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. :-)

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