This woman’s face is plastered all over Japan. You see her on signs outside of bars, and in the sidewalk shops lining the walkways to Shinto shrines. You see her face on plates and mugs and at the bottom of teacups, and yes, sometimes you even see her featured on hashioki.
Her name is Okame, meaning “honorable turtle.” Perhaps she is called that because her head reminds people of the shape of a turtle shell, or because turtle shells were used to make primitive masks with her image. In any case, being called Okame is a good thing; the turtle is a symbol of longevity in Japan. Okame is also popularly referred to as Otafuku, which means “much good fortune.”
People will tell you that Okame has a large forehead for wisdom, big ears for good listening, and a small nose to indicate modesty. They would also says that her round face and rouged cheeks are symbols of happiness and simple pleasures. “Her smiling face takes away worry and brings joy,” writes Amy Katoh in her charming book about Otafuku. “Her chubby cheeks and tiny red mouth suggest robust health and earthy simplicity.”
Okame has a connection with Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess and Shinto deity who is one of the mythological ancestors of the Emperor of Japan. Following a fight with her brother and fellow god Susanoo, Amaterasu sulked in a cave, plunging the world into darkness. A minor goddess named Ame-no-Uzume lured Amaterasu back into the world by dancing and singing in a lewd manner outside the entrance to the cave. Ame-no-Uzume was then worshipped as the Shinto goddess of mirth and joy, and she eventually became know as the character Okame.
While Okame or Otafuku may look plump and a little frumpy — and heaven forbid, middle-aged — she is a symbol of sensuality due to her past as a dancing girl. Appropriately she’s hardly ever seen alone; she’s usually in the company of Hyottoko, a male companion with an equally funny face.