Cats, Numbers and Other Japanese Superstitions

June 12th, 2012By Category: Culture

Most of us grew up knowing that seeing a black cat means bad luck. Asia in particular, has very superstitious folks. Sometimes, most of these superstitions are shared with children for them to behave properly. In Japan, superstitions are rooted from culture and history. Superstitions such as a black cat crossing your way are common here and in other Asian countries. But these are not entirely things to be afraid of. The Maneki Neko or the “lucky cat” in Japan is very common, and many shops, restaurants and business enterprises have figures of beckoning cats because they believe they bring in money and good fortune. The Japanese old folks also believe that superstitions are meant to teach lessons or serve as practical advice.

Most of Japan’s most common superstitions are related to language, numbers and objects. Names that are homophones or words that are pronounced the same as another word but differs in meaning such as “shi” (death) and the number 4, is considered unlucky. Other beliefs are rooted in ancient Pagan animist culture in Japan, and regards living and natural things as having spirits or powers, making some animals and depiction of animals as bringers of both good and bad fortune.

There are several unlucky numbers in Japanese, aside from the numbers 4 and 9. Nine is also sometimes pronounced “ku” which means suffering. They also believe that the number 13 is unlucky, but many believe that this is just influenced by the Western culture. Because these numbers are considered bad luck, expect that public buildings avoid these numbers. In hospitals in particular, the number 43 is avoided because it can literally mean “still birth” and maternity wards don’t have that room number for such reason.

Aside from the beckoning cat figurines, the Japanese believe that if you see a spider in the morning, it means good luck. But if you see one at night, it would bring you bad luck. They also believe that if you catch a crow’s eyes, something bad will happen. Chopsticks should not be placed and stuck vertically on the food, particularly into the rice, for this is only done during funerals.

The Japanese also believe that if a funeral hearse drives past, you must hide your thumb in a fist. Hiding it is considered protection for your parent. If you don’t hide it, your parent will die. This is because the Japanese word for thumb translates as “parent-finger.” Old folks in Japan also say that if you go to a funeral, you should throw salt over yourself before entering your home for you to be cleansed. It doesn’t stop there. Japanese folks are very particular with directions. One superstition states that you should never sleep with your head in North position or you will have a short life. During meals, chopsticks should not be stuck upright into food especially rice, because this is only done on the altar at a funeral. Food should also never to be passed chopstick-to-chopstick, because this is done in a ceremony where bone fragments from cremated remains are placed in an urn, a ritual called hotokebashi. Sure, hygiene is hygiene but there are still people who believe that cutting your fingernails or toenails at night is bad luck. They say that if you do this, you will not be with your parents at their deathbed.

Many Japanese superstitions came from old folk wisdom. The old folks believe that night time is quiet time, and those who whistle or make noise at night will be targeted by the bad guys. To make children become aware of the danger of fire, old folks would tell them not to play with fire, or they will wet their beds. Asians are also particular with manners and attitude. A Japanese superstition says that, if you rest just after eating, you will become a cow, a pig or an elephant. In relation to whistling at night, they say that if you play flute at night, snakes will come to you. Old folks say this so that children will learn not to bother their neighbors.

In the West, if breaking a mirror means bad things will come, in Japan, if you break a comb or a geta strap, it means bad luck. So FYI to those who want to buy geta sandals: buy the sturdy one so as not to break it and have bad luck for the rest of your life. But just when you thought you’re safe from all these bad luck superstitions, you may be in your yakudoshi (bad luck) year already.

Men and women are known to have different bad luck years. If your age is represented below, don’t worry. There are hundreds of amulet or omamori to wear to keep bad luck away for the rest of the year. But remember to ask specifically for the yakudoshi and carry it with you at all times. Never open the amulet pouch, or else, you’ll get a double hit of yakudoshi and bachi (curse).

Yakudoshi years for women: 18, 19, 32, 33, 36 and 37

Yakudoshi years for men: 24, 25, 41, 42, 60, 61

For some, these could be just numbers, or animals or old sayings. But these superstitions have been in the Japanese way of life, for who knows how long. It could be a bit shallow for you or for some people, but if you’re in Japan, it’s better to keep your reactions and thoughts to yourself. These have been a part of their culture and history. They won’t expect you to believe them, but these are some of the things that we all should respect.

Photos by: annemarievanl., bcostin, expattonx2 & The Original Ki via Flickr

Author of this article


GaijinPot is an online community for foreigners living in Japan, providing information on everything you need to know about enjoying life here, from finding a job and accommodation to having fun.

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  • Most of the superstitions and number systems of the Japanese are relic belief systems that originate with the Taoist and Bon shamanic beliefs that streamed into Japan along with Chinese and Tibetan migrants, peaking around the 9th century when the rulers in Nara even had their own Ministry of Magic.

  • jasonbroccoli says:

    very interesting! I wish it was in smaller parts because I can’t read it all, but I love it!

  • zoomingjapan says:

    The weirdest thing to me has the one about the spiders!
    Conversations like that happen(ed) quite often:
    Me: “I saw yet another spider yesterday night.”
    Japanese co-worker: “Oh no!”
    Me: “Right? They’re so eww!”
    Japanese co-worker: “No, it would have been ok if you saw the spider in the morning?”
    Me: “Hai?!?”