t follow the wedding ritual exactly. It didn’t have anything to do with incest or anything, it was because she got the ritual wrong.

Hiruko the Leech Child

Anyway, the two gods called their first child their boneless son, Hiruko. Leech child. They tried to raise him, but it’s difficult to care for such a mushy child even if you’re a god, and he couldn’t stand up. So while still an infant, his parents gave up, wove a boat of reeds, and then tossed him into the ocean. Hiruko was tough and he didn’t die. He must have had some lucky star looking over him because he ended up washing ashore of what is probably Hokkaido and being found and cared for by an Ainu man named Ebisu Saburo.

Maybe it was time, or luck, or just plain love, but Hiruko got stronger and quickly grew arms, legs, and eventually an entire skeletal system. It was on his third birthday that he became a god and went from leech child to Ebisu. Because he was thought to come from the sea, he became associated with the ocean and fishermen.

Now, what’s cool about Ebisu is even though he was a god, he had still been a very, very weak child, so he remained a little disabled and slightly deaf. Despite all that, Ebisu remained a jolly and a positive fellow.

The Ebisu Festival

It’s interesting to note that his deafness comes into play later when the date of the festival is decided on. In Japan, every month has a second, older name, a name that describes the month. For example, January 1st is the day and January is Mutsuki, the month of harmony. February, Kisaragi, the month for wearing extra clothes, and March, Yayoi, the month of growing. I’ll do a separate podcast later on these and what their meanings are, but for now just know that the oddest name for one of the 12 months is October, Kannazuki, the month of no gods.

It’s a very cool name, but why? Why is it the month of no gods? The explanation I hear most often is that for one month a year, all the Shinto gods gather in Izumo Shrine in Shimane Prefecture. This leaves the rest of Japan godless, but Ebisu is hard of hearing, right? So every year, he never hears the call to Izumo Shrine. This means he’s free to be worshiped in October when everyone else is gone.

So this is why you can find the Ebisuko or the Ebisu Festival celebrated in October, usually October 20th. Since my city has several fishing ports, his festival is especially important and lively. Here, business owners, fishermen, tradespeople, everyone gathers to buy brightly colored Ebisu ornaments to ensure good luck, protection for fishermen, prosperity, and wealth, to name a few of the things he gives. Here, in the local dialect, he’s not Ebisu, he’s Oibei-san. I find his story very sweet and inspiring. It’s the story of a baby that overcame horrendous obstacles to become a god, and a happy god at that.

Oh, and by the way, if you think you’ve heard the name before, Ebisu, you’re probably right. It’s also the name of a Japanese beer, Ebisu beer.

So there you have it. That’s all for today, everything you ever wanted to know about a leech boy who became a god, Ebisu. Thank you for listening. I wish you all the best of luck in 2019, and I will talk to you again very soon. Bye bye.


Intro and outro music by Julyan Ray Matsuura

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About The Uncanny Japan Podcast

Speculative fiction writer, long-term resident of Japan and Bram Stoker Award finalist Thersa Matsuura explores all that is weird from old Japan—strange superstitions, folktales, cultural oddities, and interesting language quirks. These are little treasures she digs up while doing research for her writing.

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