Friday, January 31, 2014

Changes Are Not Made in One Day

Today is Friday, January 31, 2014.

We are born in one day.  We die in one day.  We can change in one day.  And we can fall in love in one day.  Anything can happen in just one day. 

I disagree.

Sure, it appears that we do all these things in one day, but if you think about it there's always some kind of preparation period, even for death.  I do agree that these things seem to happen in a moment, but that moment is actually the culmination of a process.

It's  easy to see this with birth.  We don't just pop out of our mother's body one fine day without warning. There are at least 40 weeks of physical preparation, as well as mental and emotional preparation before the baby arrives.  Those who have had out-of-body experiences or regression hypnotherapy sessions tell us that the incoming Soul also has a period of preparation before the physical birth. 

If you want to be technical, all of life is a process of dying.  Those who live into old age notice a more conscious process of preparation for death, and employees of seniors homes and hospices notice a well-defined progression of experiences that signal a person is getting ready to leave physical experience.

With changes, as well, but there is always some underlying preparation for the change, whether we are aware of it or not, and many times we are not.  There is often a change of consciousness that precedes a physical, mental or emotional change.  The "moment" that we notice the change is, once again, the culminating point not the beginning, of the process.  Many times we never even notice our own change until someone who is not with us daily encounters us and remarks on the difference.

Even if you think you fell in love at first sight, I suspect that you went through some sort of process before you met your true love, so that the actual meeting was a culmination of the change process.  It may be that both of you went through a process on your own before you met.   If it was not love at first sight, there was a gradual process in which your perception of the person changes from "friend" to "potential lover." 

The key, I think, is to become more aware of these changes as they are taking place.  In fact, I think we can even be pro-active and create changes within ourselves on purpose, in a conscious, directed way.  There are lots of things that go in to the making of a change.  

Psychologists have noticed patterns in conscious change,  There are five stages and ten processes.  

Stage One:  thinking about making a change.  At this stage, we may be uncomfortable with the way things are, or aware that our current behavior or attitudes are unsuitable or counterproductive.

Stage Two: weighing the pros and cons of a specific change.  Some people just think this through, while others make specific lists.

Stage Three: planning to make the change.  Here we specifically decide to make the change and figure out how it is to be accomplished.  We may also set a start and end date for the change or a specific, measurable goal to accomplish.

Stage Four: implementing plans for the change.  We take specific action, such as joining a health club or weight-loss program, taking a class, or investing in some equipment that will help facilitate the change.

Stage Five: maintaining the change.  We figure out how to keep on keeping on without backsliding to the way things were before.

Psychologists have also identified ten processes of change.

Processes in Stages One through Three
1.  Get all the information you need about the change.  If you're moving to a new location, what is the job situation like?  How about the housing market?  What neighborhoods are good to live in?  What lifestyle options does the new location offer?   If you're losing weight, what methods have a proven track record of success for people like you?  How much time, effort and money are you willing to spend to achieve this change?

2.  Recognize and express your feelings.  Are you scared, nervous, or resentful of having to change?  Let it all hang out.  What's the worst possible scenario?  What could go wrong?  Why are you resisting the change?   Get to the bottom of your feelings, because if you don't, they will derail your progress.

3.  Evaluate how the change will affect your life in general.  What will your life be like during and after the change?  Will you have to make other, related changes to support that main change you are trying to achieve? How will the change benefit you?

4.  Evaluate how the change will affect people around you.  How will people react to your changes, and how might your changes force others to change?  Remember that you do not live in a vacuum, and there is always a ripple effect.

5.  Evaluate your strengths and weaknesses with respect to the change. What qualities in your personality will make it easy or difficult for you to make this change?  Do you have the strength, tenacity, humility, courage, or work ethic to achieve your goal?  What might derail your plans?  Are you stubborn, impatient, pessimistic, or lacking self-confidence? 

Processes in Stages Four and Five

6.  Develop support relationships.  Find a teacher, tutor, or buddy.  Tell your plans to someone who will help keep you accountable for your change.  Find people who will encourage you and not enable you to quit easily.

7.  Change your thinking/beliefs/attitudes.  This will involve getting into your subconscious to see how your current beliefs and self-talk may have caused you to fail in the past.  You may also have to deal with fears that were hidden and which have been re-activated now that you are involved in the change process.

8.  Find ways to reward yourself.  Your reward doesn't have to be food, and it doesn't have to cost a lot of money.  You may have a mutual agreement to provide rewards for another person, who will do the same for you. 

9.  Avoid negativity.  Be gentle with yourself.  Allow yourself to start over, or start again if you fall off the wagon.  Find ways to achieve small, incremental goals in order not to get bogged down in negative thinking.

10.  Have a maintenance plan.  How will you ensure that the change you have made is permanent?  Remember that you will not be able to go back to the way things were!  

Best wishes.  :-)

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Why Is Your Truth Different from Mine?

Today is Thursday, January 30, 2014.

Quantum physics tells us that nothing that is observed is unaffected by the observer.  That statement, from science, holds an enormous and powerful insight.  It means that everyone sees a different truth because everyone is creating what they see.
–Neale Donald Walsch 

I had a friend in college named Kathy, who came straight from a Kansas farm.  She very quickly became a "hippie" (This was the early 70s.), which worried her loving parents no end.   I don't remember when I realized that Kathy was cutting most of her classes, and although I knew there were some bona fide hippies hanging around the fringes of the campus, most students were not so tuned out or turned on that they stopped attending classes altogether.  

Kathy would walk around barefoot in her hippie attire, going from room to room in the dorm, asking, "What is beauty?  What is truth?"  She didn't really want an answer.  What she wanted was a discussion.  But I didn't understand that, and I attempted to give her an answer, which turned out to be an exercise in exasperation for me, because nothing I said really answered her question.

Eventually, Kathy would be frustrated at her inability to generate a philosophical discussion, and she would move down the hall, trying to raise consciousness wherever she could.  Meanwhile, my roommate and I would get back to our reading assignments, blissfully or not so blissfully ignorant of the rabbit hole Kathy had fallen into. (Think Alice in Wonderland.) 

Like a lot of people, I assumed, when I was young, that there must be an ultimate source of truth, if I could only find it.  I assumed, as well, that all my questions would someday be answered, that there was one and only one right answer for every question.  I wasn't really looking for "truth" so much as I was looking for "the Truth," meaning answers to my questions.  It never occurred to me to think that the nature of truth, itself, might affect the answers that I would get.

Fast forward several decades.  My own path has been very different from Kathy's, and yet I finally had some of my own experiences with that same rabbit hole.  I just stumbled into it at a very different place in my life.  I've met a lot of people along the way who have been on their own search for truth, and I've been privileged to have a number of philosophical discussions, the like of which Kathy would have been thrilled to participate in.

I didn't really begin my search for truth in earnest until my mid-thirties, but I realize now that I had a lot of experiences before that time which prepared me for my search.  I had the chance to encounter people of other faiths, such as Buddhism, Shintoism, and Zoroastrianism, and get to know their personal philosophies on an individual basis.  I also did a great deal of reading in the science fiction genre, which opened my eyes to a lot of concepts that were mind-blowing at the time, but which are much more comfortable for me, now.  I was exposed to a great deal of so-called "New Age" books that described multiple ways of finding truth.  There was the good, the bad, and the ugly among them, and I became much more discriminating.  Finally, I found a spiritual path that resonated with me, called Eckankar, a path that I have been on for nearly 20 years. 

I've known for a while that each individual experiences truth in a different fashion, but until I saw the quote above by Neale Donald Walsch, I didn't have any idea of the mechanism by which this happens.  In order for Walsch's quote to make sense, you have to have a little background.

First of all, it's important to understand that thoughts create reality in the sense that your thoughts inform your intentions, which in turn inform your words and actions.  Your reality results, at least in part, from your words and actions, which create the situation you live in: your reality. 

Walsh's idea adds to this concept with the information that when we look at the world, what we see or witness is affected by our simply being there.  What physicists are discovering is that things exist because we are here to recognize them.  Things happen because we are here to witness them.  When physicists look for particles of light, they find them.  When physicists look for waves of light, behold!  They find those, too.  We find what we're looking for.

There are still a lot of people in the world who believe that there is one Universal Truth, and some of them have discovered what they believe to be this Truth.  My own experience has taught me differently.

I remember being struck by the story, "The Blind Men and the Elephant," a parable that originated in India.  The American poet John Godfrey Saxe created a version of it as a poem in English, which became well-known in Europe and the United States.  There are several versions of the story, however.  

The story goes that a group of blind men were allowed to touch an elephant to see what it was like.  Each man touched only one part of the elephant, and made an assumption about what the elephant was like based on his limited information, plus his prior knowledge.  The man who touched the trunk thought the elephant was like a snake.  The one who touched the tusks said it was like a spear.  The one whose hand found the elephant's ears, thought it was like a fan.  The person who grabbed the elephant's leg thought it was like a tree trunk.  The guy who grabbed the tail, thought it was like a rope.  The one who bumped up against the elephant's side thought it was like a wall.  

The men argued about it, and in some versions of the story, they began to listen to each other to get a more complete picture of the animal.  The story teaches that each of us necessarily has a limited experience of life, and that if we base our conclusions solely on our experience without listening to the ideas of others, we will not get the whole picture.   Each person's experience of life was true, but it couldn't possibly encompass the totality of the "truth" of what an elephant is like.  

Another idea that I have come across is one given out by Sri Harold Klemp, the spiritual leader of Eckankar, in one of his seminar talks. "Your state of consciousness is your state of acceptance," said Sri Harold.  It has taken me a number of years to figure that one out, and like a lot of truths, it can be understood on a number of different levels.  Basically, it has to do with your ability to accept things that happen in your life as lessons, or chances to learn something about life, about other people, or about ourselves.  Our daily experiences are also opportunities to manifest some qualities that exist within us, but that we haven't learned to manifest outwardly, such as patience, tolerance, discrimination, humility, or perseverance.  When we accept what life has to offer as a gift, rather than a burden, we can put aside the victim consciousness and become proactive participants in life.

Our state of acceptance also relates to the ideas and opinions expressed by other people, especially when they don't agree with our own.  As illustrated by "The Blind Men and the Elephant," each person could have a better picture of the whole animal if he had listened to his friends, rather than arguing with them.  Similarly, our ideas about God, about Creation, and about our purpose in life are the result of our own limited experience, and we can always benefit from the experience and wisdom of people who follow other spiritual paths.

Last summer, I had a chance to participate in a discussion among friends about finding Truth, and it became apparent to me that I am no longer looking for one Universal Truth, because I have seen other people do this.  When they find what they consider to be Truth, they totally stop looking any farther.  Fortunately, my path doesn't present "the Truth," but instead teaches that there is always a plus element to life.  As our consciousness of life expands, we can accept more and more truth.  I am no longer looking for "the Truth," but rather, I am searching for "more truth," realizing that as my own experience expands, so does the truth that I am capable of comprehending and applying to my life.  This is why I make it a point to listen to others' ideas and try to entertain their ideas in order to come to some understanding of them, rather than dismiss them out of hand because they are not like my ideas.  

Oh, Kathy, wherever you are... what a discussion we could have now!   :-)

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Breaking the Habit of Simplistic Labeling

Today is Wednesday, January 29, 2014.

Every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.  –Oscar Wilde

Nobody's really all "saint" or all "sinner."  Those words create an artificial division that imposes limits on everyone.  Still, we often classify ourselves and people around us into one category or another.  We may not use the words "saint" and "sinner."  We may just think of "good" people and "bad" ones, even though we know full well that no one is all good or all bad.  We insist on putting ourselves and other people into one of these two categories, when we know people are a lot more complex than that.

The trouble with labeling people is that we limit their ability to make changes.   Actually, on second thought, I think it's it's more accurate to say that we limit our own ability to accept other people's changes.  Our attitude really only limits us, not anybody else.  In fact we also limit our own ability to make changes.If we have behaved in ways that we are not proud of, there's no law that says we can't do better in the future.  That's what it means to say that every "sinner" has a future. 

Most of our changes take place progressively, over time.  For example, many people are unable to quit smoking, cold-turkey.  They have to wean themselves off cigarettes slowly, and even after they have quit, many people "fall off the wagon" several times.  The key is not to give up the quit.  Just acknowledge that you messed up and start again.  That's where we fail.  We make one little mistake, put ourselves into the "sinner" category or label ourselves as a failure, and give up on our attempt to change for the better.

We use this type of simplistic thinking in other areas of life, as well.  Many of us have decided that since we haven't made a million dollars, written a famous book, won Olympic gold or gotten on the cover of TIME magazine, we haven't been successful, and in that case, we must be unsuccessful.  Some of us even think this way when we have a job that pays the bills, live in a nice neighborhood, and have raised well-adjusted children who are contributing members of society. 

Another simplistic division is "believer" and "unbeliever."  There are many people of faith who have decided that if a person does not belong to their own specific religion, the person must be completely godless, forgetting that there are many ways to worship God. 

In the United States, we make a simplistic division along political lines, calling people "liberals" and "conservatives," when many people – even card-carrying members of either of the two major parties – don't agree totally with either platform.  We reserve our sharpest wrath for people who switch parties, especially if they are politicians.

As well, we judge politicians in office as "liars" if they don't keep 100% of their campaign promises, forgetting that in every legislature, as well as in Congress, there are members of other parties who disagree, and who make it their business to keep politicians in office from completing their campaign pledges, which are really statements of intent, rather than promises.

Wouldn't it be better if we were able to leave behind our "good guy / bad guy" mentality and just accept that people are what they are.  Wouldn't it be better to release ourselves and others from the bondage and limitation of labels?  Wouldn't it be nice if we were able to give ourselves and others an honest chance to make changes based on changing situations?  :-)

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Will You Choose Freedom or Security?

Today is Tuesday, January 28, 2014.

"Here we are with so much wisdom and tenderness, and -- without even knowing it -- we cover it over to protect ourselves from insecurities. Although we have the potential to experience the freedom of a butterfly, we mysteriously prefer the small and fearful cocoon of ego."  – Pema Chodron

If offered a choice between freedom and security, which would you choose?  Most people would like to have both, if they could, but the fact of the matter is that you can't really have both. You an only have one or the other, so most people end up choosing security.

The problem is that security is what the ego wants, not what Soul wants.  That's because the ego feels fear, but Soul doesn't.  There's nothing wrong with fear, and there's nothing wrong with ego, either.  Both have their uses as tools for Soul's growth while in the physical world.  Fear exists to alert us to danger.  Ego exists to help us distinguish ourselves from others in the physical world.   However, when we let ego drive the bus, instead of Soul, we are limited by the ego's fears, and its need for a cocoon of security. 

Lately, I've been seeing a lot of quotes from people about not shying away from the things that frighten us or cause us pain.   (That's because I need this message now.  On the presumption that if I need to hear this message, someone else in the world most likely does, too, I'm sharing it today.)  Rather than spending so much energy avoiding or running away from things we don't want to face, we should feel the fear and face the pain.  Why?  Because when we do this, we have the opportunity to transcend our fears and triumph over pain.  This is the way we grow stronger.  Once we have faced the fear or felt the pain, we no longer have to have that experience and we can move on. 

Here's another piece of the puzzle.  Eckhart Tolle wrote, "The ego says I shouldn't have to suffer, and that thought makes you suffer so much more.  It is a distortion of the truth, which is always paradoxical.  The truth is that you need to say yes to suffering before you can transcend it."

The more fearful we are, the more miserable we feel.  The same goes for feeling resentful for having to "suffer."  Pain is one thing, whether it's phyiscal pain or emotional pain.  Both are real, and both hurt, but not forever.  Suffering is a mindset that we cling to as a result of holding onto the pain and labeling it "bad."  The truth is that nothing is truly "bad" or "good."  It's all just experience, and it's for our growth and maturation as Soul.  Nothing that ultimately causes us to grow spiritually can be labeled bad.  Unpleasant, yes, even hellish. Frightening, yes, even terrifying.  Sad, yes, perhaps even deeply depressing.  But not bad.  The resentment simply makes everything worse, because we are in a state of feeling sorry for ourselves, which puts us in victim mode.  

We are here in this physical world to learn the courage to feel the fear and forge ahead in spite of our fear.  We're here to learn the strength to withstand pain and anguish.  We're here to gain strength and to learn to transcend our limitations. That's true freedom. :-)

Monday, January 27, 2014

Finding Peace Within Yourself and With Others

Today is Monday, January 27, 2014.

When you find peace within yourself, you become the kind of person that lives in peace with others. –Peace Pilgrim

To many of us, inner peace seems elusive, hard to achieve.  We have responsibilities, burdens, worries, deadlines, and conflicts.  How can we find peace with all that going on?

The first thing to realize is that nothing is going to give you peace.  Peace is not something you passively receive from outside of yourself.  Rather, it's something that you create from within.  It is something you can achieve when you proactively connect  and identify with All That Is, and act in harmony with all Life.  

You start by realizing that the physical world around you is not all there is, no matter what science tells you, because science has chosen to limit itself to the physical world.  The world of spirit can only be accessed from within.  This is what meditation and contemplation are for.  When we quiet our minds, which are driven by ego, we find that we are Soul, a being of Light and Energy.  We are here to learn as we interact with the physical world around us.  Other beings are Soul, too, here for the same purpose. 

When we begin to access our Inner Worlds, there is a temptation to want outer proof, to believe that what we are experiencing isn't real, because it can't be proven physically.  The problem with this is that when you let science tell you something is not "real" unless it is physically measurable or observable by more than one person, you are limiting yourself to only part of what exists.  See, that's what they tell us – you and me – because they can't really explain the rest of Creation. 

Actually, scientists have fairly recently realized that about 74% of the universe is dark energy (dark meaning that we can't really measure it, but we think it must be there because it helps scientists account for the "mass" of the universe), about 22% dark matter (matter we think is there, but it's still hypothetical) and only 4% matter as we are familiar with the term.  This stuff is not really taught much in schools, yet, so chances are you never heard of it.  In fact, some of us celebrated our 30th high school reunion before scientists started talking about this stuff in public. 

In other words, when science tells you that the physical world we can measure is all there is, they are really only talking about 4% of the totality of Creation.  The other 96% they can't explain.  So, why are you listening to them, anyway?  

The fact is, so-called "objective" reality is chancy, at best, even with the 4% of physical reality we can agree on.  If you put 100 people together in a room and something happens, you will get 100 different stories about what happened, depending on how far away from the event the people were standing when it happened, whether they were a participant of the event or an observer, and how much they had to drink.  Seriously, folks, objective reality isn't all it's cracked up to be.  I'm not saying it's stupid to come to some agreement about the physical world.  It's actually necessary, or chaos would reign, and that would be nasty.  It's just that so-called objective reality is the totality of life.

That leaves subjective reality, and that's really the only way you can experience the inner worlds, the 96% of Creation that science hasn't got a clue about.  That means, among other things, that you can't really depend on a priest, pastor, rabbi, imam or guru to tell you everything.  Sure, they can point the way – that's what they're for.  But ultimately, you are the one who will have to have your own inner experience.  And that takes practice, some trial and error.  

Find a way to learn meditation or contemplation, and set aside a time to do it regularly.  Journal your inner experiences, if you like.  You may wish to draw, paint, or sculpt, write poetry, sing, play an instrument, or express what you learn in dance form.  Don't let anybody tell you it isn't true. Learn what you can from the spiritual teachers, but learn to interpret your own inner experiences without help.  So what if you interpret them wrong once in a while?  You will learn something from the experience.

When you have a direct inner experience of All That Is, you will eventually get a sense of who you are and what your place is in Creation at this time.  This is Inner Peace.  

Once you achieve this, you will be able to live in peace with others.  That's because in order to achieve this peace I'm talking about, you also have to give some things up. 

You will give up the need to be right.  You will give up the need to express your opinions to others.  You will give up the need to judge things and people.  You will give up the need to force others to agree with you and do things your way.  You will give up the need to measure yourself against others, and to get ahead at all costs.  You will give up the need to acquire land and possessions at all costs.  You will give up the need to hoard things out of a sense of lack.  You will give up the need for approval or corroboration from other people.  That's just some of what you will give up, but you get the idea.  

Once you've given these things up, there will be no other way to live with others than in peace.  You won't have to argue about who is right.  You won't have to argue about who is the leader and who should follow whom.  You won't have to argue about the right way to do something.  You won't have to fight for land or possessions or food.  You won't have to depend on other people to be OK.  See what I mean?  When there's nothing to argue about, peace results.  

Find inner peace, and outer peace will follow.   :-)

Sunday, January 26, 2014

It Takes ONE: Being Pro-active

Today is Sunday, January 26, 2014.

One tree can start a forest;
One smile can begin a friendship;
One hand can lift a soul;
One word can frame the goal;
One candle can wipe out darkness;
One laugh can conquer gloom;
One hope can raised your spirits;
One touch can show you care;
One life can make a difference.

So many of us are accustomed to looking around for someone else to do for us, to make us happy.  What if we took a more pro-active stance, and decided to be the one to bring happiness to others?   Fortunately, this doesn't have to mean doing big things that involve a lot of effort, take up a lot of time or cost a lot of money.  

The Law of Cause and Effect, which works every bit as consistently and effortlessly as the laws of physics, says that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.  The reaction is equal in intensity, because you get out of things what you put into them.  The reaction is opposite because what goes up must come down, what goes out must come back.  This is why doing for others always ends up making our own lives better in some way, shape or form.  It is in line with the idea that you create your own reality.  If you want your reality to be one in which kindness and thoughtfulness abound, then that is what you must offer to the world.

Stop and think for a moment about the qualities you'd like to see in your own life.  Get a piece of paper and number from 1 to 5, or from 1 to 10, if you are feeling ambitious.  List qualities you'd like to see appear regularly in life.   Don't list things or people.  These come and go.  Just list qualities:  kindness, thoughtfulness, joy, tolerance, optimism, honesty, trust, compassion, abundance, altruism, charity, imagination, harmony, passion, respect, romance, magic, playfulness, inspiration, enlightenment.  You get the picture. 

Keep this list handy and refer to it from time to time.  Now... how can you bring these qualities into someone else's life?  That's your challenge.  If you have a smart phone or a calendar, be sure to write down today's date and set up a reminder for yourself to check your list a year from now.  How many of the qualities you listed have appeared in your own life?  :-)

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Memories of Japan: Supernatural Beings

Kappa eating a cucumber
Today is Saturday, January 25, 2014. 

Yōkai (妖怪) is a general word for supernatural beings in Japanese folklore.  Yōkai can also be positively malevolent or merely malicious.  They are even occasionally helpful, but you often have to trick them into helping you.  Some of them appear as inanimate objects, while others appear to be animals or human beings.  Some have no particular shape, but you know they're there.  They populate ancient Japanese folktales and fairy tales, as well as modern manga.  The ones who are capable of shape-shifting are classed as obake

When I learned the word obake, I pretty much translated it as "ghost," and nowadays that's often the way the word is used, although the Japanese have another word, yūrei, that specifically means the spirit of a deceased person, which is the Western sense of the word "ghost."  Yōkai are not thought to be spirits of deceased human beings, however.

--> Four of the most popular yōkai are kappa, which resemble turtles, tengu, which are mostly humanoid, but which can shape shift, oni, your standard devil or demon, and tanuki, which are supposed to be "raccoon dogs," but which can also shape shift.


My friend Mrs. Tanaka was responsible for introducing me to kappa.  She absolutely believed in these creatures, and spent a lot of time warning me about them.  She told me what they looked like – in case I should meet up with one, how they generally behaved, and what I could do to protect myself from them.  I just wish I could recreate her stories, because she was a fabulous teller of tales. 

Kappa are creatures of the river.  They resemble a turtle, with a recognizable shell on their backs, but they are depicted in humanoid form, about the size of a child.  They have scaly skin like a reptile that is usually green, but can also be yellow or blue.  They have webbed hands and feet, and they smell like fish.  Their appearance (as well as what they are called) varies from region to region in Japan, but one common feature is that they all have a hard shell on their back, a beak instead of a mouth, and a "plate" (sara) on top o their head.  This is a flat, hairless area on top of the head that is always kept wet, and which is the source of their power.  If you can get them to "empty out" the water in their plate, you have them at a disadvantage.  Another notable feature in some stories is that the kappa's two arms are connected, able to slide from one side to the other, and you can pull them both out.  The kappa will do anything to get them back.  (They can be re-attached if the kappa gets them back.) Some stories say they live in the rivers only in the spring and summer, then they travel to the mountains to live during the winter.  

Danger! Let's not play in the water.
Kappa are troublemakers or tricksters, and in this sense they reminded me of river trolls.  They are often blamed for drownings, and in some areas out in the country there are actually signs picturing kappa that warn people not to swim or to be careful when swimming.  Kappa are said to lure people into the deep water for a wrestling match.

Kappa also bother animals, especially horses and pigs, which is interesting in light of our Western ideas of spooked horses or pigs that have been taken over by evil spirits.  (Check out Mark 5:13 in the Bible for the pig reference.)

Kappa statue
A characteristic of kappa is that they are extremely polite, so if you can get them to bow to you, the water will spill from the "plate" at the top of their head, thus making them vulnerable.  You can also, according to some stories, repel them with sesame, ginger, or iron.  Also, kappa like to eat cucumbers, so in rural areas, people will write the names of their children on cucumbers and throw the cukes into the river to appease any kappa that might be in the water.

If you manage to befriend a kappa, or at least make one beholden to you, you can get it to help irrigate your crops – if you are a farmer.  Or you can get it to deliver you a fresh fish for supper.  Legend says that it was the kappa that taught human beings how to set bones.  Their sense of decorum compels them to honor any promise you can get them to make.

Some Shintō shrines are actually dedicated to the worship of helpful kappa, and ceremonies are still held in some places to placate the kappa in hopes of a good harvest.

This sign says it's 7.8 kilometers to the Japan Sea.
This image of a kappa is just like what Mrs. Tanaka
drew for me. I'm sure signs like this must have

influenced her concept of what they look like.

Whenever I heard a story from Mrs. Tanaka, I would try to check it out with some other people, to see what they would say.  One private student of mine, a university graduate from Kagoshima, on the island of  Kyūshū, began telling me what to watch out for. 

"You have to watch out when you cross a river at midnight, because the kappa will try to trick you, especially if you are carrying rice balls with you," she said.

My question was, "Why would I be carrying rice balls across a river at midnight? "  This seemed to stump her.  


Two depictions of tengu, featuring the long
nose and wings.  The image on the right is holding
a feather fan.
These creatures were originally thought of as birds of prey, but now they often have a humanoid appearance.  Distinguishing features of tengu include a red face with a very long nose, and they are often depicted as looking like a wandering Buddhist priest or mountain ascetic, who wears one-toothed geta (wooden shoes) and who carries with him a shakujō, or long wooden walking staff.   They are also often depicted holding a majic feather fan called ha-uchiwa ( 羽団扇).  In the stories, the fan has the ability to shrink or grow a person's nose, or to stir up great winds.

Tengu geta with only one "tooth."  Regular geta have
two teeth.
Tony Johnston wrote a book for children called The Badger and the Magic Fan, which was illustrated by Tomie de Paula. I believe the book is no longer in print, but you can still get used copies or find it at your local library.  I loved reading it to kids and having them act out the story, which is an adaptation of a Japaese folktale called "The Tengu's Fan" (Tengu no Ha-uchiwa).  
In the story, a scoundrel steals a magic feather-fan from a tengu, then pays a visit to a rich man and uses the fan to make his sleeping daughter's nose grow.  The father calls in priests and doctors, and even a witch, to see if any of them can shrink her nose, but they all fail.  In desperation, the rich man promises his daughter in marriage to anyone who can shrink the girl's nose.  This is when the scoundrel presents himself to the rich man, saying he can cure the daughter's problem. He shrinks her nose, and they are married.  Later, the scoundrel falls asleep and the tengu, who have tracked down their fan, steal it back, but before leaving, they fan the scoundrel's  nose so that it grows long and reaches the heavens, where two heavenly workers building a bridge mistake the nose for a long piece of wood.  They pull the scoundrel up into heaven, and he is never seen again.  

Tomie de Paola's illustrations of the scoundrel in the story are that of a tanuki, which I will describe below.  The scoundrel in the original Japanese story is not a tanuki, but I thought it was a brilliant idea, because tanuki, like tengu, are known to be tricksters and shape-shifters.  I wish I still had my copies of the book so I could show you what the little tengu children looked like.

Tengu in a parade. They aren't wearing tengu geta, though.
I read one review of the story in which a lady said the elements of the story were just too weird, and I think it's probably true that you need to have a background in Japanese folktales to appreciate some of the elements.  That was something I was able to give my American students, and they loved the story.  I had some cotton yukata left over, which I used to dress the kids for the parts when we acted out the story. I also had a huge uchiwa-style fan (which looks like a ping-pong paddle, and not like one that opens and closes), which we decorated on both sides to represent the properties of being able to grow and shrink noses.  I let the kids figure out how to make the noses grow and shrink, which resulted in several really creative ways to represent this. 


Tanuki  "racoon dog"
The tanuki is the only mythical creature that has a counterpart in reality.  The name "racoon dog" isn't perhaps the best fit, but they do have markings on the face like a raccoon, and their bodies do look like a dog's, so I'm not going to quibble.  I never did see a real tanuki, however.

They are a species native to East Asia, including China, Japan, parts of Russia, and Korea.  They are described as canids, which is a general word for dog-like animals such as wolves, foxes, jackals, and coyotes.  Although tanuki have markings like a racoon, they are not closely related to racoons.  Tanuki can climb trees, like grey foxes.  They are omnivores that modify their diets seasonally.  They are the only canid species that hibernates in winter.  

Tanuki puppies
Tanuki is often mis-translated as "badger," which is why the children's book I mentioned above calls the scoundrel character a badger.  The illustration, though, shows the badger character looking very much the way a tanuki is portrayed in Japan.

Garden tanuki for sale
I first met a tanuki as a little statue that is typically placed in a garden.  Later, I found out that the way tanuki are portrayed in modern times is a fairly recent invention.  The little statues you see in the garden always show the tanuki standing up on its hind legs.  It has a big belly and huge, over-sized scrotum that hangs between its legs (explained below), a large tail, and big eyes.  It wears a straw hat and carries a bottle of sake (rice wine) and a promissory note (also explained below).

In folktales tanuki are shape-shifters with magical powers.  They morph into human form to play tricks on unwary travelers, hunters, woodsmen and monks.  Today, they have a more benevolent aspect.

The giant scrotum has its origin in the fact that metalworkers from Kanazawa Prefecture would wrap gold in the skins of real tanuki before hammering the gold into thin sheets.  The skins were so tough that it was said a small piece of gold could be thinned into the size of eight tatami mats.  That would be just about 12 square feet, which seems like a bit of an exaggeration, but what do I know about gold leaf?  Anyway, because the Japanese slang term for testicles (kintama) sounds like "small ball of gold" (kin no tama), eight-mat brag was transferred to the tanuki's nutsack, and images of the tanuki with a giant scrotum began to appear as prosperity charms.  The scrotum isn't about overindulgence in sex, but about financial prosperity.  Even in Japanese schoolyards, kids sing about the tanuki's balls that swing-swing-swing, even when there is no wind.  

The promissory note that the tanuki carries refers to his ability to pay money to people that looks real, but as soon as he leaves, the seller discovers that the "money" is nothing more than worthless pebbles, dirt and leaves.  

You can see tanuki statues in front of bars and restaurants, where they have the same sort of role as maneki neko (beckoning cats).  I have no idea why they are placed in gardens.  The ceramic ones aren't very good for outdoor use, especially if you leave them out over the winter, but these days you can get ones made of solid, reinforced concrete for your garden.  

Modern tanuki statue made of concrete

The "badger," character was a tanuki in this story.


Oni seem a bit more familiar to Westerners. They are depicted in human form as gigantic, hideous ogres with sharp claws, wild hair, horns sticking out of their heads, sometimes extra fingers or eyes, and usually red skin.  (The skin can also be black, blue or yellow.) Their mouths are very large, with huge, canine teeth.  They are usually naked except for a loincloth made of tiger skin, and they carry an iron club called kanabō (金棒).  Today, when someone is described as an "oni with an iron club," it means the person is invincible.  Traditionally, oni are thought to be the monsters that populate the Buddhist hell, and they are said to eat human beings in one gulp.  They have a huge appetite for human flesh.   In several stories, oni are associated with lightning and thunder.

Oni can appear anywhere, causing trouble and spreading fear wherever they go.  They generally morph into a pleasing human shape, often of the opposite sex from their victim.  During the Edo Period (1603-1867) children in mountain villages who were born with teeth were considered oni children.  They were killed, abandoned, or sent into the priesthood, because children with teeth were thought to turn into full-blooded oni in adulthood.  The Japanese still say that if a child looks like neither parent, it is probably the child of an oni.

As I explained in one of my posts about holidays, Setsubun, which is a cultural holiday celebrated on February 3, marks the beginning of spring on the lunar calendar.  On this day, people throw roasted soybeans around their houses (or just outside the door) to exorcise their living or working spaces of evil spirits.  In homes, the bean-throwing is done by the head of the household, and sometimes a family member wears an oni mask to play the part of the evil spirits that get thrown out of the house.  They shout, "Evil spirits out!  Good fortune in!" as they throw the beans, and after the ritual cleansing, everyone is supposed to eat one bean for every year of their age, with one more for good luck.  :-)

Friday, January 24, 2014

Memories of Japan: Superstitions

Character for "luck"
Today is Friday, January 24, 2014.

The Japanese will tell you a lot about what "we Japanese" believe, and as long as you keep the conversation general, they will tell you all kinds of things.  When you start asking about their specific beliefs, they tend to clam up a bit, or they will tell you, "Japanese people believe (insert belief here), but I don't."  Occasionally, I would then tease them by saying, "Then you must not be Japanese," which always managed to make them feel a little sheepish, if not downright uncomfortable.  The group consensus mode is so strong in Japan that it produces quite a bit of cognitive dissonance for them to admit to an individual opinion, especially if it's different from the one held by the group.  This happened a lot when speaking of superstitions.

I suspect, though, that a lot of Japanese have the same sort of feeling about superstitions that many Americans do.  They know what the superstitions are, and sometimes their remarks are more geared toward keeping the conversation flowing than actually expressing a belief in the superstition.  As an example, how many times have you sneezed and been wished blessings or health?  This automatic response reflects an underlying belief that a sneeze can cause the Soul to fly out of the body.  The vast majority of people don't believe that, and yet they say, "Gesundheit" or "Bless you" without thinking to someone who has just sneezed. 

Be that as it may, there are a lot of superstitions in Japan. Some of them are probably grounded in a kernel of truth, like our superstition about walking under a ladder.  Others seem to have their origin in folktales.  And, like much of Japanese humor, many superstitions in Japan have to do with the language itself, using a play on words.  There are also a number of things people say that sound like superstitions, but are really meant to scare kids out of behaving badly. 

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The first one I herd after going to Japan to live was that cutting your fingernails or toenails at night is bad luck because if you do, you will not be able to attend your parents on their deathbed, or, alternatively, you will die early.  This is due to a play on words.  The expression is 夜に爪を切ると早死にする。  (Yoru ni tsume o kiru to hayaji ni suru.)  The words yoru ni tsume o  sound similar to the expression yo o tsumeru (to cut one's life short).  I was clipping my toenails when my father-in-law reminded us of this superstition.  Of course, I didn't believe it, but I had just come to Japan to live permanently, and it gave me the goosebumps.

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In college, I had a Japanese roommate during my sophomore year.  Mitsuko lived in Osaka, so when I lived there with my husband, she and I continued our friendship.  She actually introduced me to a superstition while we were still in college when she asked me which way was north.  I had to think about that for a minute, but when I told her, she was adamant that we re-do the arrangement of the furniture in our dorm room, because your pillow must never be oriented to the north. Why?  Because that's the way dead people are oriented when they are buried.  Of course, nowadays, most people in Japan are cremated, not buried, but reminding people of this never seems to help. 

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Most people know that the Japanese drink green tea.  Not as many realize that green tea is always sold loose – not in bags – so there always seems to be a stray bit of tea leaf in your cup.  Leafy green tea is the cheaper kind; the kind of tea that contains the stalks is more expensive.  I don't know how many people told me that if a green tea stalk floats vertically in a cup, it brings good luck.  Some people believe this is just a sales tactic to get people to buy the more expensive type of tea.  Apparently, it worked.  (The sales tactic, not necessarily the floating stalk.)

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Haramaki for pregnant woman
When my husband and I got our apartment in Japan, I was introduced to another superstition regarding air conditioners.  I had seen men and some pregnant women wear a curious item of apparel called a haramakiThe word hara is your belly, or gut.  Maki means wrap around. Belly warmers, basically.  When I was there, haramaki were not a very fashionable item, and most of them were beige, as I recall.  They were made of cotton with elastic.  A lot of working class men seemed to wear them around their waist just over their undershirt, and women wore them during pregnancy.  Now, for some reason, they come in bright colors and patterns, and are worn by young people.  You can even get a pink one with "Hello Kitty" on it.  

In any event, the idea behind the haramaki was not allowing your gut to get cold, and this was given as the reason why Japanese do not like air conditioning, especially at night.  My husband would only allow me to put the air conditioner on at night if I would cover my stomach with a haramaki.  I refused.  We compromised with a blanket, so I got used to sleeping with a blanket around my middle in the summer.   He was sure I would get diarrhea, otherwise.  Or he would.

The hara is the center of the body, and in many ways, it is as important to the Japanese as the heart is to us.  One example: if a person is especially generous, he has a "big hara," whereas here in the US we might say he is "big-hearted."   If someone is honest "at heart" they say he is honest "in the middle of his hara."  You get the idea. 

The Japanese do tend to have a lot of problems with their stomachs, and the incidence of stomach cancer is high in Japan.  They have more types of stomach medicine than you can shake a stick at, including one called Seirogan, made with creosote, the stuff they put on railroad tracks.  The medicine is soft little black balls that look, smell and taste vile.  As far as I'm concerned, their efficacy is just another superstition. 

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Once I got a gift of a snakeskin wallet, and was told that it would make me rich.  Someone else explained that if you keep just a small piece of snakeskin in your wallet, that would also do the trick.  It didn't work for me, however.

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I wanted to know why we couldn't go swimming during mid-August, and was told that no one goes swimming during the O-Bon festival.  You will recall an earlier post of mine in which I told you that spirits of the dead come back to visit their living relatives on earth at this time.  If you go swimming during O-Bon, the ghosts will want to take you back to the world of the dead with them.  I can just imagine how this idea got started.  Someone drowned during O-Bon, and someone else blamed it on the spirits.  So... no swimming when the weather is at its hottest.  Sigh.

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There are a number of superstitions used to make children behave.  Whenever I heard one of these, I knew enough not to argue in front of the children, but you can be sure I asked questions later.  Here's a sample: 

Don't lie down right after you eat, or you will become a cow.  (Or a pig, or an elephant.)   In other words, don't be lazy.

If you don't finish eating all your rice, you will go blind.   In other words, eat all the food on your plate – or in your bowl.

If you play with fire, you will wet your bed.  So, of course, don't play with fire. 

If you whistle at night or play a flute, you will be visited by a snake.  The older people say a snake means a thief, but they also say this is just a warning to kids not to be noisy at night and bother their neighbors. 

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At year end I wrote a Christmas letter to my family members and friends back home, and the first year, I addressed all the envelopes in red, as people sometimes do at Christmas.  The people at the post office were amazed.  The reason is that you never write anyone's name in red ink.  Why?  Well, as I wrote in a previous blog, family headstones are sometimes carved in advance with the husband and wife's name together.  The name of the person who is still alive is painted with red ink, and when they die, the red ink is removed.  Writing a person's name in red reminds them of this custom, and for them it is as good as saying, "your mate will die soon," or "someone in your family will die."   After that I was careful not to write any Japanese person's name in red, at least.

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While I'm on the subject of funeral customs I'll take this opportunity to remind you once again never to stick chopsticks straight up in a bowl of rice, since that is the way rice is offered to the spirits of the dead on Buddhist altars.  Also, don't pass food from one person's chopsticks to another person's chopsticks, as this is the way larger bones are transferred to the funerary urn by the mourners after cremation of the body. 

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Jichinsai ceremony.  The Shinto priest is praying at the altar on the left.
One day I saw a ceremony going on at the construction site of a new building and asked what was going on.  I was told that the Japanese conduct a ceremony called jichinsai, whereby a Shinto priest prays to calm the spirit of the earth and ask it's permission to build a structure.  Japanese believe that if you build a house without permission of the earth spirit, it will become angry and destroy the building. 

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I was asked many times what my blood type was, and the Japanese were suitably impressed that mine was type B, because that is a rare type in Japan. (It's rare, here, too.)  Some Japanese doctor reportedly did some research on the correlation between blood type and personality, which has since been disproven, but the Japanese doggedly persist in their belief that there is some connection. It is said that more than 90% of Japanese know their blood type.  You can get your horoscope by blood type on TV and in newspapers every day, and companies in Japan, who like to hire people with certain personality traits, are known for asking employment candidates for their blood type.   Women's magazines analyze potential marriage partners by blood type.  If you watch anime or read manga, you know that the characters mention their blood type, a kind of shortcut for describing their character.   In many Asian countries, you can include your blood type in your Facebook profile!    Japanese baseball cards include the player's blood type.  The Japan women's softball team used training techniques based on their blood types, and won gold in Beijing. Who knew?   You can also purchase condoms for your blood type, but I'm unclear if it's the man's blood type or the woman's that is the issue.  Whatever.

People with type A (The Farmer) blood are calm, diligent, methodical, steady, responsible, introverted, patient, punctual, and perfectionist.  (40% in the U.S., 38% in Japan)

People with type B (The Hunter) are original, but fickle, flexible, irritable, passionate, loving, unpredictable, optimistic and impetuous.  (10% in the U.S., 22% in Japan)

Those with type AB  (The Humanist) are sociable, rational, highly-organized, empathic and sensitive. (5% in the U.S., 10% in Japan)

Those with type O blood (The Warrior) are durable, outgoing, self-confident, goal-oriented and resolute.   (45% in the U.S., 30% in Japan)
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Do you remember saying that if you step on a crack (in the sidewalk), you will break your mother's back? Well, the Japanese have a similar superstition about stepping on the border of tatami mats, except that the bad luck is not limited to your mother. 
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In this building, there is no
fourth floor, nor is there
a thirteenth or fourteenth
There are lots of superstitions related to numbers in Japan, most having to do with the pronunciation of the numbers, which can be homophones for other words.  Four (shi) sounds like death. For this reason, gift items such as sets of teapot and teacups are packaged with three or five cups, but never four.  Packages of cakes and other items never have only four pieces in them.

Nine (ku) sounds like pain and suffering.  Because of this, the numbers 4 and 9 are not used in hospitals.  I also saw buildings without a 4th and 9th floor, and even garages in a row with numbers 4 and 9 missing.  In birth hospitals (yes, they have specialty hospitals just for birthing babies), room 43 is not used, because it sounds like "stillbirth."  The number 420 (shi-ni-rei) is not used for rooms, as well, because it sounds like (shinrei) or dead spirit.  Needless to say, there are not many phone numbers with 4 and 9, 43, or 420 in them.  People and businesses pay good money to get phone numbers without four or nine in them. There are no seats 4, 9 or 13 (taking into account the Western superstition) on All Nippon Airways flights.

Number 8, however, can be lucky, because the shape of the character used to write it (八) is wider at the bottom, suggesting fewer restrictions in the future.  

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Numbers play another part in a person's luck with respect to your age.  Yakudoshi are "years of calamity" in Japan, and they are different for men and women.  For men, yakudoshi years are 24, 41 and 60, with super bad luck in store when you are 25, 42 and 61.  I've never really figured out why the bad luck and super bad luck years are back to back like that.

Omamori sold at a shrine
For women, the numbers are 18, 32 and 36, with super bad luck at age 19, 33, and 37.  I've had some bad years, but not at these ages.  However, Japanese temples and shrines make a lot of money selling omamori, or good luck charms.  When you see them at the temple, they will be different colors, generally for different purposes.  Some of those include traffic safety, avoidance of evil, better luck, passing school entrance exams, prosperity in business and money matters, finding a mate, good fortune in marriage, conception of a baby, healthy pregnancy and an easy delivery, general safety and well-being, and peace in the household.  Omamori should never be opened to avoid losing their benefits, and they should be carried around, tied to your purse or backpack, or carried in your wallet.  Old amulets can be returned to the temple or shrine where they were bought so they can be disposed of properly.

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Speaking of good luck charms, there is one symbol that you will see even here in the United States at restaurants featuring Asian food in general, and that is a maneki neko (beckoning cat).  The cat has one paw up, and it is beckoning good fortune.  (The Japanese beckon by holding the hand out, palm down, and bending the fingers down, rather than holding the palm up and bending the fingers up, like we do to make the "come here" gesture.)   The maneki neko can be white, black or gold, and it can be any size.  You see them in all kinds of places of business, not just restaurants, in Japan.  Lots of people keep one in their homes.  Some people say the cat's paw is higher these days than in the old days, maybe because people feel they need more good luck now.

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Another good luck charm in Japan is a five-yen coin, because the words five yen (go en) sound like the word good fortune (goen).  I used to keep one in my pocketbook all the time.  

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When my nephew was about 6 years old, he wanted his mother to make a teru teru bōzu. It was a little doll that looks a lot like what we think of as a ghost.  These dolls are made, especially by schoolchildren, when they have a field trip or a track and field day coming up and they don't want rain to spoil their plans.  The word bōzu means Buddhist priest, and teru teru means shine shine.  Basically it is a little representation of a Buddhist priest (who are all bald because they shave their heads) praying for the sun to shine.  Why they are usually white is anyone's guess, because Buddhist priests usually wear orange.   You can make the head from wadded up paper, but I remember that my nephew's
teru teru bōzu was made by covering an orange with a white hankie and drawing eyes and mouth on the head, then tying the neck with a rubber band.  We hung it out on the back porch, under the eves of the house.  

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 Japanese routinely check on the old six-day-week calendar called rokuyo to determine good days for a wedding or other event.  Different days have different types of luck. 

先勝Sakigachi (also known as Senkachi or Sensho) Good luck in the morning, bad luck in the afternoon
友引Tomobiki Good luck all day, except at noon
先負Sakimake, (also known as Senmake or Senbu) Bad luck in the morning, good luck in the afternoon
仏滅Butsumetsu Unlucky all day, as it is the day Buddha died
大安Taian 'The day of great peace', the finest day for ceremonies
赤口Shakku, (also known as Shakko or Jakko) Bad luck all day, except at noon

Looking at the calendar for this month, I see that today,  January 24 is Taian.  Not that many people get married in January, but if they did, the 24th would be the day to do this.  The 6th, 12th, 18th, and 30th are also Taian days this month.

One web site said that the terrorist attack in New York on September 11, 2001 was a shakku day. Bad luck all day (except at noon), which seems to support the rokuyo pattern, at least, for Americans.  Of course, you could also say that this was a "good luck" day for the terrorists.

The tsunami disaster on December 26, 2004 was a sakigachi day - good luck in the morning, bad in the afternoon.... except that the tsunami slammed onto land at 7:59 a.m.

Hurricane Katrina came barreling into Louisiana on August 29, 2005, claiming 1,836 lives.  It was a sakigachi day, but the hurricane made landfall in the morning.

Haiti earthquake on January 12, 2010 was a tomobiki day, with good luck all day except at noon.  The earthquake struck at 4:53 p.m.

The giant Tohoku Earthquake on March 11, 2011, came at 2:46 p.m.  This was also a tomobiki day, but the earthquake killed thousands, and the resulting tsunami killed thousands more as whole towns were swept out to sea.  Then there was a meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear reactor.  So, no, the rokuyo system does not work!  Still, people schedule their wedding day by it. 
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One more: it is considered lucky to have a sumō wrestler make your baby cry. It's probably a good thing this is considered lucky, since any a baby who is picked up by one of these behemoths will cry. (They're really nice guys, though.  I met one.)  Too bad we don't have a similar custom about Santa. :-)