One of the most interesting aspects to me about visiting another country is hearing about common superstitions. No matter how logical people may seem, no matter how grounded or rational the culture, there are always things that people will do or not do, say or not say, that are rooted firmly in myth and folklore. Some, like seeing a black cat cross your path, are common to many countries, while others are much more location-specific.
There are a few superstitions in Japan that are famous enough to be common knowledge outside of the country; the beckoning cat in shops to bring wealth and good fortune, for example, or skipping the fourth floor or room of a building because the number 4 can be pronounced ‘shi’, meaning ‘death.’ Other superstitions are far less well-known outside of Japan, but equally interesting to find out about. Having never formally studied Japanese language or culture before actually moving to Japan myself, here are 10 superstitions that I discovered during my first couple of years of living here (and only a couple of days late for Halloween, too!).
- Don’t sleep with your head facing north.
When making up their futon, it’s customary to make sure that their pillow will not point to the north. Sleeping in that direction is said to invite bad luck or possibly even death, since corpses are always positioned so that their head faces north at funerals.
- Don’t write a person’s name in red ink.
Luckily for me, I was already aware before I moved to Japan that chopsticks should never be stuck upright into a bowl of rice, or food passed from one person to another via chopsticks. Not only is this just plain bad manners, but both also allude directly to funeral rites. What I didn’t know, however, was that writing someone’s name in red ink is to shorten that person’s lifespan. Only names on grave markers are traditionally written in red – not the deceased person themselves, but instead their spouse or other living relatives who will eventually follow. When that person dies, the name can be rewritten in black.
- Don’t cut your nails at night.
Here’s another slightly odd superstition relating to death. If you cut your nails at night, it’s said that you will not be with your parents when they die. It was once believed that evil spirits, which began venturing out as night fell, could enter the world or the home through specific types of gaps. By cutting anything in the dark, you created a gap through which a spirit could enter and wreak havoc. Presumably, the superstition (introduced long before electricity), also served as a pretty good deterrent to stop people waving around sharp objects if they couldn’t see what they were doing.
- Keep your thumbs hidden if you see a hearse.
Spot a hearse passing by on the street? This superstition warns that you should always take care to hide your thumbs, either by making a fist with your thumb inside or just by sticking your thumb (or whole hand if you like) in your pocket. This is because the thumb is called the ‘oyayubi’, or ‘parent finger’, and having them in plain sight invites spirits to, once again, enter your body through your fingernails and/or ensure that your parents die young.
- Hide your bellybutton during a thunderstorm.
This one is usually said fairly jokingly, but the particularly traditional or superstitious will make sure their bellybuttons are covered during a thunderstorm nonetheless. You can thank a couple of Japanese gods for this one – Raijuu, who nests himself inside human bellybuttons while he sleeps, and his companion Raijin, the god of thunder and lightning. When Raijin wants to wake Raijuu, he strikes the other god with lightning, and so the best way of avoiding being struck yourself is to cover your bellybutton and prevent Raijuu from taking up residence. Of course, it’s also good practice to make sure your body is nicely covered when the air grows cooler, as typically happens during a thunderstorm, but I guess stories about gods hiding in bellybuttons are a bit more exciting than just saying “be careful not to catch cold”.
- Don’t whistle at night.
Don’t play a flute, either. In both cases, whistling is said to attract snakes – ‘snake’ in this case being code for ‘thief’, and so differing versions of the superstition say that whistling will cause you to be robbed, kidnapped, or even abducted by a tengu). Most likely this superstition came about as a way to discourage people from annoying their neighbors at night by making loud noises, but it’s also possible it stems from a belief that attracting attention to yourself when it’s dark and quiet outside will also attract trouble of the criminal variety.
- Leave the morning spider, kill the night spider.
If you’re anything like me then you’ll be quickly killing both, but according to Japanese superstition, a morning spider is auspicious but seeing one at night is bad luck. Nobody seems sure exactly when or how this particular superstition originated, although one theory suggests that the morning spider symbolizes kindly visitors, while the one at night represents thieves.
- It’s lucky to be pooped on by a bird.
If you got pooped on by a bird recently then you’re in luck. Getting pooped on by animals, and by birds in particular, is a sign of good fortune in Japan thanks to ‘un’ – the pronunciation of ‘excrement’ as well as ‘luck’ (although the sheer chance of having bird droppings land on you specifically while you’re outside probably also has something to do with it).
- Don’t step on the border of a tatami mat.
This superstition might be more difficult to uphold than you’d think, given that traditional Japanese houses are still very common. While kitchen and bathroom floors in such homes are typically wooden, bedrooms and lounges are rarely carpeted – and since many tatami mats also contain family emblems on the cloth edges, stepping on them is considered bad luck. The borders are also sometimes said to represent the divide between the mundane world and the world of spirits.
- Watch out for broken combs and geta straps.
In the west, it’s often said that breaking a mirror brings seven years bad luck. In Japan, it’s combs and geta straps you need to be careful about. The belief about combs stems from a myth about a deity named Izanagi no Mikoto, who used a broken comb to make his way into the palace of the underworld (specifically, he discovered the decomposing body of his wife, whose spirit, humiliated at being seen in such a fashion, attacked him and chased him from the underworld). That said, combs were also extremely expensive back in the day and often considered a treasured item, so breaking one would indeed have been bad. As for geta straps, it’s possible this was simply a way to make people avoid paying a low price for an inferior product, and instead purchase them from a traditional geta craftsman – still a service offered today in a few old neighborhoods.
Question of the post: What’s the oddest superstition you’ve heard of (from any country), and how/why did it come about?