6th Graders Make Ema, Japanese Wishing Plaques

Ema made by 6th graders from the Turquoise Trail Charter School on their visit to the Museum (photos by Willamarie Moore)
Ema made by 6th graders from the Turquoise Trail Charter School on their visit to the Museum (photos by Willamarie Moore)

From Director of Education Willamarie Moore:

Every weekday, October through May, school group visitors flood the Museum, taking advantage of our Folk Art to Go! school outreach program. Following a visit by one of our museum educators to their school earlier in the week, students come to the Museum to experience an hour-long tour through the galleries and a hands-on art-making project on a related theme.

This spring, K-12 students and their teachers are learning about Asian traditions in the special exhibition, Sacred Realm: Blessings and Good Fortune Across Asia. In the galleries, they are spending quality time with certain amulets—those shaped like triangles and others with compelling dragon motifs; looking closely at and decoding Thai spirit houses; and exploring masks used in traditional Chinese Lion Dance. Through in-depth exploration of these objects and relating their uses to their own lives and customs, students come to understand the universal human desire for blessings and good fortune. In the art room, they harness the inspiration received in the galleries, and create their own ema, Japanese wishing plaques.

The practice of writing a personal wish or prayer on a wooden plaque, called ema, usually takes place at Shinto shrines throughout Japan. This practice dates back to the Nara period in the 8th century, when members of the aristocracy and later the military elite would donate horses (believed to be vehicles of the gods) to the local shrine along with wishes for protection from some negative force. Eventually, painted plaques with horse images came to replace the actual animals as the offerings, and by the Muromachi period (14th – 16th centuries), the subject matter of the plaques expanded beyond just horse images—though the name ema remains (e means “painting or picture;” ma means “horse”). By the 17th century Edo period, making such offerings at shrines became common among everyone in society to receive blessings and good fortune. In contemporary Japanese society, this is most commonly done during certain times of year, like the New Year and during exam season. People purchase their ema at the local shrine and write their prayer on the back and then hang it at a designated place—usually under the exterior eaves of the shrine roof or around a sacred tree—for the gods to receive. Nowadays, the kinds of wishes most often seen are for good health, marital bliss, childbirth, success on school exams or at work, and traffic safety.

Ema tHorse emaoday are recognizable as a small wooden plaque with an image painted on the front, often accompanied by the word gan-i (meaning “wish”), and a string through a hole at the top for hanging. The traditional roof-shaped top edge is meant to evoke the pitched roof of a horse stable, harkening back to ema’s origins. Today, a wide variety of ema shapes can now be seen: other animals like the face of a fox (inari), or characters from pop culture such as rilakkuma and Hello Kitty. Even on the traditionally shaped ema, a broad range of images are available—everything from the 12 zodiac animals (especially popular during the New Year season), to images heroic warriors or auspicious symbols. Of course, the original picture of a horse can also be found.

K-12 students in the Santa Fe area are really enjoying designing their own ema with acrylic paint, and coming up with their wishes. The image that accompanies this article shows some of their creations—hung on a board outside the museum classroom—and some of their wishes:

  • “I wish for peace throughout the world. My inspiration was what happened yesterday in Brussels [3/22/16 bombing].”
  • “I wish for beauty around the whole world.”
  • “I wish for clean oceans.”
  • “I wish that pandas won’t go extinct.”
  • “I wish for everyone to shine.”