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Ho Ho Hotei: The real Japanese Santa Claus

Let’s get to know the history of Ho Ho Hotei, since in Japanese mythology, Hotei is one of the shichifukujin, or Seven Lucky Gods, who, in addition to Ebisu (who is the patron saint of fishermen), come from Mahayana Buddhism through Chinese and Indian religions and are known as the Japanese Santa Claus.

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Who was Ho Ho Hotei? Japanese Santa Claus (布袋)

Like the true origins of St. Nicholas, Hotei “布袋” (or also called ho ho ho hotei), it is said that it may have been based on a real person: a Chinese monk of the Liang dynasty by the name of Budai, who died in 916 AD and was later revered in Buddhism.

Like Santa Claus, Santa Claus, and others, Hotei is remembered and portrayed as big, round and very jolly. In Chinese, the Japanese Santa Claus, he is known as the “Laughing Buddha”. So whenever you see a big, smiling Buddha showing his chubby belly, it’s probably Hotei.

In kanji, the name ho ho hotei, also means “cloth bag”. Hotei is often depicted or drawn with a bag on his back and laughing at every turn.

Ho Ho hotei, also popular among Japanese children, is depicted in the artwork laughing with joy every time he is near them, so it is not difficult to see or make similarities with Santa Claus.

ho ho hotei
Hotei, the Japanese Santa Claus

WHAT’S IN THE JAPANESE SANTA CLAUS BAG? Ho Ho Hotei (布袋)

While the Santa Claus bag is filled with toys and gifts, the Ho Ho Hotei bag is a bit more mysterious than the others. Depending on the Japanese legend you believe in, it contains everything from modest clothes to a rice plant and also all the accumulated misfortunes of the world.

She can play several roles, including that of a wandering monk, with the few possessions a poor wanderer in Japan would have. Even so, it is said in some legends that Hotei brought fortune and joy to all those he met thanks to his magic bag, so it is not really bad, I guess like everything who is good the Japanese Santa Claus rewards him, who does not karma and ho ho hotei will give him a misfortune.

JAPANESE SANTA CLAUS AND CHILDREN – Ho Ho Hotei

Ho Ho Hotei is happiest when he is surrounded by children. It is a trait that connects and is seen very clearly and most strongly to Hotei (布袋) and Santa Claus. However, there are slight differences in their philosophies, which we are going to look at now.

While Santa Claus is happy to offer gifts to children, young and old alike, Hotei looks practically miserable and sad, when depicted with older people, especially when shown with his fellow shichifukujin (the 7 Japanese gods of luck).

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In addition, another curious fact, and where Santa and Ho Hotei differ, is that while Santa’s belly is due to Christmas delicacies or the typical milk and cookies, some Buddhists in Japan believe that Hotei’s big belly is due to his immense soul overflowing with love for humanity.

Note: In Japan it was thought that the soul rested in the stomach, hence the legend of Ho Ho Hotei’s belly.

ho ho hotei
Ho Ho Hotei

Write a letter to Ho Ho Hotei or return the favor to this Japanese Santa Claus?

Hotei receives something in return from the children he visits.

There are said to be several images of Ho Ho Hotei selflessly carrying children across rivers or letting them climb on his belly or neck, but there are works in which he allows children to return the favor.

Hotei is also a bit more difficult to reach than Santa. While children need only write a letter to Santa to get what they want or seek, for the Japanese Santa, one must gather with a group on New Year’s Eve to receive a blessing from Hotei, Reiko Chiba recounts in her book “The Seven Gods of Life.”

japanese santa claus
japanese santa claus

Making a Dream Come True with Japanese Santa Claus – Ho Ho Hotei (布袋)

However, Ho Ho Hotei will only grant the wish if several people make the request, not just one. For this reason, most people keep it simple and ask for something that the people present can share, like this year, they asked for an end to the war in Ukraine, for the coronavirus to cease to exist, for peace in the world…among other group wishes.

Otherwise, antisocial people, who don’t want to go with the crowd and don’t know how to be in a group, are not avoided by the Japanese Santa Claus. It is said that these people can place an image of Hotei and the other seven Japanese gods of luck under their pillow and hope that their first sleep will be happy and pleasant, and that is something Hotei is likely to grant them.c

Of course, granting the occasional wish is only one of Hotei’s powers. For example, Santa Claus wears red robes to celebrate, the legend of the Japanese Santa Claus is different, it is said that Hotei’s robes protect him from illness and demonic and spiritual attacks.

Hotei’s oogi, Japan’s Santa Claus (布袋)

In addition, the Japanese Santa Claus is often depicted with an oogi (which is a fan associated with the Japanese aristocracy).

In ancient Japan, wealthy landowners used the oogi to indicate that the request of one of their servants would be granted. This custom is said to have influenced the myth of Hotei, and is said to make people’s problems disappear with a single wave of their oogi fan.

japanese santa claus
Hotei, japanese santa claus

Children in Japan can rest easy knowing that not just one, but several magical beings are watching them from above. So, this Christmas, let’s hope they are all smiling and happy as old St. Nicholas, Japanese Santa Claus and the Laughing Buddha, among other Santa Clauses in the countries.

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We are specialists in Japan, one of us graduated in Japanese culture, studying in Japan at Keio university, also with Japanese language course, and qualified in Japanese noken 3 (n3). We are a family of 4 and we love to travel. We love Japan, its culture, its people, its language, its cities, its small towns, its nature, its food, anime and manga, souvenirs.... EVERYTHING ABOUT JAPAN!

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