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A Guide for the Anxious: 11 Japanese Superstitions for Bad Luck

Japan Travel
by Pele Omori Sep 7, 2009
Nocturnal nail clipping, exposed belly buttons, and spider killings could all mess with your auspicious mojo in Japan.

If the thought of being cursed with bad luck during your stay in Japan is unnerving, here are some well known Japanese superstitions and what you can do to prevent their jinxes from coming your way.

1. Kita makura or the north facing pillow

Make sure your pillow isn’t facing north, as it’s the way corpses are positioned at Buddhist funerals. Bring along a compass if you have to.

2. Clipping nails at night

If you’re a nocturnal nail clipper, your parents may die before you see them again- or so the saying goes. Your hostel mates will probably find the sound of fingernail clipping an annoyance anyway when they’re trying to sleep.

3. Sticking your chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice

Stabbing chopsticks into a bowl of rice may earn you a few uneasy stares, as the gesture is reserved for funeral ceremonies only. To rest the chopsticks, use the hashioki (chopstick rest) provided, or lie them laterally across the rice bowl.

4. Avoid the numbers 4 and 9

You may notice that some Japanese hospitals are missing room numbers 4 and 9. The number 4 is read as “shi”, which also means death, and 9 is “ku”, is the word for suffering.

For those about to give birth, make sure your hospital room number isn’t 43—“shi san” means still birth. I heard that some maternity wards don’t have that room number for those reasons.

5. Whistling at night

Many Japanese superstitions come from old folk wisdom—night time is quiet time, and those who make noise will be targeted by the bad guys.

6. The broken geta sandal

In the west, it’s the breaking of a mirror which signals bad things to come, while in Japan, it’s the popping off of a geta strap. Don’t buy el cheapos from the 100 yen shop if you can’t bear the thought of having a bad luck geta.

7. Pointing your index finger or thumb in the presence of a hearse.

Aiming your index finger towards the dead implies insult, but the thumb is supposedly worse— the word for thumb is “oya yubi”, and oya means parent. An exposed thumb, or oya in the vicinity of a hearse means that your folks will be the next to go.

Keep all your fingers in pockets if you’re unsure—that way you won’t wish ill on your parents or unintentionally insult a spirit.

8. Seeing a morning spider verses an evening one

Hold off on killing the morning spider visitor because it’s auspicious, but go ahead and smack the evening visitor, as pm spiders are considered bad luck. I’m unsure how this rule would apply for a pet spider that you see day and night.

9. You may be in your yakudoshi (bad luck) year already

Men and women are known to have different bad luck years when obstacles and suffering are known to peak. If your age is represented below, don’t despair, as a few hundred yen at a local shrine will get you a special amulet or omamori–remember to ask for the one specifically formulated for the yakudoshi, and carry it with you at all times.

As tempting as it may be, don’t open the amulet pouch, as you’ll be hit with a double whammy of yaku doshi and bachi (curse).

Yakudoshi years for men: 24,41,60 (bad luck)
25,42,61 (super bad luck)

for women: 18,32,36 (bad luck)
19,33,37 (super bad luck)

10. Women born during the year of the fire horse

The year of the fire horse, or hinoe uma occurs every 60 years– women born then are considered fiery enough to destroy men, thus rendering them unlucky in love and marriage. If you think you are married to one, or are one yourself, you or your spouse would have had to be born in 1906 or 1966.

Your daughter may be a fiery fire horse if she was born in 2006, and if you didn’t get to have a fire horse daughter but want one, plan to give birth in 2066—the next year of the fire horse.

11. Hide your belly from the thunder god

If you sleep with your belly button exposed during a thunderous night, you may wake up the next day and realize that that your belly button had been taken by the thunder god—or so the folklore goes.

For peace of mind, get a haramaki– a wide, elastic cotton undergarment, worn over the belly to prevent a belly chill, to steer the thunder god away from your innie or outie (he likes both). The nice thing about haramakis –If you run out of clothes, they can be worn as a micro mini, low on the hips, or as a tube top, and they come in many different colors. My favorite is the pink Hello Kitty one.

Community Connection

Thinking of traveling or moving to Japan? Check out 10 Japanese customs to know before a trip to Japan, and read up on how to get a teaching job in Japan. For a taste of the country’s funkier side, take a look inside Japan’s freaky themed bath houses and bars.

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