Navigation – Plan du site

Ofuda – The Japanese Pantheon in Miniature

Jean-Noël Robert
p. 38

Notes de la rédaction

Source: La lettre, no. 34, July 2012

Texte intégral

1By ofuda the Japanese refer to a kind of amulet or talisman printed on a small piece of paper.

2Pilgrims, the faithful, simple tourists even, rarely visit a Buddhist temple or Shintô shrine without acquiring a piece or two, be that for their own purpose or for the sake of a relative or friend. In appearance and function, these charms are not unlike the “prayer cards” of the Catholic tradition. Bernard Frank (1927-1996), who taught Buddhist iconography at the Collège de France from 1979 to 1995, assembled during his stays in Japan a collection of close to a thousand such pictures repre­senting the deities of the Buddhist pantheon. The collection was donated by his family to the Institut des hautes études japonaises (Institute of Advanced Japanese Studies) in 2009.

3The year before last, the Institute was given the opportunity to put on display a selection of the most beautiful pieces at the Musée Guimet – the National Museum of Asian Arts. About one hundred and eighty prints were exhibited in 2011, from 11 May to 12 September, in the very same Galeries du Panthéon Bouddhique where Bernard Frank, twenty years earlier, had brought out from the dusty museum storerooms and back to life a collection of statues­ of Buddhist deities that Émile Guimet, the museum's founder, had shipped back from Japan in 1876. Thus displayed together with the sculptures, the images on paper brought an additional dimension to the personages present in the form of sculptures. As Bernard Frank had done for the statues, a team of resear­chers from the CRCAO (Centre de recherches sur les civilisations d'Asie orientale) described the prints in a catalogue published jointly and made possible thanks to the grants of institutions such as the Hugot Foundation of the Collège de France, the Fondation de France and the Honganji Foundation.

4While the purpose of the exhibition at the Musée Guimet had been to introduce these images to the public, it could also be considered the starting point of a systematic and comprehensive study of Japanese amulets and talismans. Like the Christian holy cards, the ofuda is indeed a subject of research in its own right, though, although it has barely been explored so far, including in its country of origin. There exists as yet no monographic study of this subject, nor has any attempt been made to circumscribe the vast field of objects that this term covers, let alone to outline a general definition. In March of last year, researchers in different fields of study all related to religions and the printing arts met to take part in a symposium that was intended to give a first impetus and an international dimension to the study of ofuda. Among the participants were eight members of prominent Japanese institutions (the National Institutes for the Humanities, the Historiographical Institute of the University of Tokyo, the International Research Centre for Japanese Studies, Kokugakuin University in Tokyo and Shuchiin University in Kyoto, the Machida City Museum, and the Onju-in of the Hokekyō-ji Monastery in Ichikawa, whose participation was generously funded by the Japan Foundation). The nine other European speakers were from the Collège de France, from the CRCAO, and, thanks to the latter, from the Geneva Museum of Ethnography, the Pitt Rivers Museum of the University of Oxford, and the University of the Arts London.

5The aim of the symposium was to stimulate the study of Japanese amulets and talismans as a genre, in all their diversity and at any moment in history, for charms exist in many variants, differing in shape, size and material (paper, wood, fabric) and in accordance with the religious creed, school or sect that produced them (Buddhism, Shintô, Shugendō, popular beliefs, etc.). They can, moreover, be distinguished by the way they are made (hand-made and -written, woodblock or machine-printed, customized for the votary) and classified according to function or raison d'être (amulet, talisman, magic charm, icon, prayer, vow, ex-voto, letter of oath, etc.).

6The formal contents and the signifying elements of the ofuda were the subject of several papers: the image and its iconogra­phical features, the modalities of the inscription, the votive or incantatory formula, the vermilion seal, the Siddham letters and other magical symbols. An anthology of pertinent texts showed the practical use to which they were put in pre-modern times. Three other papers pointed out analogies with practices, both ancient and current, in China and India, and even with the devotional print of the Catholic Church. The presentation of the two other ofuda collections existing in Europe, in Oxford and in Geneva, shed light on their respective characteristics and documentary value, and on how these were due as much to the collector's personality as to the time period in which they were assembled. The concluding round of discussions was meant to deal with the issue of how to define and classify ofuda, that is, of how to delimit more precisely the significance of the term and its semantic field. However, due to the lack of precision from which the use of the word suffers in Japanese, and to the absence of analytical research on the ­subject, no real consensus could be reached. Nor could the issue of taxonomy be broached. This is therefore a problem on which a future meeting will have to focus.

The symposium proceedings will be published by the Institut des hautes études japonaises (Institute of Advanced Japanese Studies) in autumn 2013.

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Jean-Noël Robert, « Ofuda – The Japanese Pantheon in Miniature », La lettre du Collège de France [En ligne], 7 | 2015, mis en ligne le 02 novembre 2015, consulté le 18 décembre 2018. URL :

Haut de page


Jean-Noël Robert

Philology of Japanese Civilization

Articles du même auteur

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur

© Collège de France

Haut de page