The Rake’s Progress

The smiling female mask known as otafuku is a prominent feature among the many symbols of prosperity in this kumade rake.

When it comes to luck, quite a few people believe you just cannot have too much of a good thing. And for the past couple of centuries in Japan, one of the best-known providers of favorable fortune has certainly not been marked by sparseness and austerity. The implement that has been used here to bring a bit of luck into people’s lives is an ornamented rake. And the reason for the choice of this horticultural tool—traditionally made of bamboo and used for such tasks as gathering up fallen leaves—is so that it can rake in lots of prosperity.

To assist the implement, known as a kumade, in the business of luck raking, it is adorned with just about everything that to a Japanese mind could possibly suggest abundance: ripe ears of rice, imitation gold coins, account books, helmets, treasure ships, mallets, pine branches, sea bream, turtles, cranes. “Adorned,” though, is perhaps too fine a word: often it is impossible to make out the shape of the rake behind all that enormous clutter of good luck.

Among all this excess of auspiciousness, one of the most frequently seen symbols is that of the female mask known as otafuku. Originally associated with the form of comic drama called kyogen, otafuku masks have full, round cheeks that make for a decidedly pear-shaped face. A pretty little thing the otafuku is certainly not, but the mask is so full of good nature and happiness that it is regarded as a symbol of joy and good fortune—estimable qualities for a lucky rake.

This month of November is the one when Japanese keen to increase their lucky lot go out to snap up their kumade. The rakes are sold in the open-air markets known as tori no ichi (“rooster market”) on days in November that fall on the zodiacal sign of the rooster. Tori, the Japanese word for “rooster” or “bird,” also has the meaning of “taking in” and so is quite auspicious in the business of luck. Calculated according to the old calendar reckoning, these days of the rooster are 12 days apart, and the dates on which they fall vary from year to year.

This tradition of using rakes to bring in luck began in Edo, as Tokyo was known until the latter part of the nineteenth century. Tori no ichi are still popular events: the ones at Asakusa Otori shrine, which is located in a traditional neighborhood of Tokyo, attract the greatest number of visitors in the country, sometimes with around half a million people going there to inspect the rakes on sale.

Perhaps appropriately for something that began as a fair for storekeepers, the kumade vendors do their own bit of raking in. The good luck they hawk often does not come cheap. Kumade vary in size from a couple of centimeters to several meters long. Customers eyeing a 3-meter super-rake could also find themselves eyeing a 600,000-yen price tag, which is twice what many Japanese earn in a month. And according to tradition—started, one supposes, by some enterprising rake vendor—to keep the luck flowing after buying a kumade one year, you have to follow this up the next year with a bigger (i.e., more expensive) rake.

At one time, those buying the rake-shaped luck tended to be owners of traditional stores and small restaurants. But when economic gloom began to settle in with the bursting of Japan’s economic “bubble” in the early nineties, more of Japan’s corporate movers and shakers took to lining up to buy the rakes—clearly trying to move and shake a little kumade luck into their flagging businesses.

Most years, just two days of the rooster fall in November. In some years, though—like this one—there are three (November 1, 13 and 25 in 2018). The year after a triplet of November rooster days is said to be one that will be marked by particular prosperity. But, alas, there is a downside. In such years, it is also believed that there will be more fires than usual. As to the reason, well, if you give people too much prosperity, they just start getting plain careless.

David Capel is a journalist living in Tokyo.

First published on TJJ ONLINE in November 2018. Updated November 2019.

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