The changing face of ema votive tablets

The changing face of ema votive tablets
"Ita ema" with drawings of anime characters at Imamiya Shrine in Kita Ward, Kyoto

KYOTO - "Find a good marriage partner for me," "Let me succeed in an entrance exam" and "I wish for the well-being of my family" are all wishes people write on ema, small wooden votive tablets. An array of ema bearing these, and many other, hopes are hung at temples and shrines around the nation.

However, this familiar scene has been undergoing changes to meet the needs of worshipers today.

At Shimogamo Shrine, a UNESCO World Heritage site in Sakyo Ward, Kyoto, a section around the Aioi-sha facility enshrining a deity for matchmaking looked as though it was a solid block of red from a distance. Upon closer inspection, however, it was apparent that each of the ema tablets hanging on racks was covered with a red sticker to conceal the worshiper's name, wish and other matters written on it.

"I don't have to worry that someone will read what I wrote," said a smiling third-year high school girl from Tokyo on her graduation trip. "I can write the name of the person I like without a problem."

The shrine began handing out these stickers to worshipers about 10 years ago after shrine workers saw high school students on a school trip teasing their classmate, who wrote a wish for love on a tablet. Recently, some visitors post others' wishes written on ema on Twitter or blogs without the permission of their authors.

About 90 per cent of visitors use the stickers to conceal their ema wishes before they leave, according to the shrine.

Masafumi Higashira, a priest at the shrine, said: "Although they are covered with stickers, the deity knows everything. It doesn't affect divine favour."

Such stickers are used at many shrines that are believed to help with matchmaking. Among the shrines are Kamigamo Shrine in Kita Ward, Kyoto; Omiwa Shrine in Sakurai, Nara Prefecture; and Sarutahiko Shrine in Ise, Mie Prefecture.

Wishes of anime, history fans

At Imamiya Shrine in Kita Ward, Kyoto, rows of ema tablets bearing the image of girls in school uniforms are seen. The shrine is associated with Keishoin, mother of the fifth Tokugawa shogun, Tsunayoshi (1646-1709).

The high school girls are characters from "Keion!" (K-On!), a popular anime featuring a rock music club at a girls' high school.

As the shrine is the model for the one where the girls in the anime worship, enthusiastic fans of the anime began bringing ema to the shrine several years ago. Some of them even have no wishes written on them, according to the shrine.

Temples and shrines depicted in anime are adored as "sacred sites" by anime fans. The ema tablets they leave at the temples and shrines are called "ita ema." "Ita," or "itai" usually, is used online to mean embarrassing situations, but doesn't always have a negative meaning.

Yorihisa Sasaki, chief priest of the shrine, seemed perplexed as he said: "People can write or draw whatever they want [on ema]. But too many of them could be a problem."

About five years ago, the Mibudera temple in Nakagyo Ward, Kyoto, made an original ema in the design of a haori jacket worn by members of Shinsengumi, a special police force around the end of the Edo period (1603-1867).

As the temple served as a training base for the force, it attracts many female history fans. On the ema, they write such remarks as "I love Okita Soji-sama" (Okita is a team leader of the force often depicted as a handsome, genius swordman) and "Shinsengumi is immortal!"

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