The Unusual Superstitions of the Japanese

Jan 3rd, 2009 | By | Category: Lifestyle

Old or young, we all have superstitions that we have grown up with.  The activities that we engage in are not usually dictated  by these superstitions but there some things that we do, or don’t do, out of habit without even thinking about the fact that they are based on superstition.  Some superstitions are unique to the Japanese and may seem a little bit silly or simply usual but they have social significance to those raised in Japan or by those of Japanese descent around the world.

Here are a few Japanese superstitions:

Inanimate Things Have a Spirit

Ningyo Japanese DollMany Japanese Buddhists believe that even inanimate objects have a spirit and many Japanese ghost tales involve an object coming to life. A great example of this is the annual ningyo kuyo ceremony which is a funeral of sorts for unwanted dolls.  Donors and Buddhist monks offer prayers of thanks for the joy and fond memories brought by the dolls before they are burnt in a small hearth at a temple. The Japanese folktale about a living umbrella also serves as a reminder that even inanimate objects can have a spirit, or not.

Unlucky Numbers

In western cultures the number seven is thought to be lucky while the number thirteen is said to be ominous.  In Japan the number four is considered bad luck along with the number nine.

The number four is pronounced as “shi” in Japanese, and is the word for death.  The number nine is pronounced “ku” and rhymes with “kutsuu” which means pain in Japanese.  The number four and two together are pronounced “shi-ni” which means to die and as a result the number forty-two is considered unlucky as is number twenty-four or “ni-shi” meaning double death.

It is rare to see athletes wearing these Jersey numbers and some hospitals do not have rooms with these numers.

Superstitions around Death in Japan

  • Don’t cute your nails at night (yozume) as the kanji for the term can also be read as “quick death”.
  • Don’t say the word “shio” or salt near nightfall as it could be mistaken for “shi”(the word for death).
  • The middle person in a photo of three will become unlucky and may die at an early age.

Umeboshi for luck Lucky Superstitions in Japan

  • If you step in animal dung or bird dropping fall on you is it said to be lucky as the word for luck, “un”, is pronounce the same as the word for excrement.
  • Eat an umeboshi (pickled plum – pictured on the right) every morning and you will avoid accidents during the day.

Don’t Say This

  • Do not say the words “kaeru”, meaning to go home, or “modoru”, meaning to return at a Japanese wedding or you will jinx the marriage and the bride will leave her husband’s home and return to her parents.
  • Fishermen headed out to sea are sure to say “etekou” instead of the word “saru” which means to leave and not come back.

Don’t Do This

Bad luck will ensure if you:

  • Step on the cloth border of the tatami floor mats.
  • Stick your chopsticks upright in a full rice-bowl (part of the Japanese funeral ceremony).
  • Break a comb.
  • Break the strap of your geta (wooden clog) or zori (slippers).
  • Eat fried eel and melon at the same meal.

Predicting the Weather

omomori good luck bagDid you know that if you throw your shoe up in the air that you can predict the weather?  An old Japanese superstition states that if the shoe lands on it’s sole the day will be pleasant.  If it lands on it’s side the day will be cloudy and if it lands upside down it will rain.

Protect Yourself from Bad Fortune

Pick up a omamori (amulet containing prayers – pictured on the right) at a temple or shrine in Japan to ward off bad fortune and bring you luck.  There are omamori for good health, safe driving, good performance school exams and a whole host of other situations where a little divine intervention might ensure a favorable outcome.

Image Credit:  Personal Collection & Flickr, Umeboshi & Omamori and Sensu (舞扇)

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  1. These are all wonderful and beautiful beliefs.

  2. Wonderful post Shane thank you! We picked up some omamori at Atsuta Shrine on New Years Eve (about 5 mins into the New Year actually) We got one for luck, one for health and one for drive - we have hung them by their little plastic suckers on the side of the stairs but the omamori for drive keeps falling off - it seems even the gods have doubts they can cure my procrastination!!

  3. I have heard of a lot of these superstitions. I think many Japanese don’t think about some these. When I told my Japanese wife about not stepping on the edge of the tatami, she didn’t know what I was talking about. However, she has told me how bad it is to stick you chopsticks up in the bowl of rice.

  4. After series of bad luck starting the end of November 2008, my American husband is asking me to go to Kawasaki Daishi to get rid of my bad luck. I guess it’s only fair since I gave him an ultimatum to go there when he had his yakudoshi or when he turned 41 (which is considered as 42 with old way of counting age).

  5. The idea that inanimate objects in Japan is a Shinto belief. While Buddhism and Shinto blend together quite seamlessly in Japan, the animistic beliefs of some Japanese are entirely from the Shinto side of life. Buddhism technically doesn’t even posit a spirit (as we conceive of it) for living things, let alone inanimate ones.

    Also, animistic beliefs aren’t even really that uncommon in the world. Many cultures, even Western ones, have beliefs and customs which could be called animistic. I, for example, am convinced there is some evil spirit in my car that makes it break down when I most rely on it :)

    Good list though. Cheers.

  6. uh oh, I am not a big fan of ume-boshi. I may just have to take the bad luck.

  7. […] The fruit of the ume tree, the Japanese plum is considered good luck in Japan, that is if you eat one each morning! It’s just one of the common superstitions in Japan. […]

  8. Interesting. I didn’t know a couple of these, including the wedding one. I’ll have to remember that!

  9. I am a girl that comes from Japan, so I know all of these superstitions.

  10. hi there

    Does anyone know of any Japanese wedding anniversary traditions/gifts?

  11. I really can’t believe you listed, “Inanimate Things Have a Spirit” as a superstition. That’s a serious religious belief… In Japan it’s Shintoism, in general the term is called animism. Basically all things having a spirit. The native americans have a similar belief. Just because you don’t think it’s true doesn’t make it a superstition.

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