Japan may be one of the world’s most technologically advanced countries, but just like so many other places in the world, there’s still plenty of odd ideas hanging around from the annals of history. To help you avoid the social embarrassment of killing your parents, transforming into a cow, or maybe even dying, here’s a list of some basic superstitions you’ll want to keep in mind for the next time you visit Japan.
Good cat, bad cat.
Thanks to Western culture, black cats are considered bad in Japan. But did you know that the Japanese also have a good cat? It’s called a “maneki neko”—“ the welcoming/lucky cat.” In order to increase wealth, a Maneki Neko sculpture is often placed outside of shops and other businesses with either the left or right paw raised, depending on whether the owner is trying to attract more customers or become wealthier.
Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.
From the Chinese art of feng shui comes a concept known in Japan as “kaso,” or house divination. Arranging of the house itself and items within the house is a crucial matter. For example, an entrance to the northeast is known as the “kimon” or demon gate, and should be avoided at all costs.
Sleep well—as long as your head isn’t facing north.
Part of the traditional Buddhist funeral includes laying out the body with its head facing to the north. For this reason, many Japanese are careful to position their beds so their heads do not face north. This superstition is known as “kita-makura.”
4 is a bad number. So is 9. And so is 13.
And so is any other number that, when pronounced, sounds bad. For instance, in Japanese the word for “four” can be pronounced “shi,” which just happens to mean “death.” Bummer! So, in order to prevent unnecessary death, the number 4 is generally avoided. That’s why the elevators in some buildings look like this:
Also, keep in mind that giving someone 4 gifts is like saying “I hope you die.”
The number 9 is unlucky for similar reasons: it can be pronounced “ku,” the word for “pain.” And it’s not enough to have only two unlucky numbers, is it? Of course not. That’s why, thanks to Western influence, the number 13 is also unlucky.
Bed-wetting and pyromania.
Don’t play with fire, because if you do, you’ll wet your bed. It makes sense, right? Well, maybe only as something parents tell their children to teach them about the dangers of fire.
Don’t break stuff.
Believe it or not, some Japanese people consider it unlucky to break stuff, like a comb or sandal strap. Go figure.
The chopstick effect.
One should take care to avoid standing one’s chopsticks straight up in a bowl of food, as that is pretty much a death curse. The same goes for passing food chopstick to chopstick. The use of this utensil needs to be monitored, because at traditional funerals it is customary to 1) set a bowl of rice on the altar, with chopsticks standing straight up in the rice, and 2) pass bones leftover from the cremation of the body from chopstick to chopstick.
Speaking of funerals, hide those thumbs.
The Japanese word for “thumb” literally means “parent finger,” so anytime a funeral procession goes by, you need to make sure you hide your thumbs. Yes, both of them. Because your parents need to be protected from all the death exposure.
Cut thumbnails, kill parents.
And speaking of thumbs, far be it from anyone to trim their thumbnails at night. Because you know what’ll happen if you clip those “parent fingers,” right? Yep. Your mom and dad will die, and you won’t be with them when it happens.
Buddha, the wedding planner.
There are bad days to get married, and then there are terrible days—like “butsumetsu” days, which symbolize the day the Buddha died. Following the traditional calendar cycle, it’s best to not get married on one of these days. Instead, shoot for a “taian” day, which promises good luck for the nuptials.
It is said that if you see a spider in the morning, you should let it live because good luck’s coming your way. See a spider at night, however, and you’re in for it.
The cow of laziness.
It’s not good to take a rest right after a meal, mainly because you’ll turn into a cow if you do. This superstition is really just a way to keep people from being lazy.
Evil badger! Evil fox!
In Japanese folklore, badgers and foxes are pictured as naughty, mischievous troublemakers that can trick humans and bring them bad luck.
The serpent cometh.
Apparently, if you blow a whistle at night, it summons up a snake that will heed your call and come to you. And then it will probably kill you. “Snake” is usually understood metaphorically; i.e. a thief will come to your house. A white snake, by the way, indicates good fortune in the form of wealth. If you see one, you’re in luck.
Still think you can avoid all the bad luck? Sorry, you’re screwed no matter what you do…
There’s still the superstition called “yakudoshi”—the year of bad luck or calamity. Certain years are considered very unlucky, and depending on your gender the exact years are different. Taking into account that this superstition is based on an old method of figuring your age (in which you’re born as a one-year-old), men need to watch out for years 25, 42, and 61. Women—beware when you turn 19, 33, and 37.
…unless you get one of these.
Don’t worry, to help prevent all that bad luck, you can stop at a shrine and buy an “omamori,” which is a small amulet containing written prayers that are supposed to ward off ill fortune. The charms, which do not expire, can be purchased to bring good luck in just about any kind of situation.
This list of superstitions is by no means exhaustive—there are plenty of other kinky beliefs out there. If you happen to be the superstitious type, I’d say the first thing on your schedule needs to be a stop to make a purchase at one of those shrines.