10 Surprising Japanese Superstitions, as Told by a Foreigner Living in Japan
A country’s superstitions can say a lot about their culture. Of course, Japan is no exception, and there are many fascinating superstitions that teach us about Japan's history and traditional beliefs. Read on to find out what your cup of tea says about your future, how to influence the weather, why you should never do your laundry at night, and more!
- Your First Dream of the Year Tells Your Future
- Eat This Many Soybeans for Good Luck
- A Cute Charm for Good Weather
- A Stem in Your Tea is Lucky
- Draw This Character to Calm Down
- Your Blood Type Determines Your Personality?
- A Spider in the Morning is Lucky
- Don't Whistle at Night!
- Haunted Laundry
- Hide Your Thumbs From a Hearse
Your First Dream of the Year Tells Your Future
New Year's is Japan’s most important holiday, so it goes without saying that there are many superstitions and folk knowledge surrounding this time of year. One interesting superstition is hatsuyume, or "first dream". As the name implies, this is the first dream you have in the new year. Tradition says that this dream can foretell the year ahead for you.
There are three particularly lucky things that can appear in your hatsuyume. In order of luckiness, these are Mt. Fuji, a falcon, and an eggplant. Yes, they may seem like an odd combination! The first record of these images appeared in the Edo period, and there are a number of theories as to why they are considered lucky, with one theory being that they were simply favorites of the legendary shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu.
More symbolically, Mt. Fuji, as the tallest mountain in Japan, can represent stability, while the falcon can represent reaching great heights. The falcon can also represent wisdom, as it is known as an intelligent bird. The eggplant is known as the first produce of the season, which in and of itself is considered lucky, and the Japanese word for eggplant (nasu) also sounds the same as the word for “becoming” or “accomplishment."
Eat This Many Soybeans for Good Luck
Another annual Japanese celebration is Setsubun, which is celebrated at the traditional start of spring on February 3rd. This celebration is designed to cast out evil spirits from the home through a custom called mamemaki, or bean-throwing. Typically, a member of the family will wear an oni (devil) mask, while others will throw roasted beans at them while chanting “Oni out! Luck in!” This practice originated from the belief that the spirit world was closest to the physical world during the New Year's period, which meant that it was important to cleanse the home of any wandering spirits. Today, it's mainly a fun custom to do with children.
These roasted soybeans have another important role in Setsubun: they are also eaten for good luck. Superstition says that eating one roasted soybean for each year of your life will bring good fortune in the coming year. In some areas, you should eat one bean for each year of your life, plus one extra for a little more luck.
Another good luck superstition for Setsubun is eating eho-maki, which is a large sushi roll. There is a special way to do this! You should face the year’s lucky compass direction, called eho, and eat the whole roll in silence. It’s definitely a lot to eat in one go, but if you can manage it, custom says you’ll see good things coming your way. You can purchase these rolls at convenience stores and supermarkets in Japan around the time of Setsubun.
A Cute Charm for Good Weather
This is one superstition you can catch sight of when you visit Japan, particularly in the early summer rainy season! Teru-teru bozu are a type of small charm made from fabric or paper. If hung from windows or eaves, they act as a charm to bring sunny weather the next day. It's said this custom originated in China, and today they’re typically made by children.
While these little dolls might look like a ghost, their name translates to “shiny monk” because their design reflects the appearance of a monk’s shaved head. Some say the name comes from the story of an unfortunate monk who was sacrificed by his village when he was unable to stop the rain flooding the town, but this is likely a myth.
Tradition says that if your wish is granted, you should draw eyes on the doll, make an offering of sake, and let it float away down a river. If you prefer cozy indoor weather or need some help with your vegetable patch, you can hang one upside down to pray for rain to come.
A Stem in Your Tea is Lucky
You'll find superstitions about tea all over the world, and in Japan a particularly lucky sign is the chabashira, or a tea stalk floating upright in a cup of tea.
There are some theories about why this is considered an auspicious sign. The first is that it’s a rare sight! Stems are usually caught by the spout of the teacup, and even if one makes it through, it’s unusual for it to float upright in your tea. The word chabashira translates literally to “tea pillar”, like the pillar of a house. In other words, this sign means your "house", which is to say your family, will be supported and strong.
It’s said that this superstition originated with tea merchants who were having trouble selling their lower-grade tea, which was known to have stalks mixed in with the leaves. To combat the public’s reluctance to compromise on the quality of their tea, the merchants came up with the story that the stalks themselves were good luck. Maybe the real luck in this superstition is that this marketing move caught on so well!
If you find one in your own cup, make sure you don’t mention it to your companions! It’s said that to ensure your good fortune, you should keep quiet and enjoy your tea in silence.
Draw This Character to Calm Down
This is a superstition that’s useful for anyone with stage fright! If you’re feeling nervous, a common superstition is to write the Japanese character for “person” on your palm with your finger three times, then “swallow” it. This ritual is said to calm you down straight away.
You may wonder why the character for “person” is important. It’s said this is a symbolic gesture for overcoming your opponent, whether it’s an intimidating theater audience or a job interviewer. You could think of it as a bit like saying “knock ‘em dead!” in English.
It's said there are two other reasons why this superstition spread. The first is that the act of slowing down, writing the characters, and the deep breath that you take when you “swallow” the character can help keep your mind from racing. It’s also said that there is a pressure point located in the center of your palm which, if massaged, can release tension in your body.
Your Blood Type Determines Your Personality?
Most people know their star sign, but did you know that in Japan, your blood type is believed to also say something about your personality? While studies have not found a link between blood type and temperament, surveys say that almost all Japanese people know their blood type, and you'll commonly see it listed alongside other basic biographical information. It's even included as a standard field for celebrity information on Japanese Wikipedia!
Blood Type A is the most common blood type in Japan, and those with this type are considered to be responsible, warm, and maybe a little bit of a perfectionist. Type B is more passionate and proactive, but can also be seen to be unreliable. Type AB are considered intelligent and creative, but can suffer from being overly critical and indecisive. Type O is the rarest type in Japan, and those with this blood type are considered to be confident, strong willed, and sometimes arrogant.
There is also a Japanese word for discrimination based on blood type, called bura-hara (blood harassment). This stereotyping is seen to range from everything from bullying to discrimination in job interviews. Because of this, there is some growing public resistance to the belief.
A Spider in the Morning is Lucky
One of the best-known Japanese superstitions is the belief that encountering a spider in the morning is a sign of good luck, while seeing a spider in the evening is bad luck.
The details do vary from area to area, but it’s often said that a spider dangling from their web is the sign that you’ll get a visitor that day. In some areas, it’s a sign that someone you’ve been missing will come to see you.
Night spiders, unfortunately, are not so lucky. In some regions it's said that if you see a spider at night, you won’t be visited by a guest, but a thief.
Don't Whistle at Night!
Another belief concerning animals is that whistling at night will draw snakes to you. This is the kind of superstition that Japanese parents invoke to scold a child who won’t settle down at night, but the details vary from place to place. Some regional variations suggest that whistling can also draw robbers, kidnappers, or even spirits of the death to you.
There are some theories of the origins of this superstition. The most obvious explanation is that the sound of whistling disturbs others, especially in the quieter nights of the past, so the superstition grew to encourage good manners in children. Some say that whistling was used by criminals to communicate surreptitiously, which contributed to a sense of taboo. Another theory is that whistling was a sacred act that could call spirits, and so it shouldn’t be done lightly at night when spirits roam the earth.
Another nighttime superstition is that you should never dry your laundry outside at night. This is because of a belief that spirits are more active in the world at night, and can attach to, or even possess the clothes you leave out! Some also say that these spirit-possessed clothes can feel cold and damp, which causes babies to cry at night. This is something most parents would do whatever they can to avoid!
How did this belief come about? While today's clothing can often feel disposable, in the past, clothes were an expensive investment that would be worn for a long time, and were even passed down to family after death. It was believed that the spirits of the dead remained in the clothes they wore, and people would air out inherited clothes for quite some time to cleanse them of any lingering spirits. In other words, since spirits had an affinity for inhabiting clothing, you were inviting trouble by leaving them out while spirits were roaming the night.
This superstition probably persists in people's minds today because hanging your clothes out at night can cause them to dry more slowly, causing mildew, or expose them to damage from insects like moths.
Hide Your Thumbs From a Hearse
Of course, a hearse is a sad thing to see no matter where you’re from. In Japan, a common superstition is to should tuck your thumbs into your fists if you see one pass you on the street.
In the days before motorization, this superstition also applied if you saw a funeral procession or crematory fire. At the time, it was believed that the thumb was the point where spirits could enter the body. So, by hiding your thumb, you are preventing the newly-released spirit of the dead from entering your body. There is another common superstition that warns against cutting your fingernails at night for similar reasons.
Today, the superstition is usually explained by the fact that the Japanese word for thumb, oya-yubi, can be literally translated to “parent finger”. The purpose of hiding your thumb, then, is as more of a good luck charm to protect your parents’ health.
Are any of these superstitions similar to the ones where you come from? It's interesting to see how superstitions can develop through the religion, history, and language of each country, and how some can actually serve some practical purposes! If you keep your ears and eyes peeled while you're in Japan, you're sure to come across even more unique folklore and cultural beliefs.
*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.
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