Superstition is integral to Japanese culture. A profound respect for ancient customs and traditions, together with strong historical and cultural ties with other nations, have enabled innumerable Japanese superstitions to catch on and persist. As is seen all around the world and throughout history, a large portion of superstition in Japanese culture contains underlying messages about everyday living. Many of these messages are still relevant, further perpetuating the important role that superstition continues to play in Japan to this day.
Origins of Superstition in Japanese Culture
Several superstitions in Japan have come from other cultures. Perhaps the most common example is the black cat crossing one’s path (although whether this is good or bad luck depends where you’re from and what period of history you’re living in). Many Japanese superstitions are shared with other Asian nations, especially China.
Language is central to a number of Japanese superstitions. As in Mandarin and Cantonese, the Japanese language is full of homophones, words that are pronounced the same but hold completely different meanings. Objects and numbers whose names also sound like the terms for ‘death’ and ‘suffering’ are considered especially unlucky.
Ancient Pagan, animalistic ideals also contribute significantly to the role of superstition in Japanese culture. Different species are said to have different kami (spirits) – some lucky, others not so lucky.
Examples of Japanese Superstitions
You may be struck by how much these examples sound like the tales your parents used to tell you as you were growing up:
- Don’t rest straight after eating, or you’ll become a pig/cow/elephant (‘don’t be lazy’)
- Don’t play with fire, or you’ll wet the bed (‘beware of fire’)
- Don’t play the flute or whistle at night, or snakes will come (‘don’t annoy the neighbours’)
Many superstitions, both in Japan and around the world, derive from the need to educate and advise.
On a more sombre note, several other superstitions in Japan revolve around death. For example, you may have heard that one should never leave chopsticks sticking upright in food, especially rice. This is done at the altar during funerals as an offering to the spirits of the dead, so imitating this at the dinner table is considered bad luck, not to mention plain insensitive. In fact, a great deal of chopstick etiquette is derived from superstitions relating to death and funerals.
The same can be said of yukata kimono, which are always worn with the left hand side wrapped over the right. Wrapping right over left emulates the way in which bodies are dressed for funerals.
The word for the number four (shi) is strongly associated with bad luck, as its other meaning is – you guessed it – ‘death’. This affects various aspects of everyday life: for example, lifts often indicate a third and fifth floor but not a fourth, and many hotels have rooms 1, 2, 3 and 5, but not a room 4.
The ancient belief that certain animals are lucky and others are not can still be seen in Japanese culture today. If you’ve ever been to Japan you are bound to have seen maneki neko (lucky cats) waving at you from shop and restaurant windows, inviting prosperity to the business.
Want to know more about superstition in Japanese culture? I recommend this article. Alternatively, if you feel like you could do with a little more luck in your life, The Japanese Shop has a great selection of lucky gifts, including lucky cats, good luck charms and more.