A pedestrian walking along Marutamachi Street just next to the Imperial Palace in the heart of Kyoto City might easily miss the gold-painted statue of the Billiken that adorns the window display of a coffee shop.
The Billiken is pointy-headed, slit-eyed, grinning, and seated, its big baby feet projecting out of short plump legs beneath a potbelly.
The Billiken is a familiar figure to the Japanese, especially in the Kansai region. In the pre-war period, it was enshrined in Kobe’s Chinju Inari and Matsuo Inari Jinja (Shinto shrines) as a foreign deity. But it was also a popular amusement attraction in Osaka’s Luna Park and Tsutenkaku Tower, and generated its own merchandise of dolls, muslin cloths, and red-bean sweets.
In the post-war period, a wooden replica of the original statue in Tsutenkaku Tower became the tower’s most famous lodger. In the fifth-floor observation deck, visitors from all over Japan would fondle its feet for good luck, throw coins into the donation box, and make their wishes. Three years ago, the incessant touching had so worn down the Billiken that it had to be replaced with a new third-generation statue.
The Billiken would also become Osaka’s cultural ambassador, making its first journey out of town ten years ago to Tokyo Shibuya’s Tokyu Hands Department Store as part of a trade fair to promote traditional Osakan culture.
These days, one can buy Billiken prin or cheesecakes made of Danish cream or chocolate baumkuchen, hail a Billiken Taxi in Osaka, purchase Billiken wallets, keychains, underpants and socks, and toys manufactured by the Billiken toy company, and even watch the 1996 comedy film in which the Billiken’s recovery and reinstatement in Tsutenkaku Tower revive the ailing Shinsekai district.
The Billiken also appears in Kariya Tetsu’s influential cooking manga, Oishinbo. In one episode, the Billiken is depicted as a magical creature capable of sniffing out pure, clean, delicious water from miles away.
This foreign deity and amusement park attraction turned cultural ambassador is actually a twentieth-century American commodity. The Billiken began its career as a doll designed by a Kansas City, Missouri art teacher named Florence Pretz, who took its name from Canadian poet Bliss Carmen’s 1896 poem about assorted fairies and other fantastical beings, “Mr. Moon: A Song of the Little People.” In 1908, Pretz obtained a patent for her design and sold the design to the eponymous toy company that mass-produced the Billiken as “The God of Things As They Ought To Be.”
This patented, trademarked God came with its own folksy, homemade philosophy, a mishmash of distinctly American aspirational optimism and mass consumerism, filtered through vaguely “Oriental” aphorisms and rhymes: “Grin and begin to win,” “The maid who longs to captivate/A husband with a big estate,/ Should not lose heart for Billi-can/Provide each girl with a rich man,” “Smiling people are always cheerful–/Cheerful people are always hopeful./ Hopeful people work hardest, and people/Who work hardest are most successful.”
The Billiken sparked a doll craze in early twentieth-century America and made its way around the world as a symbol of Americana and of American money and power.
The Billiken would reach Philippine shores, too, but it would be put to use for a different purpose and acquire more sinister meanings.
Perhaps the most famous Philippine literary reference to the Billiken is Nick Joaquin’s 1961 masterpiece novel, The Woman Who Had Two Navels. The Biliken (spelled with only one “l”), a central image and symbol in the novel, is depicted as having two navels, the extra navel having been created by a bullet hole from the Japanese war.
In the Philippines, unlike Japan, the Billiken is now remembered only by older Filipinos, and is sometimes confused with the East Asian Milifu (Milofu) in China and Budai and Hotei in Japan, which are in turn based on the Maitreya or future Buddha in India. But unlike the East Asian Milifu/Budai, Joaquin’s Biliken is not shown surrounded by children.
Instead, Joaquin’s Biliken is “sly”, “sinister, monstrous”, exotic. The protagonist Connie Vidal’s father Manolo is said to resemble him. Connie’s disillusionment with her father begins with her discovery that her father had put her in the payroll of the government office he headed, despite the fact that she was only a schoolgirl and had never been inside the office. Her father had been a noted ilustrado in the revolutionary days, but had been quick to abandon his patriotism and had metamorphosed into a corrupt politician during the American era.
In American-era Philippines, the Biliken had a special resonance because it was known as the “carnival god, the King of the Carnival.” The Biliken served as the mascot of the famous Manila Carnival and was often represented in Manila newspaper cartoons ushering in the annual event and crowning the Carnival Queen. The Biliken has the power to evoke, to “bring back happy memories” of Manolo and wife Concha’s shared “youth and the old days”.
But the nostalgia-evoking carnival god Biliken is also an icon of colonial amnesia. Alfred McCoy and Alfredo Roces’ excellent study of Philippine political cartoons tells us that in staging the Manila Carnival between 1908 and 1939, Americans had taken a pre-Lenten festival and turned it into an instrument of pacification aimed at celebrating Philippine-American “friendship” and defusing any lingering hostility between Americans and Filipinos in the city.
The carnival had been originally proposed by an American colonel named Langhorne, who intended to set up a cockpit, an exhibition of “half-naked” Igorots and some amusements. A horrified Governor-General James Smith assigned Secretary of Commerce Cameron Forbes to reconceptualize the carnival. The 1908 carnival was inaugurated by a maritime parade featuring an American Queen of the Occident and a Filipina Queen of the Orient (Pura Villanueva) to “symbolize the cadena de amor which should unite eternally the countries of East and West.”
Al McCoy rightly argues that the success of the carnival marked a “turning point in Philippine-American relations from antagonism to amity”. The carnival would become an “annual celebration of colonial collaboration.”
In Joaquin’s novel, Connie forms a strong attachment to Biliken and continues to care for him, even though after the war, the god has joined the “junk pile like an unwanted baby”. Connie identifies so thoroughly with this obsolete god that she imagines herself as having two navels like her family Biliken.
Made monstrous by the double colonial heritage that endows her with a privileged life but curses her with a conscience, Connie learns that in giving up the Biliken, she can mount her own personal rebellion against the betrayals and lost possibilities of the earlier Spanish revolutionary era, the predation and madcap frivolities of the succeeding American era, and the compromised nationhood of post-war Philippine elite democracy. Her physical flight from a foreordained life as rich trophy wife takes her on a spiritual journey that ends in Hong Kong, where she meets and finds her lost “father”–the man her father Manolo ought to have been— in the form of a dying veteran of the Philippine Revolution, Monson, who had chosen a life of exile over accommodation with the Americans.
The Biliken is a figure of cultural translation and transmogrification, an American invention of the “Orient” that has found a home in “America’s Asia”.