Lottery yarns of yore


For at least 300 years, lotteries in Japan have been the stuff of dreams — and nightmares. This is most evident in the stories about tomikuji (fortune lotto), a lottery that flourished in the Edo Period (1603-1867). These tales are found in the repertoire of rakugo comic monologues.

Although these stories are set in the Edo Period, it is believed that the origin of tomikuji dates back to the preceding Muromachi Period (1338-1573). However, it was only in 1730, during the Tokugawa Shogunate, that the lottery system first met with government approval. Temples and shrines were permitted to run lotteries, and use the profits to maintain their properties.

Back then, the average price of one tomifuda (a single lottery ticket) is believed to have been the equivalent of about 1 yen,500-2,500 yen today. Winners picked up between 15,000 yen and 6 million yen in current values.

In 1842, however, the killjoy shogunate banned the popular lottery after a spate of scandals involving fake tomifuda, and they remained illegal until 1945, when they were again authorized “to help rebuild from the ruins.”

Among the comic stories about tomikuji in which rakugoka (storytellers) explore the universal drama of people who suddenly strike it rich — or dream that they will — one of the best-known is “Mizuya no tomi (Fortune of a Water-Seller).” This is the tale of a man who wins the jackpot in the tomikuji and hides the money under tatami mats at home. He is perpetually in dread of it being stolen and is kept awake by nightmares about being burgled. Finally, of course, his money is stolen — but when the water-seller finds out, he’s just relieved that he no longer has to worry about it.

Another typical rakugo story is “Tomikyu,” which — according to the version that appears in a compilation by Danshi Tatekawa, a famous rakugoka — goes something like this:

A poor professional jester named Kyuzo spends the little money he has on a tomifuda ticket. Back in his downtown hovel, he puts the lottery token in his household shrine for Shinto deities. That night, while he’s drinking sake, he vows to himself that if he wins a great amount of money he will buy his home and sleep on a new futon. Lost in this sweet dream, he then falls asleep.

That night, a fire breaks out near his patron’s house and he runs there to help put it out. While Kyuzo is away, though, another fire breaks out, and when he returns, all that’s left of his home is a smoking ruin.

After this, the tomifuda is drawn — and to his delight Kyuzo’s number wins. However, his joy is short-lived — he’s told that he can only collect the money by handing in the winning lottery piece, and that has been lost in the fire.

Devastated, Kyuzo wanders around until he bumps into a carpenter who tells him he managed to rescue the altar of Shinto deities from his burning house. Now, delighted again, Kyuzo checks the altar and, sure enough, finds his lucky tomikuji token.

Asked what he would do with the prize money, Kyuzo nobly declares that as the Shinto deities granted him such luck, he would first make a donation to his local shrine.