Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Friday, October 03, 2008

Very Superstitious...

(funky clav starts playing in the background)

Yes, we're coming into spooky season. The Autumnal Equinox has been crossed, and the balance is tipping toward the forces of winter and darkness (also known as "The Dead"...or "politicians"). Already the climate has changed from being hot and muggy all day and all night to just hot and muggy during the day and chilly at night, making wardrobe selection a far greater challenge (i.e. you actually have to wear clothes at night). The grating cacophony of the cicadas has finally given way to the gentle chirping of my kids fighting over their Nintendo DSes the crickets, which are considered good luck in Japan.

Speaking of luck, as we approach Halloween (which reportedly at least one community in Massachusetts is trying to reschedule for "safety reasons"), that most supernatural of seasons, superstition once again comes to the forefront. Images of black cats, broken mirrors, Sarah Palin, etc., remind us that spiritual powers are coming into full swing.

So what about here in Japan? Are there Japanese superstitions that differ from their Western counterparts? The answer is a very evil-sounding YES! Japan has a wealth of superstitions that date from ancient times (i.e. my students are still hard pressed to remember ANY of them, but anyway...).

  • Back in ancient times it seemed like there were lucky and unlucky cycles for just about everything. Back in the Heian Era, often called Japan's golden age, there were even certain directions in which one couldn't go each day without suffering bad luck, or so it was believed. That made travel a tricky affair; you either had to time your trips so that you moved in a lucky direction or take a roundabout route to avoid the cursed direction (which sounds like trying to go somewhere making only left turns, but anyway...). That tradition has long since faded to zero, as well as the lucky times for eating certain foods, playing music in certain keys, or wearing one's clothing a certain way, but there are still lucky and unlucky days marked on the calendar. Major events are almost always timed so that they appear on a "taian" (大安 - means "great security") day, which is luckiest. "Butsumetsu" (仏滅 - means "Buddha's death") days, on the other hand, are strictly avoided.
  • Speaking of death, there are many superstitions based on funeral traditions. For example, one never embeds his chopsticks in his rice fully upright. (That's a rite for the dead.) One never folds his garment right-over-left. (That's only done on the body of a deceased.) Two people should never hold the same piece of food with their chopsticks at the same time or hand something chopsticks-to-chopsticks directly. (That's only done after a funeral, when two people together pick up a single bone fragment of the deceased with chopsticks and place it in the burial urn. See my post on my mother-in-law's funeral.) When eating, one should keep his rice on the left and his soup on the right. (The opposite is apparently another funeral tradition, or so I'm told.)
  • Funerals themselves have superstitions of their own. After a funeral it is customary to avoid taking a direct route home so as to throw off any spirits that might be trying to follow. Also, before entering one's house afterward, one should sprinkle salt over oneself so as to purge any spirits that might be hitching a ride and keep them from getting inside. (Packets of salt for that purpose are always included in the gift bags given to funeral guests.) Some people also sprinkle salt around the front door just in case the spirits try to sneak in on their own.
  • Black cats have no significance in Japan, but crows do. In ancient times, crows were believed to be harbingers of death, and the sight of a murder of them (Yes, that's the correct term) gathering outside someone's house was a very bad sign. It was also not good if a crow perched outside someone's window and watched him intently (as seems to happen a lot at Ye Olde Academy whenever I give an exam).
  • Life after dark can be a tricky affair. Whistling is out. (It's said to attract snakes and/or ghosts.) So is cutting your toenails. (It's said to attract burglars.)
  • As in the West, certain numbers are believed to be unlucky. One of them is 4; one of its readings is "shi" [四], which sounds like the Japanese word for "death" [死]. The other is 9, whose reading "kyu" sounds like Japanese words meaning "suffer" [窮], "enmity" or "evil" [仇], "rot" [朽], as well as "weep" or "grieve" [泣] . (It also sounds like both "father-in-law" [舅] and "rescue" [救], but oh well.)
There are certainly others, but I'll end the list here.

If you think these superstitions sound odd, whoever came up with the idea that finding a four-leaf clover brings good luck, or that you should toss salt over your shoulder if you spill it? I've heard it said that there's a lot of common sense in superstition, but there isn't a whole lot of logic. Now if you'll excuse me, I'd better go light some incense to help prevent my MIL's ghost from haunting the place.

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  • Nevermore

    By Anonymous Edgar Allen Snabulus, at 4:08 AM  

  • loved your ending here :)

    i love all things related to Japanese culture. very interesting.

    the black crow thing makes me wonder... since we've had black crows nesting in the tree outside for the last 3 yrs., and we keep having bad luck in this house. they've cut down the trees... so no more nesting...

    i wonder if our luck will change?!

    did the whole thing about not driving down certain paths or avoiding certain things on certain days deal w/ one's birthday directly?

    i remember in the book, Memoirs of a Geisha, they did the same thing in order to avoid bad luck. going so far as to not make major decisions on certain days and not traveling at all on others. What I didn't realize is that there are actual cycles for such.

    great post!

    By Blogger Um Naief, at 9:22 PM  

  • MM, you're funny but yes, what you mention here are rather similar to the Chinese culture right down to the number 4 though 9 is not a bad number. On the contrary, 9 signifies longevity or continual good fortune, etc. Most Chinese will not go for a car number plate with 4 in it but 8 is the popular number. Over here, we can roughly tell who the car owner is by looking at a car number plate.

    The older Chinese generation still consults the Chinese Almanac for good/auspicious days for executing projects or major functions, like moving house, getting engaged/married, etc.

    Going in the right direction to one's destination is not practised but sleeping with soles of feet facing main door is taboo as that is the way the deceased in coffin is supposed to be placed. Don't know how far that is true that if one sleeps in that direction, one might get nightmares.

    Crows are not auspicious for the Chinese too. Neither are owls.

    We don't use salt to ward off spirits but normally after coming back from a funeral, the older generation Chinese would bathe with pomelo leaves in the water though the modern folks don't practise this anymore. Pomelo and pomegranate leaves play an important part in the Chinese culture as a cleansing agent.

    The West deems it bad luck to open an umbrella in the house but it's alright for the Chinese. The thing to remember is to close the umbrella before coming through the main door. It is believed that umbrellas can be used to shield spirits and they can hide in the umbrellas to bypass the deities tht are honoured at the home altars. The Chinese believe that the deities are the guardians of the home not allowing spirits into the home.

    Yes, whistling and cutting nails are out at night too.

    Lots more...

    Sarah Palin? LOL

    By Blogger Happysurfer, at 6:11 PM  

  • Oops! My apologies, I overstayed.

    By Blogger Happysurfer, at 6:14 PM  

  • Edgar
    Only this.

    Um Naief
    Crows are remarkably intelligent creatures, which only makes sense since they have a very high brain-to-body ratio. I know they can be nasty when they want to be...and it can be eerie when they just sit there staring at you through a window.

    I don't think the lucky directions had anything to do with one's birthday. I think they were fixed by the calendar. I'm not sure, though, since that superstition doesn't seem to exist anymore.

    I'm not surprised to hear that there are similar customs among the Chinese. A LOT of Japanese traditions were imported from China via Korea, particularly from the 5th century. As with virtually all imported traditions, however, they wound up being reworked and adapted to fit the Japanese environment.

    Oh, and you're welcome to stay as long as you like!

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 6:44 PM  

  • YUCK!!! Superstition really sucks me lately. :-[

    By Anonymous L.C_D, at 10:19 PM  

  • Believe it or not, the few times I've visited cemeteries I was a bit worried in case something followed me home...!

    I read about sticking chopsticks in rice some time ago and am now very careful where I place them.

    These are all very fascinating. I am sure life in ancient Japan was even more complex than it is now, with all the superstitions and protocols to observe. I think the only thing that even approaches that would have been life in the European royal courts of previous centuries.

    By Blogger Olivia, at 11:10 AM  

  • L.C_D.
    I don't think I'll tell you what kind of image your choice of words conjured up. I'd rather it just went away...

    Maybe you're more sensitive to such things than you're aware, m'lady.

    Life in ancient Japan was much more complex than it is now in some ways but not in others. In order to function in society as an aristocrat in the Heian Era you had to memorize thousands of lines of poetry because people made routine references to them in their letters. Social life mainly consisted of exchanging poetic letters, attending poetry readings, learning (and writing) even more poetry, practicing different musical instruments, learning the proper manners for just about everything (which changed with the fashions as much then as trends change now), drinking sake with your peers, and having sex with as many people as possible.

    Yes, European courtly life is definitely comparable, and it often makes me wonder why our modern society is so determined to take the life and meaning out of everything. I mean, do people actually enjoy blandness?

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 7:02 PM  

  • i didn't know crows were so smart! sad that they cut down the trees outside where they nested. makes me wonder if my FIL had it done... since my MIL hated these birds and he wanted to knock down the next two seasons ago but i pleaded for them not to do it. now... they're gone. :(

    they don't scare me... i just don't like the all the loud calls they make... but i'll tell ya, they're really good parents!!! both parents take such care of their young ones. i was really impressed by this. i also enjoyed watching how they'd teach their babies to fly. very patient birds.

    By Blogger Um Naief, at 4:34 AM  

  • Boo!

    K made our vacation reservations on the Shinkansen and was unhappy that we were assigned car 13. Assuring her that the service has never suffered a fatality (regardless of car number) in its history was of no help.

    We arrived at the station early, so she changed us to an earlier train. Car number? 4. So from unlucky western number to unlucky Japan number. She couldn't win.

    We survived the trip. :)

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 5:09 PM  

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