How Superstitious Is Japan, Really?
by Justin Sevakis,
Are Japanese people in real life really as superstitious as they're portrayed in anime? Like in every anime that takes place at a school, there always seems to be that one character that's deathly afraid of ghosts to the point of absurdity. Or you often see characters that take things like tarot cards and fortunes super seriously. Even though you have your superstitious people in America, I feel like it's more niche over here. Like most people going into a school building alone at night might be more worried about being robbed by a stranger than they would be about the existence of ghosts. I know there is some issues with superstitions in Japan, especially in regards to blood type discrimination, but is it as taken as seriously or common place as anime makes it out to be? Or this just another one of those fictional tropes school life anime loves to make up?
Asian countries in general are much more superstitious than the West. One must remember that Western thinking on spiritual matters is very heavily influenced by Christianity, which carries with it a heavy insistence that spirits no longer attached to bodies don't remain on earth. While we have plenty of stories and old beliefs and such that are about spirits and ghosts, there was always a strong element of society ready to shout, "WELL ACTUALLY, ghosts don't exist, so you're all being silly" and leaping to debunk them. It's part of our culture. And while it's fun for some of us to kinda-sorta believe that maybe there might be a ghost or a haunting somewhere, we also get quite a bit of fun in pulling the sheet off the ghost and revealing that it was actually the old man from the shop! ("And I would've gotten away with it too, if it weren't for you meddling kids!")
Eastern religions do not have this stubborn element of anti-ghost belief. Buddhism places heavy emphasis on the idea of reincarnation. Japanese tradition and Shintoism have combined over the centuries to bring rise to the idea of yurei, which include several categories of ghosts that return from the land of the dead, usually as a result of unfulfillment or anger. Onryo are vengeful ghosts, ubume are the spirits of mothers who died either in childbirth or with young children who return to look after their kids. Goryo are vengeful aristorcratic ghosts, funayurei are ghosts who died at sea, zashiki-warashi are playful child ghosts, and jibakurei are ghosts that haunt a certain location (such as Toilet Hanako, or the hauntings in many J-horror movies). If you've seen enough anime, many of the above probably sound familiar.
In much the same way, fortune telling (such as with blood types or tarot cards) is something that meshes well with religious traditions in Japan, rather than being condemned like in the West. Shrines do great business by selling lucky charms and various fortune-telling and improving rituals. It's simply part of the culture, and while most people don't really take it all that seriously, it's something that people might lean on in times of stress or trouble.
As an interesting aside, fortune cookies, an American invention, are thought to have originated from a Shinto shrine in Japan and brought to Japanese restaurants in San Francisco by expatriates; Chinese restaurants co-opted the idea during the Japanese American internments of World War II.
Every culture has its superstitions, and some are more widely believed than others. And since Asian cultures don't put much value in flaunting your beliefs publicly or confronting the beliefs of others, they do tend to take root a little more over there.
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Anime News Network founder Justin Sevakis wrote Answerman between July 2013 and August 2019, and had over 20 years of experience in the anime business at the time. These days, he's the owner of the video production company MediaOCD, where he produces many anime Blu-rays. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.
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