Many people in the West commonly confuse this jolly, laughing fellow with the Buddha, often calling him The Fat Buddha. I know I did when I was young. Those who are a little more familiar with Buddhism call him The laughing Buddha. His name is Budai, or Hotei in Japanese, and he was a Chinese zen monk around 900 AD. Some schools considered him an incarnation of Maitreya, the future Buddha.
He’s usually depicted with the bag you see set down beside him in the photo below, often with prayer beads too. There is a zen story that says one day a monk approached Budai and asked what enlightenment was like. Budai smiled and took his heavy bag from his shoulders, laid it on the ground and stood up straight. Then the monk asked what comes after enlightenment and Budai smiled even more, stooped over, took up his bag once more, and walked off1.
You often see the statue alone, but sometimes you see him grouped with six other characters. These are the Seven Lucky Gods. They arrive on a boat at New Years and give gifts. It’s considered good luck to rub his belly, so next time you see a statue of him, give that belly a good rub.
I took this photo in Atami, by the way, a wonderful hot spring town about an hours journey south of Tokyo. If I recall correctly, the statue was near this shrine, about half way up the thousands of steps I had to climb to get there2.