In Japanese culture, the Seven Gods of Fortune, or Shichifukujin, are a popular motif. This collection of deities bring luck by representing the seven most valued virtues of Japan.
Only one of these gods, however, is Japanese in origin. The others were adopted from Chinese and Indian traditions.
One of these was Jurojin, the god of longevity. He originated as a Taoist deity associated with a long life and the southern sky.
As one of the two Taoist gods incorporated into the Japanese group of seven, however, Jurojin reveals as much about Chinese culture as he does about Japan. In addition to his longevity, the Chinese god is noteworthy for being so localized that the Japanese adopted him twice!
In Japanese mythology, Jurojin is the god of longevity and old age.
He is usually shown with the markers of his age. He is a small man, traditionally measuring about 90 centimeters tall, who walks with a wooden staff and a fan.
Jurojin has a long white beard and a bald head. Often his head is shown as somewhat elongated as well, especially in comparison to his small frame.
Affixed to Jurojin’s staff is a long scroll. It is said to have on it the lifespan of all living things, and in some accounts is a Buddhist sutra.
Jurojin often has an animal companion that acts as his messenger. Deer, a traditional symbol of long life, are most common but he is sometimes shown with other long-lived animals like cranes or tortoises.
He is one of the Seven Gods of Fortune, the Sichifukojin, of Japanese mythology. Each of these gods represents a different virtue and has been recognized in some form for at least a thousand years.
As the god of longevity, Jurojin’s image was considered particularly auspicious in Japanese art.
While Jurojin was a popular subject in Japanese art, he never developed a following independent of the Seven Lucky Gods. He is most often depicted along with them and is often conflated with another of the seven gods, Fukurokujo.
Jurojin does, however, have one thing that distinguishes him from his six peers. He is the only one of the Seven Gods of Fortune who is believed to have been a living man.
Jurojin’s origins were not in Japan itself, but in China. Like the other Seven Lucky Gods, he was adopted from one of the foreign cultures that most heavily influenced the development of Japan.
Jurojin originated as a Chinese Taoist deity The Old Man of the South Pole. His imagery and symbolism were tied to Chinese culture and his association with a southern constellation.
The Old Man of the South Pole was the god of Canopus, the brightest star in the southern constellation of Carina. This constellation was rarely seen in Northern China and, when visible, appeared to be dim and red on the horizon.
In Chinese culture, the color red was associated with longevity and happiness. The star was pictured as an old man with a deer, a traditional symbol of long life.
Japanese legend said that the Seven Gods of Fortune were selected by Buddhist priests who, on orders from the shogun, sought out those who represented the highest ideals. The Chinese god of longevity was brought to Japan to personify this virtue.
As a Taoist god Jurojin was also thought to have once been a living person.
According to both Chinese and Japanese traditions, Jurojin was born as a human by the name of Zhao Yen. He lived in the time of the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127).
Tragically, Zhao Yen was predicted to live only nineteen years. He was a sickly boy and no cure was known for his illness.
Zhao Yen was advised to carry dried meat and wine to a field where he would find two men playing checkers. He was told to share the meat and wine but not answer any of the men’s questions.
Zhao did so, and in thanks the two men revealed themselves to be the gods of the North and South Poles. The North Pole god set the date for each man’s birth, while the South Pole god set their time of death.
Because Zhao had given them food and wine, the two gods prolonged his life. They switched the digits of his age so he would live to be 91 instead of 19.
Because of the good fortune of having his lifespan extended, Zhao became a happy and lively man. After his death, he was deified to continue spreading his joy and goodwill.
The Japanese adopted the Chinese deity, Nanjilaoren, to symbolize longevity in their own pantheon. When they did so, however, they inadvertently split him into two aspects.
Nanjilaoren, like many Taoist deities, had different origins stories and attributes in various local traditions. When the Seven Lucky Gods were chosen from Taoist, Buddhist, and Hindu traditions, the two Taoist gods selected were inadvertently the same.
Fukurokuju was another variation of the Old Man of the South Pole. He had a different story, however, because of regional variations in the religion.
Fukurokujo had also lived on Earth, but as the reincarnation of a deity instead of a truly mortal man. He was a hermit who was known for his great wisdom.
Because of their shared roots, however, Jurojin and Fukurokujo were so similar that they could easily be mistaken for one another. Both were old men with oversized heads who were pictured with the same attributes of age and long life.
Even the characteristics that are meant to distinguish the gods from each other can often be applied to both of them in equal measure. Fukurokujo, for example, is said to be fond of board games but it is Jurojin’s legend that includes a game of chess.
In adopting Taoist deities into their own folklore, the Japanese inadvertently illustrated the lack of cohesion in Chinese religion. While the Old Man of the South Pole existed throughout China, his local legends were so varied that they could be mistaken for two entirely separate gods by outsiders.
Jurojin is one of the Shichifukujin, or Seven Gods of Fortune, in Japanese culture. He represents longevity.
He is shown as an old man with a cheerful demeanor. He is often shown with a scroll and an animal, such as a deer or crane, that was believed to have a long life.
Jurojin was considered auspicious, so his image was shown often in Japanese art. He had no independent cult, however, and was always worshipped as part of the Seven Lucky Gods.
These gods were adopted from Taoist, Buddhist, and Hindu traditions to represents the virtues that Japanese culture had learned from the rest of Asia. As one of two Taoist deities, Jurojin represented Chinese tradition.
The other Lucky God associated with Taoism, Fukurokuju, is strikingly similar to Jurojin. They have similar features and iconography, to the point that they are often mistaken for one another.
This is not due to coincidence. In fact, Jurojin and Fukurokuju are derived from the same source.
Both are based on the Chinese figure of the Old Man of the South Pole. A god of longevity and good fortune, he was well-established in Taoism.
His cult was not, however, strictly codified. Local traditions resulted in a variety of origins and attributes being given to the Old Man of the South Pole.
These stories were so distinct that the Japanese adopted them into the Seven Gods of Fortune as two entirely separate deities. While it was always acknowledged that they were similar, the two Taoist gods of the Shichifukujin were actually one and the same.