About Japanese superstitions

Cats, Numbers and Other Japanese Superstitions
JUNE 12TH, 2012BY GAIJINPOTCATEGORY: CULTURE

Most of us grew up knowing that seeing a black cat means bad luck. Asia in particular, has very superstitious folks. Sometimes, most of these superstitions are shared with children for them to behave properly. In Japan, superstitions are rooted from culture and history. Superstitions such as a black cat crossing your way are common here and in other Asian countries. But these are not entirely things to be afraid of. The Maneki Neko or the “lucky cat” in Japan is very common, and many shops, restaurants and business enterprises have figures of beckoning cats because they believe they bring in money and good fortune. The Japanese old folks also believe that superstitions are meant to teach lessons or serve as practical advice.

Most of Japan’s most common superstitions are related to language, numbers and objects. Names that are homophones or words that are pronounced the same as another word but differs in meaning such as “shi” (death) and the number 4, is considered unlucky. Other beliefs are rooted in ancient Pagan animist culture in Japan, and regards living and natural things as having spirits or powers, making some animals and depiction of animals as bringers of both good and bad fortune.

There are several unlucky numbers in Japanese, aside from the numbers 4 and 9. Nine is also sometimes pronounced “ku” which means suffering. They also believe that the number 13 is unlucky, but many believe that this is just influenced by the Western culture. Because these numbers are considered bad luck, expect that public buildings avoid these numbers. In hospitals in particular, the number 43 is avoided because it can literally mean “still birth” and maternity wards don’t have that room number for such reason.

Aside from the beckoning cat figurines, the Japanese believe that if you see a spider in the morning, it means good luck. But if you see one at night, it would bring you bad luck. They also believe that if you catch a crow’s eyes, something bad will happen. Chopsticks should not be placed and stuck vertically on the food, particularly into the rice, for this is only done during funerals.

The Japanese also believe that if a funeral hearse drives past, you must hide your thumb in a fist. Hiding it is considered protection for your parent. If you don’t hide it, your parent will die. This is because the Japanese word for thumb translates as “parent-finger.” Old folks in Japan also say that if you go to a funeral, you should throw salt over yourself before entering your home for you to be cleansed. It doesn’t stop there. Japanese folks are very particular with directions. One superstition states that you should never sleep with your head in North position or you will have a short life. During meals, chopsticks should not be stuck upright into food especially rice, because this is only done on the altar at a funeral. Food should also never to be passed chopstick-to-chopstick, because this is done in a ceremony where bone fragments from cremated remains are placed in an urn, a ritual called hotokebashi. Sure, hygiene is hygiene but there are still people who believe that cutting your fingernails or toenails at night is bad luck. They say that if you do this, you will not be with your parents at their deathbed.

Many Japanese superstitions came from old folk wisdom. The old folks believe that night time is quiet time, and those who whistle or make noise at night will be targeted by the bad guys. To make children become aware of the danger of fire, old folks would tell them not to play with fire, or they will wet their beds. Asians are also particular with manners and attitude. A Japanese superstition says that, if you rest just after eating, you will become a cow, a pig or an elephant. In relation to whistling at night, they say that if you play flute at night, snakes will come to you. Old folks say this so that children will learn not to bother their neighbors

For some, these could be just numbers, or animals or old sayings. But these superstitions have been in the Japanese way of life, for who knows how long. It could be a bit shallow for you or for some people, but if you’re in Japan, it’s better to keep your reactions and thoughts to yourself. These have been a part of their culture and history. They won’t expect you to believe them, but these are some of the things that we all should respect.

2 thoughts on “About Japanese superstitions

  1. Charles says:

    What is the background of Toro and the bear. I was
    told that this figure is given to parents who are
    expecting a boy child. Thanks.

    • It must be a localized custom, I am not acquainted with this one. The most well known ones are the Ainu iyomante bear rituals which is part sphere of the circum-Arctic bear cult, and the matagi mountain hunter lore and the association of crescent moon bears with the mountain kami (see “THE BEAR AS BAROMETER: THE JAPANESE RESPONSE TO HUMAN-BEAR CONFLICT” pp. 35-45 of this thesis http://www.utexas.edu/courses/sami/diehtu/siida/religion/bear.htm) The famous tale is the tsukina waguma http://creativedialoguesonstorytelling.blogspot.jp/2012/05/tsukina-waguma-crescent-moon-bear.html
      Bears are in general viewed as mountain kami or messengers of the mountain kami and therefore a link to or a part of the sacred Otherworld. Perhaps, the reason why the bear is a suitable gift for a pregnant woman is its association with the Otherworld, because birthing of a child is regarded as the child emerging from the Otherworld into this one (other ancient beliefs tie with this – parturition huts, babies’ umbilical amulets, cord ceremony, the lore of their navels linked to the sky thunder deity, etc.) In Northern and East Asia, the bear is regarded as “Grandmother”, and a symbol of the Earth, and therefore of fertility,creation as well as healing. I should like to know more about Toro and the Bear as well…

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