My guide to Japanese superstitions

Japanese Superstitions – a comprehensive guide

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Summer is here and summer is the magical, spiritual, ghostly season we generally keep for the end of October. There are many explanations why summer is considered the ghost season and I will explain that in my upcoming Ghost series I’ve been working on. But now, I thought to get started with a somewhat lighter yet popular genre: the world of superstitions, deeply rooted in one’s culture. After my British and Arabic superstition posts, I thought to randomly make a post about the most notable and the weirdest Japanese superstitions I could lay my eyes on.

Consider this as the Pilot for my new Japanese Ghost series which I’m to release in the upcoming days continued from my Yokai series.

Magic and spiritualism in Japan

As I have already described in my posts about Yokai Japan’s key term for most supernatural creatures Japanese have a deep-rooted belief in ghosts which is mainly because of Shinto Japan’s ancient religion which basically equals the world of occultism. Shinto considers all objects as living creatures and creates a world that is full of spirits, which have close connections with their ancestors. However, you will also see in all these superstitions, how even far away cultures connect as some of these weird superstitions do connect with the Arabic or to the British superstitions. However, as you will see there are plenty of superstitions also connected to Buddhist rituals, especially to the ritual of mourning which is traditionally following the Buddhist traditions for the majority of Japanese.

So let’s get started or as the Japanese say: Hajimemashite.

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It’s no wonder if the Japanese are so connected to spiritualism and occultism having so many magical places like the Sagano Bamboo Forest in Kyoto

Japanese Superstitions regarding numbers

Unlucky years

Imagine every day was Friday the 13th for a whole year! In Japan, people in fact believe that a certain age somebody reaches are especially unlucky. The unlucky years are called yakudoshi (厄年/やくどし) and they are different for men and women. To make things even worse, it’s not just one year of age but altogether 3 years. The main unlucky years are known as honyaku (本厄/ほんやく)  which is 25, 42, and 61 for men, and 19, 33, and 37 for women.

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Japanese love to be prepared: this is a gentle reminder for the unlucky ages for men (1st column) and for women ( 2nd column)

The year before (“mae-yaku” 前厄/まえやき) and after (“atou-yaku” 後厄/あとやき) the main unlucky year (age) is also considered unlucky. To prevent all three years of misfortune, those entering their unlucky years have to go through the ceremony of purification at a temple or shrine in the beginning of each unlucky year, counting from their birthday.

Unlucky numbers

Japan also has its fair share of numbers which are considered lucky or unlucky

The number four is considered to be the most unlucky because the word for four is shi (四/し) in Japanese which sounds the same as death shi (死/し) although they are written differently. Likewise, the word for nine ku (九/く) sounds identical to the word for pain and suffering ku (苦/く). This is why in Japanese protocol gifts should never be presented in fours, but rather in sets of three or five.

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The same way as the number 13 is not present in many countries as a room number or floor number in Japan the same goes for not only the the number four but also for many of its variants. For instance, in Japan there is no room 43 the maternity section of a hospital, room number 43 is avoided because it can literally mean “stillbirth” . In cars and racing, the numbers 42 and 49 are avoided as it sounds like shini (死に – to death) and 49 sounds like shiku (敷く – to run over).

Due to these unlucky sound connotations, Japanese prefer to pronounce the numbers 4 and 9 as “yon” (4) and kyuu (9) instead.

Lucky numbers

On the other hand, there are lucky numbers as well. Number 7 is considered a good number as 7 symbolizes “togetherness”. The number 8 is considered a lucky number  too because it is nearly homophonous to the word “prosperity” (繁栄 han’ei), It is also homophonous to Hachikō. Number 9 can be also considered a good number, but only when pronounced as “kyū”, which also means relief. Number 10 is considered a good number because it is pronounced “jū”, like the word for “enough” and “replete”.

Japanese Superstitions regarding bad/evil spirits

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Though these forest spirits are not the evil ones this pic I found the most suitable for this topic

Don’t cut your nails at night

Japanese:夜爪(よづめ = Yozume): “Night Nails”.

Don’t cut nails at night ( Yozume also means to pass away) so it is never a good word to say. According to this key superstition cutting nails at night time may raise the attention of evil spirits. As an explanation in the past, there was no electricity to light the streets, or your home at night. People believed evil spirits, akuryou, would come around at night, especially if they “feel” invited by a sound like the sound of nail clips.

What is weird is, that Japanese also believe that nail clipping tools had spiritual power, known as reiryoku (霊力/れいりょく) to drive evil spirits away,  But at the same time, cutting instruments created a gap in whatever they cut which allowed evil spirits to enter through the gap if it was used at night. Interestingly this superstition can also be found in other cultures ( check out my post on Arabic superstitions).

Put Scissors under your pillow for protection

It’s been believed for a long time, that if you put a pair of scissors under your pillow is said to be effective warding off the evil spirits and they would also ward off bad dreams. As a bad sleeper I will give this a try and will let you know if it works or not.

Don’t hang wet laundry at night

People used to believe that clothes held onto the owner’s spirit even after death. Therefore if you keep your laundry outside at night, the clothes would call dead spirits and become haunted.  I may think the explanation behind this is, that wet laundry hung out at night would not dry but it could get stolen or it can fly away. White laundry hanging outside at night may also scare others who may think they are ghosts from afar.

Don’t whistle at night

Japanese: yoru no fue subeki de nai -夜の笛すべきでない/よるのふえすべきでない

This is another superstition that’s to be found in other cultures too. In the old times, whistling was a sign used by burglars and other criminals to communicate with each other.  This way the hearing of whistling may scare others living nearby and it may also attract burglars. In another type of this superstition it’s said that whistling sounds may attract snakes in one’s home.

Nature-related superstitions

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there are not many places where natural disasters are as vicious as in Japan

 

Light pink cherry blossoms means a cold spring

Just like in any other cultures lots of superstitions are based on obseravtions mixed up with experiences. Lighter pink cherry blossoms may mean that the blossoms didn’t get enough warmth and sunshine which equals colder weather.

When swallows flies lower, it will rain tomorrow

Actually this is also a popular superstition elsewhere as lots of birds in real fly lower when the air pressure goes higher, whch is one sign of weather change, thunder and storm. Swallow often nest under roofs and they are very popular and much liked in Japan. When air pressure goes high bugs tend to go lower which also makes the birds hunting for them to fly lower. Which means this superstition makes sense.

Heavy snow in the winter results in a big harvest next autumn

Another weather based superstition which is very popular to this day. Japan where the large majority of people’s primary job is agriculture related to this day, finds these sort of superstition / forecasts especially important. The same way as knowing the change of the seasons and understanding the signs of weather changes which may highly affect harvesting.

When a cat washes its face, it will rain tomorrow

There are tons of hypotheses to prove this superstition being true. However there is no solid connection between cats washing their face and rainy weather so far. But, contrary to all this, this is a very popular superstition to this day.

When catfish start acting violently, an earthquake is coming

There is scientific research that proves that certain if not all animals do feel weather changes and other catastrophes well before humans do. We don’t know if catfish have any specific sensors that differentiate them from other animals. We can assume this superstition was created by fishermen back in the day based on their experiences.

Superstitions connected to the Buddhist funeral ceremony

Japan is said to be a country where religion is taken pretty lightly and used in a very Japanese way. This means in Japan people do not exclusively follow one religion but make a mix of multiple religions based on the actions, reasons and types of prayers they need to make. This way, most people in Japan have a Shinto or Christian style wedding ( Christian for the wedding dress mostly) and their burials is almost exclusively performed according to Buddhist traditions. People also frequent both Buddhist and Shinto shrines depending on the occasion or celebration that’s being conducted. Buddhist burial ceremony is a very detailed and overally very noble ceremony. No wonder, there are so many superstitions connected to it.

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traditional funeral invite

Hide Your Thumbs from Funeral Cars

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Japanese Buddhist funeral car

Japanese : reikyuusha kara oyayubi wo kakusu /霊柩車から親指を隠す/れいきゅしゃからおやゆびをかくす

The Japanese word for “thumb” is oyayubi (親指/おやゆび) which translates into “parent finger”.  This saying/superstition basically means that you are risking the possibility of your parents dieing at a young age, if you don’t hide your thumbs!” In Japan it’s still much believed that spirits of the dead dangerous or not, would hang out around the funeral car with their casket. As a result, if you don’t hide your thumbs while a funeral car passes, then the spirit may enter your body from underneath your thumbnail! Some people will even hide their thumbs when they pass a graveyard or a funeral.

Never insert your chopsticks in your rice in an upright position

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This is called hotokebashi this is one key thing tourists are warned about

A cup of rice called maruka meshi (枕飯/まるかめし) is also left beside the body with two chopsticks standing upright into the rice. The rice is left for the deceased and is not to be consumed by the living. This is why it’s taboo to stick your chopsticks in an upright position anytime during meal.

Don’t Sleep Facing North

Japanese: 北向きに寝てはいけない/きたむきにねてはいけない – kita muki ni nete wa ikenai

At Buddhist funerals, corpses are positioned so their head is facing north. When setting up beds, Japanese people are attentive to the direction that their heads will point. Sleeping with your head facing north is called kita makura (北枕/きたまくら). Someone who sleeps with their head facing north will receive bad luck as consequence, or worse, death will welcome whoever sleeps with their head north. This is a belief that also exist in China and therefore is part of the Feng shui ruleset when furnishing a home.

Never Write A Person’s Name in Red Ink

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the only tombstone where I could detect red ink

Japanese: hito no namae wo akaji de kaite wa ikenai/人の名前を赤字で書いてはいけない/ひとのなまえをあかじでかいてはいけない

Japanese tombstones, bohi (墓碑/ぼひ) are marked with the names of family members, with names written in black and red ink. The deceased members have their names marked in black, while those who are still living will have their names written in red. Although we may think this works the other way round. Hence, writing someone’s name in red is inauspicious not lucky. Today this tradition or superstition ties into business and social etiquette too so rather don’t write using red pencil or pen at all.

Food should never be passed chopstick-to-chopstick

While us lesser informed may think this is a habit that’s even cute, the only time Japanese pass something chopstick to schopstick is during the Buddhist burial ceremony  where bone fragments of the cremated  are placed in an urn this way.

Health-related superstitions

Dealing with children’ fallen out teeth

Japanese: 歯 (は):Ha

Children’s teeth don’t end up in tooth fairy’s pocket in Japan. Teeth from the upper side are thrown outside the window, and ones from the lower side will be tossed up to the roof so that the new teeth will grow healthy and strong.

Hide Your Bellybutton

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Raijin (red) and his ally Fujin are the gods of thunder

Japanese: teru teru bouzu/heso wo kakusu /へそを隠す/へそをかくす

This is one of the oldest and most known superstitions.  It’s believed that Raijin (雷神/らいじん), the god of thunder, lightening, and storms, would eat the bellybuttons (or entire abdomen) of children. The origin of this tale isn’t clear, but to this day you’ll hear parents warning their children to cover their stomachs during a storm.

The god Raijin is often seen with his companion Raijuu (雷獣/らいじゅう). Raijuu is said to nest himself inside human belly buttons while he sleeps. When Raijin wants to wake his companion, he strikes Raijuu with lightning! Covering your midsection is a way to prevent Raijuu from sleeping in your tummy (and potentially being struck by lightning as a result).

Parents use these stories to keep their children from exposing their stomachs, which puts them at risk of catching a cold. According to some, this is especially used when there is a rainstorm outside. As an extra amulet A handmade doll with a cloth, the teru teru bouzu serves as a rain deterrent. It’s attached to a window the night before a family excursion to ward off bad weather and encourage the return of the sun.

Drinking vinegar to make your body flexible

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In Japan, vinegar is considered to be very healthy and cleanses your body when you drink or eat it.  There is no scientific proof for this superstition but you can hear many people say this as if it is the truth.

If you keep your bathroom clean, you will have a beautiful baby

this has no known base whatsoever apart from the fact, that hygiene is extremely important in all households but especially in those who are expecting a baby.

Hiccup can cause death

The belief is that you can die from hiccuping for 100 times (of course this is completely untrue)

Sneezing: a sign of being talked about

This is very popular among all generations. One sneeze means someone is talking about you. Two sneezes mean someone is saying something bad about you. And three sneezes in a row means someone has just fallen into love with you! Interestingly in Hungary, talking about the part is said to happen when somebody hiccups.

Superstitions regarding good or bad luck

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Don’t Step on the Border of a Tatami Mat

(tatami no heri funde wa ikenai) (畳のへり踏んではいけない/たたみのへりふんではいけない)

Another old superstition with an explanation that makes sense. Tatami mats are the typical kind of flooring that you might see used in traditional Japanese homes. Even modern homes might use tatami mats in some of their rooms. One thing that you should never do is step on the border of a tatami mat as it brings bad luck. Some tatami borders have family emblems engraved on them, so stepping on the border is said to be ‘stepping on your parents head’, but there’s another reason why stepping on the borders is a no-no: It’s thought that these borders became are a taboo because they were not part of a definite place.

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Snakeskin in your wallet brings you a big fortune

In Shintoism, snakes are very sacred animals, so having their skin in your wallet is believed to bring more fortune into one’s life. It is not however clearly stated if snakeskin wallets would also bring good luck or not, let’s hope they don’t for the safe of Japanese snakes.

Don’t break a comb

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Japanese people believe that breaking a comb can bring bad luck (similar to the belief of breaking a mirror in the West). Combs of specific decoration were long considered luxury products and as such, they were pretty pricey. This may be the reason for this superstition to be born back in the day.

Tea leaves

 

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Predicting from tea leaves is not only trendy in European cultures. Japan has it’s fair share too. It’s said that if the bottom of a single tea leave (茶柱 chabashira) is lifted straight up, then that is a sign of good luck but it is very rare that this happens.

Lucky Ears (earlobes)

Japanese: 福耳 (ふくみみ): fukumimi

Hotei ”布袋” very similar to the Chinese Laughing Buddha is the gold of wealth and he is depicted as a chubby and happy person with two enormously large ears. Therefore, Japanese people believe that if a person has big ears that means he or she will become very rich.

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Spider

Japanese: 蜘蛛 (くも):kumo

If you find a spider at home in the morning,  that is a sign of good fortune and you should never kill it. On the contrary, if you found it at night, then you must get rid of it because they are not just spiders but workers of the demons!

A crow’s caw

Here, crow’s caw fits best for a winter scenery with cold and snow. In Japan hearing it means something bad will happen. This can be anything from illness or accidents to death or natural disasters.

Don’t place a broom upside down – for businesses

If you own a business, make sure to put your broom facing downward. If you have an unwanted guest in your house, place the broom upside down to make them leave earlier. If you place a broom upside down, your customers will go away

New Year related superstitions -O-Shogatsu

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The First Dream of the Year

Japanese: 初夢  (はつゆめ):

There is a saying in Japanese「一富士二鹰三茄子」which literally means “First Fuji, Second Eagle, Third Eggplant”. According to Japanese superstitions, if someone sees these three things in that order in their first dream of the year “Hatsuyume”, then he or she will have a fortunate year.

The explanation and reason of this superstition is the following: Fuji, eagle,eggplant used to be the three favorite things of Tokugawa Ieyasu the biggest shogun of all times,  founder of Tokugawa Shogunate , which did the incredible, and closed Japan down hermetically. Tokugaway Ieyasu and his family ruled Japan from the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600 until the Meiji Restoration in 1868. This is why, this tradtition/superstition is so highly regarded to this day.

Don’t clean your house on New Year’s Day

New Year’s Day is the most sacred day of the year for Japanese people. It is a day to welcome the gods and goddesses for a new year.  So if you clean your house on that day, that means you push all these gods and goddesses away from your house throughout the year. Even though it is a mere superstition, would you take the risk? This is a tradition that’s been imported from China new year traditions.

Shintoist traditions for greater luck

Setsubun -the spring festival

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poster of a Setsubun celebration

Setsubun really marks the arrival of the spring although it’s held ahead of spring and it’s among the most important traditions and celebrations in Japan with ancient roots. The key of Setsubun is the ceremony held in order to drive the demons away. Demons represent cold, dark, winter, bad health. So, during the ceremony the most important it is to say out loud ( shout) :  “Oni was soto, fuku was uchi” (demon out, the good spirit in) and this way inviting the good spirits bringing good luck in a home. When saying the above sentence, you need to throw roasted soybeans (fortune beans) out the door of your home or at a person who is dressed as an “Oni” or Japanese demon.  This action is called mamemaki. Many also like to eat a big sushi roll (Ehomaki) during Setsubun celebration to make sure Setsubun brings as much luck as possible. Every Shinto shrine hold their own Setsubun ceremony and making it really spectacular for the audience.

Visit a Shrine to Make a Wish

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Shinto shrine similar but yet different from the Buddhist shrines

Japanese: o-hyakudo mairi – 御百度参り/おひゃくどまいり

For making a big wish, consider doing it at a shrine/jinja  or temple/otera. This ceremony is called ohyakudo mairi (お百度参り/おひゃくどまいり) which means “the one hundred times pilgrimage”. To do this, walk from a shrine’s gate to its altar (or from a temple’s gate to its main hall) one hundred times while praying for your wish to come true. To increase the chances of your wish coming true, walk barefoot. Alternatively, you can visit the shrine and make one prayer for your wish to come true each day for one hundred days. Only avoid your visit in the hour of the Ox ( at night when spirits are the most active between roughly 2-4 AM).

People do this tradition when they need a prayer to be answered, or an outstanding wish to come true. If the wish does come true, then in return the wisher will offer something to the shrine or temple such as money or frequent visits to show their thanks.

Color red being lucky

Last but not least, similarly to Chinese culture the color of red has very good properties attributed to it, which also includes good luck and protective powers.

There are so many more things which are considered lucky, unlucky. I have also enlisted plenty of these in my post regarding Japanese amulets and lucky charms.

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