I have lived in Tokyo, Japan, with my family for many years. Every day is an adventure worth writing about.
Traditions and Superstitions
Japan is a country with a very long history. It is one of the most unique cultures in the world, and it is brimming with traditions and beliefs that go back hundreds and even thousands of years.
Today, superstitions are still commonly believed and used quite regularly. Like with any culture around the world, superstitions are a set of beliefs in the supernatural that can determine fate or the future. In Japan, these superstitions are laced in Shintoism, Buddhism, Chinese beliefs, and even from its own long history.
Learning these superstitions can truly help us to not only learn more about the world around us, but to enlighten us about the Japanese spirit.
Superstitions About Good Luck
The following are Japanese superstitions that provide a sense of good luck, so these are habits and superstitions that are sought after by many Japanese.
Cats at the Workplace (招き猫 Maneki-Neko)
A very common item in small Japanese businesses, a statue of a cat holding its paw up is believed to bring very good luck to the business and its workers. The statues with the right paw up means good fortune, and the statues with the left paw up is a sign of welcoming guests and customers. Cats are also believed to be lucky for business in general, so if a stray cat enters the store, it will not be kicked out.
Seeing Spiders in the Morning
Seeing a spider in the morning and letting it live is very lucky and will bring good fortune to your day. One theory is that a spider's visit in the morning represents a guest wanting to enter your home courteously.
Unlike many Western superstitions, a black cat in Japan is considered very lucky. In general, cats are considered lucky in Japan, but it is believed that the black cat's popularity rose in the early 1900s from a famous serial novel called I Am A Cat, which features a black cat as the main character. Today, one of Japan's most famous delivery companies, called Yamato, uses a black cat as its logo, and the company is often referred to as Black Cat (黒猫 Kuroneko).
A Snakeskin Wallet
In Shintoism, snakes are considered to be very sacred animals. Having snakeskin on your wallet is believed to bring considerable fortune and luck, so it is quite common to see Japanese people with snakeskin wallets.
A Piece of Tea Leaf at the Top of Your Cup
Sometimes when Japanese green tea is prepared in a ceramic teapot, pieces of tea leaves can end up in the teacup. If one of those pieces is standing upright while floating at the top of the teacup, it is a sign of good fortune and luck, because it is such a rare sight to be seen.
Eating Ehou-Maki (恵方巻き)
During Setsubun, the day before the beginning of spring, it is considered the mark of a lucky direction if you eat ehou-maki, a special sushi roll. There are many rules in order to receive this luck. First, the ehou-maki must include seven ingredients. Next, it must not be cut at all. Then you have to eat the ehou-maki in the lucky direction of the year. Finally, you have to eat the entire ehou-maki in complete silence.
Superstitions About Bad Luck
Japanese has a lot of bad luck superstitions, many of which are definitely still believed to this day. Some even overlap with the good luck superstitions.
Do Not Sleep North
One of Japan's most common superstitions, this belief has heavy roots in Buddhist funeral practices, where the deceased are traditionally put to rest with their head pointing north. It is believed that if you sleep with your head to the north, you will shorten the length of your life.
Seeing Spiders at Night
Seeing a spider in the evening is considered very bad luck and you would be encouraged to kill it, even if it is the same spider seen from the morning that brought good luck. The image of the night spider is that of a thief entering your home deceptively.
It is believed that if you leave your laundry out to dry overnight, it will attract lingering spirits of the dead. Those spirits then attach to the clothes and can be passed on to others in the next generation. In Japan, where something like a kimono is traditionally passed down from generation to generation, this is something to stay away from.
Cutting Your Nails at Night
A more peculiar superstition, it is believed that if you cut your nails at night, you will not be there for the death of your parents, because you will die before them. One reason for this is that "cutting your nails at night" and "shortening your life" are both read the same in Japanese, but a more traditional explanation would be that in olden times, it was too dark to cut your nails at night and could result in a terrible accident.
Throwing Salt at a Funeral
If you attend a funeral in Japan and do not throw salt upon entering the house of the deceased, it is believed to be extremely bad luck. Salt is seen as a purifier, so it is wise to bring salt to such a situation to help fight off any bad spirits.
Breaking the Strap of a Geta Wooden Sandal
Geta wooden sandals are traditional wear in Japanese society. Traditional clothes like kimono and yukata are cared for greatly, so it is believed that when the cloth strap on a geta wooden sandal breaks, the wearer will receive a bad omen of misfortune for not taking better care of these traditional clothes.
Stepping on the Tatami Crack
In a similar vein to "Don't step on a crack or you'll break your momma's back", stepping on the cloth border of the tatami mats, traditional straw mat flooring, will bring bad luck.
Numbers and Japanese Superstition
Similar to many other cultures, Japan has quite a few numbers that are genuinely considered good, bad, and absolutely terrifying.
The Good Numbers
- 7 - The number seven is considered a good number, because it represents "togetherness".
- 8 - The number eight is considered lucky, because in the Japanese language, the number is nearly homophonous to the word "prosperity". It is also connected to the story of Hachiko, Japan's most famous dog.
- 9 - The number nine is considered good when it is pronounced kyū, which sounds like the word for "relief".
- 10 - Ten is considered a great number, because it sounds like the word for "replete". It is also a homophone for "having enough".
The Bad Numbers
- 9 - Nine when it is pronounced as ku, the same pronunciation as "agony", is seen as a bad number. Combs, pronounced kushi in Japanese, are rarely-to-never given as a gift because it is a combination of the numbers nine and four.
- 13 - Thirteen is occasionally thought to be unlucky, but it is an imported Western tradition.
The Terrifying Numbers
- 4 - Four is a very unlucky number, because it is sometimes read as shi, which is the word for "death". Some times hotels and hospitals will not have the number four in their elevators or even on rooms out of fear for potential consequences.
- 42 - In car racing, the number forty-two is avoided, because the combination of numbers sounds like shini, meaning "to death".
- 43 - In hospital maternity sections, the number forty-three is avoided at all costs, because the reading can be shizan, which is "stillbirth".
- 49 - Like forty-two, forty-nine is avoided in car racing, because the pronunciation sounds like shiku, "to run over".
Some superstitions in Japan attempt to predict the future in some way.
Cat Washes Its Face
When cats begin cleaning their face rigorously, it is believed that it will rain the next day. No one knows quite why this is the case, but it is a very common superstition in Japan.
Heavy Snow = Big Harvest
Japan is quite the agricultural country, so this superstition feeds into this area. It is understood that when the winter provides heavy amounts of snowfall, the following autumn will be produce a huge harvest.
When a Swallow Flies Lower
Swallows are very popular birds in Japan, mostly because they nest under roofs. However, when swallows begin flying low, it means they are catching bugs to eat, because the next day it will rain and they need to stock up.
The Shade of Cherry Blossoms
Before forecasting the weather was a thing, Japanese would observe the shades of cherry blossoms in the spring to predict coming seasons. The lighter the shades, the longer the winter. The darker the shade, the shorter the winter.
When catfish begin to act violently, splashing around uncontrollably, it is believed that they can sense the coming of an earthquake, even earlier than modern equipment. This is a very popular superstition even to this day, and it is strongly believed that it is not a superstition at all. Some Japanese scientists have even tried testing the earthquake-detection skills of catfish because of this belief.
The Gods and Goddesses
Since Shintoism is a Japanese religion tied deeply with its history and culture, naturally some superstitions derived from the religion and its gods and goddesses.
The Crow's Caw
In Japanese tradition, crows can signify a vast amount of things, but it is in their cawing that represents some horrific luck. Depending on the superstition, a crow's caw can indicate bad luck to the hearer, someone dying at that moment, or that a large earthquake will be happening soon. The superstition is connected to Japanese mythology, where a crow named Yatagarasu serves as a divine messenger and symbolizes the deities' willingness to intervene in human affairs.
Do Not Break the Teeth of a Comb
Similar to the western superstition of a broken mirror, it is believed that the breaking of your comb's teeth can be the sign of bad luck. The superstition comes from a myth about a god named Izanagi who used a comb to uncover a horrible deception, and it even helped him to escape away from his pursuers. Because of this story, combs are held to a high regard in Japanese society, and the breaking of the teeth is seen as a bad omen.
It is believed that a person with big earlobes will become very rich. This tradition comes from one of Japan's seven gods of fortune, Daikokuten, who has very large earlobes. People with large earlobes, like him, are considered to be very lucky and will inevitably become rich.
Cleaning Your House on New Year's Day
In Japan, and many other Asian countries, New Year's is the most important holiday of the year. In Shinto tradition, it is the most sacred day of the year, too, and it is believed that the gods and goddesses will all come visit your home. However, if you clean on New Year's Day, it is also believed that you are pushing out all of these gods and goddesses from your home for the whole year.
Hide Your Belly Button
"Hide your belly button when lightning strikes!" is a phrase many Japanese hear as children. This superstition is connected to the Japanese god of thunder, Raijin. For whatever reason, Raijin has a strange passion for children's bellybuttons, so he is the one responsible for the lightning in attempt to devour his favorite treat.
Some superstitions are just difficult to categorize, so the following are the rest of the beliefs I have compiled.
Do Not Whistle at Night
"If you whistle at night, snakes will come out!" This was the very first Japanese superstition I ever heard. Its history is fascinating, too. One belief is a fear that monsters (or snakes) will be drawn out by the sound and terrorize the area. The other is based on reality, where "snakes" are people who are seen as sketchy. It is said in old Japan that human traffickers, thieves, and other criminals used whistle sounds to communicate with each other at night, so the action is just seen as very negative.
Someone is Talking About You When You Sneeze
A simple yet common superstition is that whenever you sneeze, someone is talking about you. It does not necessarily mean good or bad. It is just that they are talking about you. But who, though?
Clean Bathroom = Beautiful Baby
If you are looking to have a beautiful baby boy or girl, then apparently you just need to keep that bathroom clean.
Lying Down After a Meal
A silly superstition that parents use, but apparently parents will commonly tell their children, "If you lie down after a meal, you will turn into a cow!" It is believed that this is to help combat laziness at a young age.
Upside Down Broom
In business, if you turn your broom upside down, all of your customers will leave. This superstition is believed to be a business-killer, so in small stores, you will never see a broom upside down.
In Japan, eating and drinking vinegar is heavily recommended, and is considered to be very healthy and cleanses the body. There is no science to prove any of this, but it is also believed that digesting vinegar makes you more flexible as well. It is even quite common to drink vinegar-based drinks after enjoying time in the bath house (温泉 Onsen).
The Sight of a Hearse
Whenever you see a hearse in Japan, you are supposed to hide your thumbs. In Japanese, the thumb is called the oya yubi, literally "parent finger". Since a hearse is a symbol of death, Japanese people see hiding their thumbs as a means of protecting their parents from an untimely death.
How Tradition Shapes Us
The beautiful thing about tradition, even in its superstitions, is that it helps create and mold culture, morals, and values. Investigating our own traditions is very healthy for introspection, and it can help us to better connect with those around us.
Japan's traditions and superstitions are no different for its people. It is a way for all Japanese to connect with each other so deeply, to understand each other without explanation, and to serve each other without reason.
It is the traditions that we are born in to and adapt to that make us who we are today. You do not necessarily have to belief or agree with these traditions, but understanding them and appreciating them for what they are will help make you a better person.
© 2019 Jason Reid Capp