This paper explores the function and history of Japanese paper charms (o-fuda) from the viewpoint of their issuing institutions. First, it differentiates between paper charms issued by Shintō shrines and those issued by Buddhist temples: Shintō paper charms are said to be potentially harmful even for their owners, because they absorb evil powers to protect them, so one has to exchange these paper charms usually after one year of use. Buddhist paper charms, on the other hand, are of no harm, thanks to the ever-lasting protective power of the Buddhas, Bodhisattvas or Holy Men that are depicted on them. Their iconographic decoration made Buddhist paper charms attractive to western collectors who came to Japan; one of the greatest and most well-known of these collections by the French japanologist Bernhard Frank (1927–1996) just went online in summer 2012.
The definition of ‘paper charm’ is tricky: How can we be sure that a paper has really been charmed and is not only a piece of printed paper? Should derivative forms like hanging scrolls or contract forms printed with the same image as the paper charm also be regarded as charms? How does a paper charm function in the framework of economic activities of a Buddhist temple? These and other questions are answered on the basis of a special private collection of a specific iconographic type of paper charms from Mount Koya covering a period of 200 years.