How Do Lucky And Unlucky Numbers Factor Into Anime?

by Justin Sevakis,

Evan asked:

As a westerner watching anime, should seeing the number 4 or 9 immediately set off alarm bells? I know that both 4 and 9 are considered "unlucky" in Japan because in Japanese. This comes up in Outlaw Star where the Caster Shells that have the most risk associated with them are numbers 4, 9, and 13. Similarly, in Hunter x Hunter, Hisoka was the 4th member of the Phantom Troupe and his Hunter Exam number was 44. Am I reading too much into this and finding reference that aren't there? Or is this like encountering 666 in western media, where it is always clearly the intent of the author?

It depends. Single digit numbers come up a lot more commonly than 666 does, simply because we use those numbers all the time. It's one of those things that COULD be intentional on the part of the writer, but unless it's fairly blatant, you can never really be too sure.

For those unfamiliar, "4" is considered unlucky in Japan. Not only does the kanji 四 have some elements that look similar to the character for "death" (死), but the two can be pronounced the same as well -- "shi". Maternity wards skip the number "43" because that can be read as "shisan" which means "stillborn" (死産). Driver's licenses skip 42 because "shini" sounds like 死に ([something] to death) and with Japanese license plates generally being in ##-## format, that combines awkwardly with other number puns: 42-56 becomes "shini goro" or "time to die," for example.

Nine also is a "bad sounding" number, because when read as "ku", it sounds a lot like 苦, which means suffering/torture. That said, the number itself isn't really considered unlucky per se, but more than it's used a lot for oblique references to pain and suffering.

There are also lucky numbers. In terms of numerical superstitions, seven is seemingly a universally significant number. In Buddhism it comes up a lot: people get reincarnated seven times; a baby's seventh day on earth is celebrated, as is seven days and seven weeks after someone dies. There are also the Seven Lucky Gods from Japanese folklore. On New Year's Day you eat Seven Herbs Rice Porridge, which contain the seven herbs of spring (which supposedly prevent illness by casting away evil spirits). Seven is also supposedly the largest number of items that a human brain can easily identify visually without having to count them.

Eight is also a lucky number, although that one comes up less commonly in Japan. Its kanji (八) seems to suggest widening at the bottom, indicating prosperity and growth. It's lucky properties seem to be more of a Chinese thing -- in Chinese it's pronounced "ba" which sounds like "fortune/wealth" (发), and is used online and with gambling a lot.

But generally, according to East Asian numerology, odd numbers are luckier than even numbers. Some are joined together, like 3, 5 and 7, which are combined into a festival for children that age (Shichi-Go-San). And generally, enough people think about things like influencing luck that, even if they don't entirely believe the superstition, will still have a flash of good/bad recognition when the numbers come up. It's just part of the culture.

So, when you see these numbers come up in anime, they could be entirely innocent, or they could be some intentional subtlety on the part of the writer. You can often tell by context. Hisoka in Hunter x Hunter is a terrifying villain, so his constant drawing of the number 4 is almost certainly no accident. (Hunter x Hunter is also aimed at younger fans, so easy-to-grasp hints like that are more likely to be sprinkled into narratives.) Conversely, if someone only has ¥400 in their wallet, that probably doesn't mean anything. Probably.

Generally, if you see the numbers 4 or 7 come up in a conspicuous way, I would look a little closer to try and analyze if there's any nod to those numbers' alternate meanings. Trying to figure that out is part of the fun of watching and reading, in my opinion.

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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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