In hotels across the world, travellers find all sorts of “welcome” items in their rooms. It may be a personalized message, a bowl of fruit, some chocolates or even a bottle of champagne.  However, it might be a little confusing for some when visiting Japan to be greeted with a little paper or cloth doll that looks a little like a ghost.

In this month’s Japanese culture story, we introduce the little paper dolls known as Teru Teru Bozu, which are made and displayed in the hope the weather will be fine.

Some scholars believe that the custom originally came from China during the Edo Period (1603 – 1868) where the dolls were referred to as ‘sweeping-cloud dolls’ or ‘fine weather girls.’ The legend tells of a girl who believed the rainclouds could be swept away by making a paper doll of a girl with broom.

When the custom made its way to Japan, the name changed to Teru Teru Bozu, which when translated directly means, shining Buddhist priest. So, why did the figure change from a girl to a Buddhist priest? There are a few thoughts behind this. Firstly, it is the job of priests to pray for good weather in Japan. Secondly, people thought the round shape of the doll’s head looked rather like that of a Buddhist priest and thirdly, some thought that a priest would have more power to affect the weather than a girl.

In Japan, it’s very common for people to make the dolls and hang them outside their homes before a sporting event or a school excursion but I was surprised to find them in several hotel rooms in recent years as well. The legend is instilled in the Japanese while still at school when all children learn a nursery rhyme (song) that promises they will give the dolls presents of sake and shinny bells if they grant their wish for fine weather. And if the wish is not granted and it rains, the song promises to cut the doll’s head off!  Yikes!!  You might enjoy watching this animated version of the song here. Make sure you watch until the gruesome end.

If the decapitation of “Casper,” didn’t unsettle you enough, there is another little dark twist with these dolls.  For those who want it to rain instead of being fine weather, the dolls are hung upside down and then called Ame Ame Bozu or rain dolls.

There is also a little controversy as to when the face should be drawn on the doll. There are those who believe the head should be faceless when the dolls are made and hung up. Then, IF the wish for fine weather is granted, a face is drawn on the dolls and they are floated down the river with sacred sake. If, however, it rains, the dolls don’t get a face, they lose their heads and are disposed of unceremoniously. Despite this controversy, there are many who draw the face on when they make the dolls.

Scientifically speaking, there is no proof of course that Teru Teru Bozu or Ame Ame Bozu can affect the weather, but many people believe in the legend and still make the dolls to this day.