How Shinto Prayer Plaques Have Evolved Over Time


| LAST UPDATE 01/04/2022

By Eliza Gray
ema plaques shinto japan
YOSHIKAZU TSUNO / Staff via Getty Images

Japan's many Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines are home to a history that stretches back centuries. And for tourists and locals alike, one unique tradition has spread hope through the spiritual legacy of some very special wooden plaques.

Scattered around the many shrines and temples of the country are hundreds upon hundreds of postcard-sized wooden cutouts known locally as ema. But these aren't your average "wish you were here" notes to loved ones. Instead, messages written on emas are believed to be a direct communication line to heaven - meaning that your wishes and pleas reach the higher powers that be. And depending on the wish, the message is believed to be passed on to the god at play. For example, the plaque reading "Find me. Love me. Marry me" would be received by Okuninushi-no-Mikoto, the god of matchmaking in Japanese culture.

japanese spiritual ema tradition
Zhang Peng / Contributor via Getty Images

But just how far back does this practice date? Well, according to National Geographic, the people of Japan have been writing on emas for more than a millennium. Wishes of wealth, health, love, and good grades have been just some of the many topics directed to the heavens. However - as most longstanding traditions do - the wishes have adjusted with the times to reflect people's current worries. And since 2020, there's been one subject in particular that has significantly risen in prominence.

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Since the break of the pandemic, locals and tourists (as they're able to enter the country) have flocked to the shrines and temples to send pleas of good health to Amabi, a figure in Japanese folklore who is known for keeping plagues at bay. "The pandemic has reinforced the crucial role of ema," explained Jennifer Robertson of the University of Michigan. As people are ridden with anxieties of the unknown, the practice of reaching out to gods has provided a sense of hope in all the darkness. And in addition, it has shown the longevity of the tradition and its ability to adapt with the times to stay such a relevant part of Japanese spiritual culture.

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