Japanese superstitions: It can’t hurt to know, but it may hurt not to know

By Jackie Hoffart

I knock on wood. I do. I do it almost instinctively whenever I mention my good fortune. I have definitely woken up on the wrong side of the bed before, and I feel responsible for the weather after I kill a spider. You see, it’s not that I really believe in superstitions, it’s just that I can’t entirely discount them. It turns out I’m not alone.

In my Very Scientific Research for this article on Japanese superstitions, I was impressed by the 1,090,000 hits Google yielded under those search words. After polishing off all of those, I decided to consult my Japanese teacher who, at the not-exactly-obaachan age of “mid-50’s”, seems somehow smarter and more reliable than all of the internet’s hitmen put together. Together, Yoko-san and I came up with two separate groups of superstitions. The first I call “common knowledge” (which shall mean Yoko-san Approved, or Y.S.A.) and the second; “special” (which shall mean “Yoko-san hadn’t heard of them, or Y.S.H.H.O.T.).

Common Knowledge (Y.S.A.)

  • Don’t stick your chopsticks vertically into your rice-bowl. This is what the Japanese do at funerals, and anything relating to death or funerals is bad news. If you don’t already know this, you may want to reconsider your re-contracting decision.
  • The number 4 is bad news because it can be read as shi which means death. 9 is also bad, because it can be read as ku which means pain.
  • Giving gifts or even buying things for your home in multiples of 4 is even unlucky. For safer gift-giving, abstinence is not the answer. Instead, stick with 1, 3 or 5 for your gift quantities. For a wedding, never give a sum of money that can be easily divided by two (e.g. Give 30,000yen, not 20,000yen).
  • Don’t pass food chopstick to chopstick. This is done with cremated remains at a funeral. Oishikunai!
  • Do not sleep or arrange your bed or futon facing north, as this is how dead bodies are lain at funerals.
  • A broken comb, geta (下駄) strap or zori (草履) is bad news. I don’t know why.
  • If a funeral procession passes by you, you should hide your thumbs (or your oya-yubi 親指) in your fists, or else your parents will surely die (“soon”, I think, is meant to be assumed…)
  • Before re-entering your home after attending a funeral, you should throw salt over yourself to “cleanse”.
  • If you lie down immediately after eating, you will become a cow. (buuubuuubuuu)
  • Red sea bream (tai) is the good luck fish of Japan, and is commonly consumed at weddings and other big celebrations. The yellow tail (buri) is a lesser known yet still lucky fish.
  • Ichi home, niku sashi, san bore, shi kaze” is a saying for interpreting the meaning of one’s sneeze multiples. Literally: “One sneeze, you are being praised; two sneezes, someone is speaking ill of you; three, you will fall in love; four, you have a cold.” The third one, san bore, may be regional. In other regions, this may be the kaze one. (Score one for Hiroshima!)
  • Kanji stroke count in a new child’s first name is a heavily coded ordeal which follows strict rules I do not pretend to understand. Point: there are rules. They are important.
  • Yakudoshi are unlucky or evil ages, which differ between men and women. For the ladies, they are 19 and 33 (can you say married and babies?) and for the boys, 25, 42 and 60 (can you say married, babies and boss?).
  • If you are feeling anxious or nervous, you should write the kanji for “people” (人nin) on your hand three times and then pretend to swallow or “drink” it. This is said to be relaxing.
  • As for ghosts (referred to in Japanese as お化けobake, 化け物bakemono, 妖怪youkai or 幽霊yuurei), the most significant is Rokurokubi (ろくろ首) which, as far as I understand, is a special kind of female monster/ghost with a long, flexible neck. Supposedly masquerading as a real woman during the day, she can be found in taxi cabs at night. Rokurokubi can also be used casually to refer to a person with a long neck, or a person who is extremely changeable.

SPECIAL (Y.S.H.H.O.T.)

  • If you cut your nails at night, you will not be with your parents when they die.
  • If you whistle at night, a snake will come to you.
  • If a bird sh*ts on you, it’s a good omen. (To which I say no sh*t, in disbelief….)
  • If the first person you see in the day is a woman, you will have good luck (score one for the lesbians!)
  • Alternatively, if the first person you see in the day is a Buddhist priest, you will have bad luck. (Minus one for the lesbians who live next to temples….)
  • If you talk back to someone who is talking in their sleep, it’s bad luck. Or as we like to say in Canada: “weird”.
  • If your nose itches, you know someone who is “with child”.
  • If you wear new shoes on a rainy day, it will rain every time you wear them in the future.
  • Mending anything with a needle and thread immediately before leaving the house is unlucky.
  • Sustained eye-contact with a crow is bad luck (similarily in ‘western’ folklore the crow is a symbol of death).
  • If you see a spider in the morning, it’s good luck – so don’t kill it. At night however, it’s bad news bears, so squash away!

I can’t write about superstition in Japan without writing about omikuji (御神籤). Omikuji are little paper fortunes which you can “buy” at most temples. Your fortune paper will generally fall into one of four basic categories: daikichi (吉great blessing), chukichi (中吉middle blessing), shokichi (小吉small blessing), or the straight up kichi (吉blessing). Sometimes included are more specific explanations of your luck with reference to legal matters, travel, competition, health, trade, “a person whom you wait for”, or “a thing you have lost”. If it’s a good fortune, you are meant to keep it, and if it’s bad, you tie it to a pine tree (or available string) to fend off the bad fortune. Todaiji Temple (the one with the big Buddha) in Nara even has omikuji available in English.

If you are interested in delving further into the many layers of superstition or Buddhist tradition, check out http://www.seiyaku.com/customs/rokuyo.html for information about rokuyo (六曜), which are the Buddhist days of the week – “friend-pulling day” is definitely worth knowing about!

Until next time, take care – and be gentle with your geta!