What Are Some Japanese Superstitions?
by Justin Sevakis,
There is a multitude of superstitions in the world. The one I keep hearing often in Japanese anime is “If you sigh you'll chase happiness away” or something like that. What are some other common Japanese superstitions that foreigners would find odd?
Superstitions, by their very nature, don't make rational sense. Some are based on beliefs that were commonplace long ago, or are religious or spiritual in nature. Others came about as stories meant to scare people into acting a certain way, worked too well, and took root in the general consciousness. They develop differently in cultures all over the world, and it can be fascinating to read and learn about them.
There are plenty of superstitions in Japan. Shintoism, the uniquely Japanese religion that deals a lot with direct interactions with the spirit world, has for centuries kept people thinking seriously about ghosts, how to placate them, and not run afoul of various spirits. Buddhism, Japan's other common religion, also deals with the after-life, and so the combined mythology of the two have wormed their way into everyday Japanese culture, even if the people themselves mostly call themselves non-religious these days. This results in traditions like throwing salt over yourself to purify your spirit before going to a funeral. Even if you don't connect it to a religion, it's just something you do.
Many superstitions deal with the noble pursuit of not dying, which, in the days before medicine and science, was a lot harder than it is today. Doing certain things that are the domain of death and funerals are seen as inviting death upon yourself: never pass food from chopstick to chopstick (that's a funeral tradition) or stick chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice or other food (as that's how you offer it at an alter to dead relatives). Grave markers are traditionally written in red ink, so writing someone's name in red is thought to have Death Note-like properties. Since bodies are buried with heads pointed North, people try not to sleep that way. However, sometimes this one may be difficult to square with the belief that sleeping with your feet in the direction of somebody is disrespectful to them. (Feet being dirty, and all.)
Numerical superstitions in Japanese are a little more obvious than they are in the West: the numbers 4 and 9 are bad luck because the kanji for 4 (四) is similar to the kanji for death (死), and both can be pronounced "shi"; 9 (九) can also be pronounced "ku" which makes it a homonym for torture.
There are the superstitions meant to scare children: cutting your nails at night was a dangerous thing to do before homes were lit with electricity and nails were trimmed with sharp knives, so kids were told it's bad luck. Similarly, playing with fire is always dangerous; kids were told that if they did it, they'd wet the bed.
Some superstitions are more predictive than anything else. Cats washing their face, or a low-flying swallow means it will rain. Sneezing means someone is talking about you. (And two sneezes in a row means someone is crushing on you!) Big ears means you'll get rich. A clean bathroom makes your baby beautiful. Big feet mean you're not very smart.
There are so many, I could go on forever. It is important to study these cultural quirks, if for no other reason than not embarrassing yourself when you visit: some of the above taboos (especially the chopstick ones) definitely come up in day-to-day life. One anime convention a few years back took visiting Japanese guests to a very Americanized Asian restaurant, where chopsticks were presented to diners standing up, and the guests were visibly taken aback. Others (like the sneezing thing) are not taken seriously and are usually only invoked as jokes these days.
Folk wisdom and superstitions from every culture can be pretty amusing. I remember reading an Old Farmers' Almanac as a kid and finding such gems like "bathing your baby in urine will make them beautiful." I have yet to try that one.
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Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for over 20 years. He's the original founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.
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