The Japanese are a very cultured bunch. That’s one of the reasons many people travel to Japan. But what about superstitions? In the West, luck and superstition plays a big part in our culture and appears throughout our media. I can recall numerous times when I’ve had to explain to Japanese people the foreshadowing in Western movies based on upside-down horseshoes, shattering mirrors, and black cats. But are there superstitions in the Japanese culture that parallel these?
Luck be a Lady
Do you ever wonder why some buildings don’t have a 13th floor, or why airplanes don’t have a 13th row, or why Jason went on a slashing spree on the 13th (in Friday the 13th)? That is because in many Western cultures “13” is seen as a bad omen. The “Why?” is widely debated but continues to be a mystery. Unlike “13” Japan’s unlucky numbers have clear-cut ties to the language.
The number “4” is interesting number in the Japanese language as it is one of two (the other being “7”) that has two pronunciations. Colloquially “4” is pronounced “yon”, but it can also be pronounced “shi”. When you say “shi” without any context one thing comes to most people’s minds: death (死). Because of 4’s close association with death you will see places without parking spot #4, floors where room numbers jump from 103 to 105, and you will probably never see a license plate that ends in “42” (死に, shi ni, translated as “going to die”).
The number “9” also has a similar reason for being unlucky. “9” is commonly pronounced “kyu” (like “cu” in cute, cupid, and cuticle), but it can be also pronounce as “ku”. While “4 (shi)” relates to death, “9 (ku)” relates to pain (苦). “9” being linked to pain means that you will not see it used in hospitals. Don’t even think of placing it after “4”; that’s double trouble because “49” could be read as a painful death (死苦, shiku).
Born Under a Bad Sign
Before Japan adopted the Gregorian calendar it used a six-day per week calendar (六曜, rokuyou) that was previously used in China. When Japan started using the calendar is unknown but it can be traced back to the 1300s. The week consisted of the following days: senshou (先勝), tomohiko (友引), senpu (先負), butsumetsu (仏滅), taian (大安), and shakkou (赤口). The names dictate what should be done on those days to avoid bad luck:
- senshou (先勝): “To finish first (先) is to claim today as a victory (勝)”. Prioritize the day, good luck will be in the morning and bad luck follows the afternoon. Make sure you get any urgent matters or lawsuits out of the way today.
- tomohiko (友引): “To connect (引) with a friend (友)”. Don’t hold your hopes up today. It is neither a good or bad day. Luck is strongest in the morning and at night and changes to bad luck during the afternoon.
- senpu (先負): “To finish first (先) is to lose (負)”. Avoid urgency and proceed with caution when doing anything competitive or anything pertaining to official matters. Protect the peace and calm of the day. Bad luck will greet you in the morning but be replaced by good luck in the afternoon.
- butsumetsu (仏滅): Today is the unluckiest day of the week. Avoid having any kind of celebrations on this day. This day has been such a bad omen that it even has been renamed several times to make it less threatening. Eventually it settled on “The destruction (滅) of Buddha (仏)”!
- taian (大安): “Considerably (大) cheap (安)”. Today is the day to get everything running again. Resume everything you avoided yesterday, as today is the luckiest day of the week. Celebrate getting married or the completion of building a house.
- shakkou (赤口): Your window of good luck is small, from 11:00 A.M. to 1:00 P.M., choose what you do when, wisely. As this day has red (赤) in it, avoid getting close to a fire or a sword.
While the six-day per week calendar has been phased out the old day names are still written on many calendars. I’ve talked to customer service of furniture stores and moving companies about when my things will be delivered and I notice that the companies avoided days marked as bad luck. Re-reading these descriptions it is uncanny how similar to Western horoscopes they are, but much more predictable!
Luck comes in all shape and sizes. Horoscopes, rabbit’s feet, protection charms are just a handful of ways people past and present reason why good and bad things happen. Japanese, like people in other countries, tend to take luck and omens “with a grain of salt”. What about you? Courageous enough to cross a black cat, walk under a ladder, have a license plate ending in the number 49, and do it all on butsumetsu?
Software Engineer and Blogger at TalentHub
Usually coding, writing, or exploring Japan.
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