How learning local history can lead to a happier life.
While walking through a shopping arcade near Osaka Station, my wife and I saw a golden statue in a Santa outfit. We had seen the statue many times before but never paid much attention to it. I had always assumed it was either a proprietary mascot or an ancient deity. However, when I saw the Santa suit, it reminded me of a happy golden Chinese Grinch. Adding to the bizarreness of the statue was the inscription on its base: "BILLIKEN THINGS-AS-THEY". I decided to go online and see if I could shed a bit of light on this mystery.
According to the good people at Wikipedia (and a few other no-doubt-equally-reliable online sources), Billiken was created in the early 1900s by an American art teacher and illustrator named Florence Pretz. Pretz sold her design to a Chicago company that marketed Billiken as The God of Things as they Ought to Be, which is a nice thought unless you stop to consider that maybe your life ought to suck. Interestingly, "the way things ought to be" appears to be open to suggestion. Billiken has short arms that cannot reach the bottom of his sometimes itchy feet; therefore, if a person scratches Billiken's feet, he will supposedly grant that person a wish.
For a while, Billiken was quite popular in the U.S. and Canada. In addition to brisk sales of Billiken knickknacks, songs and comic strips were written, and a Billiken figurine was even featured in the Hollywood movie Waterloo Bridge. Several minor league baseball teams called themselves the Billikens, and to this day, St. Louis University and St. Louis University High School use Billikens for their mascots. The two schools even have statues of Billiken on their campuses.
Adding to the intrigue is the fact that both St. Louis University and St. Louis University High School are Catholic schools. I don't think Billiken violates commandment number one, "Thou shalt have no other gods before me," because this commandment clearly acknowledges the existence of other gods and the schools can argue that Billiken is not being placed "before" Yahweh. However, they have clearly broken commandment number two: no graven images.
Getting back to Billiken, the statues also found their way to Japan, where all cute mascots are welcome. Here in The Land of the Rising Sun, Billiken's image has been used for countless knickknacks and souvenirs and is now the namesake of the Japanese toy and model manufacturer Billiken Shokai. Billiken has also appeared in numerous parks, shrines, restaurants, and buildings--especially in the Kansai region. Billiken has even been officially enshrined and deified by at least one Shinto shrine.
Since researching Billiken, I seem to see him everywhere. This once insignificant--some might say gaudy--piece of background now manages to put a smile on my face each time I see him. My wife and I always point him out to one another whenever we come across him. I recently pointed out a Billiken statue to a friend who is a professor specializing in Japanese religions. It turns out my friend has actually done research and published a paper on Billiken. We had quite a nice chat about Billiken as we walked through the streets of Osaka. Maybe Billiken really is good luck.
Putting all superstition aside, I can say this: Learning about local history--wherever you find yourself--is an excellent way to make your life more interesting. Thanks to the Internet, that task is easier than ever. So, let your inner-historian loose and see what you can learn. Thank you for reading my essay. You can see pictures of Billiken at https://travelingdan.shutterfly.com/965.