For some of you reading, perhaps you’re familiar with the old line that you should never open an umbrella indoors, lest you be cursed with bad luck. Perhaps you’ve lamented over your coming 7 years of bad luck over that mirror you dropped. Or maybe you’ve even been hesitant to pass beneath a ladder, for fear of something bad happening.
Whatever your particular brand of superstition, chances are many of them hinge on bad luck. In Japan, however, it may come as a surprise that many commonly held superstitions are not only completely unrelated to luck, but are also incredibly, and oddly, specific.
In Japanese funeral rites, more specifically Buddhist funeral rites practiced in Japan, the body of the deceased is laid with the head pointing North. It is said that when Buddha died, he fell with his head facing North, and the Japanese replicate this by directing their deceased in the same direction. It follows then, that sleeping in a way that mimics the way the dead rest will bring you bad luck.
This one is pretty self-explanatory. The story goes that if you hiccup 100 times in a row, you might as well bend over and kiss your butt goodbye. This one apparently comes from a lack of knowledge of disease in the past. People who have hiccuping to the degree that they would have 100 in a row usually have some underlying cause that can lead to death if untreated. In the past, with no knowledge of disease, the hiccups themselves were associated with death, and not as a symptom of something more serious.
If you have allergies or a cold, don’t worry. This is for those random sneezes you get out of nowhere that immediately make you go “well, that was weird.” This superstition comes from the idea that, since a sneeze is not something you can make yourself do, a random sneeze is caused by the connection made between yourself and a person talking about you.
Though some might be quick to jump on the “weird Japan” train with this one, it’s not actually a superstitious belief in transmogrification. People say this to remind their children and family members that no matter how tired you might feel after eating, it’s unhealthy to lie down and then fall asleep on a full stomach, as it can lead to weight gain. The cow part just means getting fat.
According to acupuncture, various spots on the body supposedly stimulate various responses. The center top of the back of the head, a common place for a cowlick, is one such spot, and applying pressure to it is said to cause a gastrointestinal response.
In the west, it’s often said that visualizing an audience in their underwear will help ease your nerves. In Japan, you eat “people” to calm down. If you’re facing a big speech or some other nerve-wracking activity, simply write the kanji for “person”, or 人 (ひと) on your palm 3 times and pretend to eat them. The idea is that your audience will look very small to you from wherever you are standing; so small in fact, that should you wish, you could reach out and eat them, so there is no reason to be nervous.
This superstition comes from Daikokuten, a hybrid Buddhist/Shinto god often associated with wealth and good fortune. He was known for his rather large earlobes, so people who also have large earlobes are thought to have a predisposition for wealth.
In the older, less modern days of human trafficking, this was told to children to keep them quiet at night to prevent them from being kidnapped by traffickers (snakes). Today, it’s just another superstition.
Japanese is full of homophones, or words that sound the same but have totally different meanings and spellings. Two of these are 夜爪 and 世詰め which are both read as よづめ, or “yozume”. The first yozume means clipping nails at night. The second means to die before your parents. These two homophones carry a bad omen, so it is said that if you do yozume (clipping your nails at night), it carries the other meaning as well.
So, since the “dying before your parents” meaning would mean you wouldn’t be around to see your parents’ funerals (as you would be, ya know, dead), clipping your nails at night will give you a curse that will prevent you from being at your parents’ funerals, no matter how hard you try.
In Japanese, the word for thumb is 親指 (おやゆび), or oyayubi. This literally translates into “parent fingers”. The idea is that when you see a hearse, you should protect your parents from death by covering them, i.e. covering your “parent fingers” with the rest of your fingers.
During the past few weeks, Ken has seen a number of SUVs with small rowboats on top, presumably for some sort of nature excursion. While driving, he covered his thumbs when he saw them because he thought they were hearses at first. This happened two other times recently. Then today, he saw what he thought was another SUV/boat combination, smirked, and didn’t cover his thumbs, only to realize it was indeed a hearse. He’s pretty worried about his parents now. ;)