Japanese Ema are small wooden wishing plaques that you may have seen before in Japanese Shinto shrines. They have been used for centuries to send prayers. Essentially people purchase a small plaque, write their wishes on them, and dedicate them to the gods. You’ll discover them hung or tied together in an overlapping manner in certain areas called ‘dedication’ areas.
Similar to Tanzaku during Tanabata celebrations, people will generally write freely about what they wish for on Japanese Ema. The most common wishes revolve around love and relationships, career success, academic achievement, and health and prosperity. However, you can wish for whatever you like, really!
The History of Japanese Ema
The word ‘Ema’ consists of two Kanji characters: picture and horse, and hence, the most traditional type of Japanese Ema will feature a picture of a horse. However, this tradition actually descended from a real horse!
In the late Nara period, people often dedicated their horses to the shrines as an offering to the gods who would then hopefully grant their wishes. Horses were believed to be ‘vehicles of gods’ and thus were considered the highest level of offering.
However, it gradually began to become too expensive to donate horses, and thus the Japanese Ema, the ‘picture horse’, was born.
These days, whilst the traditional Ema with the horse image is still widely available, there are many more types of ema available. For example, at Inari Shrines, you will likely encounter Inari Ema instead. You can even come across anime-themed Ema if you travel to enough Shinto shrines!
Where To Find Japanese Ema
Japanese Ema is usually found at Shinto shrines across Japan. When you enter the shrine, explore and immerse yourself to your heart’s content, and then when you’re ready, look for the shrine office. There, you’ll be able to find all the Japanese Ema available and choose the right one for you.
In some Shinto shrines, the Ema may be laid out on a table without anyone manning the desk. Simple pick out the one you’d like, and drop your money into the available money box.
This is an example of the Japanese Honor system, in which items are left out with a price tag, and people are expected to pay that amount into the money box if they purchase the goods, regardless of whether someone is watching or not. This is a pure system that could really only happen in Japan!
Buy a Japanese Ema Online
If you want to get Japanese Ema online, delivered directly to your home, you can order them in our online shop. It’s the Ema from my local temple in Tokyo (Gotokuji temple) which is famous for Maneki Neko (Japanese lucky cats).
As soon as your order your Ema, we will go to Gotokuji temple and send you the wooden plaques via the post. 2 designs are available so choose your favourite, write your wishes and hang the Ema at home!
How To Use Them
Dedicating a wish to the gods is quite easy with the Japanese Ema! After you’ve picked up your Ema, grab one of the free pens available and think about what you’d like to wish for.
When you’re ready, turn to the back side of the Ema and write down a few basic things: your wish, your address (or a vague version of it), your name, and the date.
When finished, hang your Ema onto the dedication area, which is bound to have hundreds of other wishes tied to it.
You don’t have to write in Japanese, and don’t have to strictly stick to the above instructions. Over the years, many people have gotten creative with how they ask for their wish. Whilst you’re expected to write on the back of most Japanese Ema, some people will choose to write across the front. You can write in your own language, and even add your own artistic details to the design!
If you’re considering visiting a Shinto shrine during one of your visits to Japan, we recommend that you put aside some time to experience writing and dedicating a Japanese Ema. It’s part and parcel with Japanese culture and will make you feel closer to the country. There’s nothing quite as special as embracing another culture’s tradition.
Make sure you also read our post about Japan’s seven lucky gods!