Superstition in Japan
Japan may be one of the world’s most technologically advanced countries. But just like so many other places in the world, there’s still plenty of odd ideas. Superstition in Japan can be easily found. Here’s a list of some basic superstitions you’ll want to keep in mind for the next time you visit Japan.
Good cat, bad cat.
Thanks to Western culture, black cats are considered bad in Japan. But did you know that the Japanese also have a good cat? It’s called a “maneki neko”—“ the welcoming/lucky cat.” In order to increase wealth, a Maneki Neko sculpture is often placed outside of shops and other businesses with either the left or right paw raised, depending on whether the owner is trying to attract more customers or become wealthier.
Sleep well—as long as your head isn’t facing north.
Part of the traditional Buddhist funeral includes laying out the body with its head facing to the north. For this reason, many Japanese are careful to position their beds so their heads do not face north. This superstition is known as “kita-makura.”
4 is a bad number. So is 9. And so is 13.
And so is any other number that, when pronounced, sounds bad. For instance, in Japanese the word for “four” can be pronounced “shi,” which just happens to mean “death.” Bummer! So, in order to prevent unnecessary death, the number 4 is generally avoided. That’s why the elevators in some buildings look like this:
Also, keep in mind that giving someone 4 gifts is like saying “I hope you die.”
The number 9 is unlucky for similar reasons: it can be pronounced “ku,” the word for “pain.” And it’s not enough to have only two unlucky numbers, is it? Of course not. That’s why, thanks to Western influence, the number 13 is also unlucky.
Don’t break stuff.
Believe it or not, some Japanese people consider it unlucky to break stuff, like a comb or sandal strap. Go figure.
Speaking of funerals, hide those thumbs.
The Japanese word for “thumb” literally means “parent finger,” so anytime a funeral procession goes by, you need to make sure you hide your thumbs. Yes, both of them. Because your parents need to be protected from all the death exposure.
Buddha, the wedding planner.
There are bad days to get married, and then there are terrible days—like “butsumetsu” days, which symbolize the day the Buddha died. Following the traditional calendar cycle, it’s best to not get married on one of these days. Instead, shoot for a “taian” day, which promises good luck for the nuptials.
It is said that if you see a spider in the morning, you should let it live because good luck’s coming your way. See a spider at night, however, and you’re in for it.
The cow of laziness.
It’s not good to take a rest right after a meal, mainly because you’ll turn into a cow if you do. This superstition is really just a way to keep people from being lazy.
Still think you can avoid all the bad luck? Sorry, you’re screwed no matter what you do…
There’s still the superstition called “yakudoshi”—the year of bad luck or calamity. Certain years are considered very unlucky, and depending on your gender the exact years are different. Taking into account that this superstition is based on an old method of figuring your age (in which you’re born as a one-year-old), men need to watch out for years 25, 42, and 61. Women—beware when you turn 19, 33, and 37.
…unless you get one of these.
Don’t worry, to help prevent all that bad luck, you can stop at a shrine and buy an “omamori,” which is a small amulet containing written prayers that are supposed to ward off ill fortune. The charms, which do not expire, can be purchased to bring good luck in just about any kind of situation.
This list of superstitions is by no means exhaustive—there are plenty of other kinky beliefs out there. If you happen to be the superstitious type, I’d say the first thing on your schedule needs to be a stop to make a purchase at one of those shrines.