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Ultimate Guide to Japanese Superstitions

By Yuria Hoshmand | February 25th, 2022

Japan has so many superstitions, from using chopsticks to chopsticks when you’re passing food is frowned upon as all as the act of throwing salt over one's shoulder for cleansing. Superstitions can be described as customs that don't follow logic but people do it regardless. There are many superstitions practiced in Japan with no scientific evidence. 

This article is a part of our extensive series on learning about Japanese Culture through Online Japanese Lessons at Japan Switch. 

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    What is the difference between Japanese superstitions and American ones?

    There are many similar superstitions concerning the same topics around the world expressed in a different way. For example the superstition about teeth believed in the west is that if you sleep with your tooth under the pillow the tooth fairies leave money in exchange for taking the tooth. Whereas in Japan when you lose a baby tooth, you throw your teeth high if you lost a bottom one and vice versa. It's based on the idea that throwing your old teeth in the opposite direction will make the new teeth grow in the direction you threw it. 

    I think the main difference is the way people view superstitions and how seriously they incorporate them in their daily life. As a collectivistic culture it’s more likely to stick to superstitions or conform to society like in Japan so they’re taken more seriously than the western ones. Superstitions are a big part of the culture. For example the superstition that seeing a leaf stuck in your tea is a sign of good luck and you can feel a sense of Japanese culture behind the superstition. 

    Japanese superstitions are mainly focused on themes such as death and suffering, sometimes involving numbers. Japanese people consider it unlucky when something resembles or sounds similar to topics related to death and suffering. For example the number 4 shares the same pronunciation as death and is considered such an unlucky number that some hospitals and hotels even remove the 4th floor entirely.

    a picture of a set of chopsticks on a small plate japanese superstition

    The 5 most common Japanese superstitions (even today)

    Whistling at night 

    I feel like almost everyone has heard this superstition at one point in their lives. It says if you whistle at night you attract thieves and bad luck. I remember my grandma telling me not to whistle at night because it attracts snakes but I never quite knew why. It’s apparently because whistling is something you do when you are happy and the act of whistling at night indicates how well you’re doing financially which is why it is said to attract thieves.

    Passing food using chopsticks

    This superstition is more like a famous taboo. This superstitious rule is really well known and was even followed in my not so superstitious household. In Japan, it’s considered bad luck to pass food from one set of chopsticks to another set. This is because this practice happens during a funeral after the cremation process is done, when the 2 relatives carry the remaining bones into the box. There’s no doubt it’s frowned upon in Japan to do anything related to funerals and death while eating or in any activity, really.

    Broken mirrors are bad luck

    This is another popular superstition in Japan but one that is also common all around the world. Japanese people believe that it’s bad luck when a mirror breaks. Mirrors were said to have mysterious powers and people back then believed in its supernatural powers. I also remember my grandma always covered the mirror if it was facing her bed. It’s not desirable to sleep with a mirror facing you.


    Want to read more superstitions related to Japanese culture? Also check out on Japan Switch:  Guide to Japanese Culture


     

    Creepy Japanese superstitions for bad luck

    Hiding your thumb when passing a funeral car

    This is actually another one of the pretty famous superstitions. I heard of this one a lot as a child. Adults tell kids to hide their thumbs when a hearse is passing by or they will die young. I always thought this superstition was creepy. People who just died or more precisely,  the souls of people who just died are said to still be around where they used to live and those souls would enter you from between your thumbnail and the cuticle of your thumb so don’t forget to cover them! 

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    Liars will lose their tongues

    This is one of those superstitions that is more famously known among children. To help discipline children, adults say that you shouldn’t lie because the devil will take out the tongues of children who don't speak the truth. This superstition was created to help rear better behaved children and to prevent them from lying.

    Want to know more about spooky Japanese superstitions? Check out this artile: 10 Spooky Japanese Superstitions That Will Totally Freak You Out

    The cure to your sickness is to give it to someone else

    If you are sick and pass it on to other people you will get better. This superstition sounds messed up but it comes from the idea that people who are sick have symptoms for 3 to 7 days and would usually get better by the time they get somebody else sick. It sounds as if their sickness went away after passing it to someone else.

    If a crow sings at night..

    When crows sing at night, it symbolizes that someone has died. People used to bury dead bodies in the mountains after the funeral and offer a last meal. The crows knew they had access to this food so when the crows appeared at night to take the food it meant that someone just died.

    The number 4 will be the death of you

    The number 4 is considered to be unlucky and an unlucky number representing death. The number 4 can be pronounced the same as 死 (shi) meaning death. Many people avoid staying in a hotel room with a number containing 4 or 42, which can be read as a dead person. Lots of people have reported having paranormal experiences when staying in a hotel room with the number associated with death.

    Don't cut your nails at night

    If you grew up in Japan, you’ve probably heard before that if you cut off your nails at night you won’t be able to see your parents die. This doesn’t mean that you’re going to go blind. Not being able to see your parents means dying sooner than your parents. This superstition is pretty old and has roots back in the era where there was not enough lighting in the house so it was dangerous to use sharp objects in the dark. It’s believed that this superstition was created to decrease the possibility of danger.

    Don't sleep with your socks on

    Going to bed with your socks on is also said to be bad luck because you might not be able to be at your parents deathbed. This superstition comes from funerals when a dead person wears socks. Sleeping with your socks on is considered to be an imitation of the funeral tradition, which means you are speeding up the process of your death by voluntarily performing a funeral action.

    Don’t sleep with your head facing north

    My grandma never sleeps with her head facing north. This is one of those famous superstitions that comes from Buddhism. When Buddha died his head was facing towards the north. In India people started to lay dead people so their head is facing north. While it can be considered good luck in India it’s considered bad luck in Japan simply because of its association with death. On the side note, it’s not considered bad luck in Feng shui.

    Pictures were soulless reflections of the people being photographed

    This one is an interesting superstition about cameras that I came across during my research. Back when cameras were first made, people weren't capable of understanding how it worked. So people started believing that the camera was stealing the souls of the people in the photo. Because the technology back then didn't allow the camera to focus on everyone's faces except in the middle so people in the middle were thought to be affected the most.

    If you hiccup 100 times, you are going to die

    This one sounds ridiculous. It seems that a lot of these superstitions end in death and you’d never think that the hiccups would kill you, but… here we go. This one is something we all believed in school. I heard this a lot throughout my school years, especially during elementary school. The version I’m used to hearing is slightly different though. People said that if you can’t stop having the hiccups for 3 days, you will die.

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    Japanese superstitions for good luck

    Having big earlobes

    You don’t have to look like Dumbo but people who have big earlobes are said to be rich and successful. The gods of fortune all have big earlobes, it’s considered to be good luck by many Japanese people and thought of as a desirable physical characteristic by Buddha.

    Keeping snake skin in your wallet

    I first came across this during my research and apparently it’s good luck to have a piece of the shedded skin of a snake in your wallet. Snakes are considered to be the messengers of the god of wealth in India and, because it sheds its skin repeatedly, snakes are believed to represent rebirth. Based on the idea that even if you spend money it would be returned in some way. Shedded skin is the direct result of change/rebirth, which may be the reason why it was considered a good luck item.

    Seeing a shooting star

    Wishing upon a shooting star is another of those widely believed superstitions around the world. In Japan people believe that if you wish upon a shooting star 3 times your dreams will come true. One of the possible origins of this superstition is that shooting stars are a result of light after god opens the doors to heaven. When the doors open it means the god is looking at us, which makes it easier to deliver your wishes.

    Finding a 4 leaf clover

    This superstition is one that is the same as that of Celtic origin. Trying to find a 4 leaf clover is one of the things I remember doing in my childhood. If you found a 4 leaf clover you were considered super lucky. I remember going on a field trip and looking for a 4 leaf clover under the sun and the joy of finally finding it.

    You’re lucky if your first dream of the year is..

    It is considered to be a good omen if your first dream of the year is about Mt. Fuji, an eggplant, or a hawk. Mt. Fuji has long been a part of ancient beliefs that existed back in the day with the teaching of Fuji. One of the oldest religions was based in this shrine in Edo and this superstition is said to come from the neighboring Takaoka houses which were used to keep hawk hunters, as well as to promote the local eggplants.

    Sending gifts with even number bills 

    In the home of people who believe in Feng shui, or 風水 (Fuusui) in Japanese, they gift people with cash in red envelopes but always in even amounts. It’s believed to be bad luck to give gifts with odd number bills. In weddings, the number ending in 8 would be the ideal amount for gifts. Sending a gift of odd number bills could even mean death.

    Placing wallet on the floor

    Putting a wallet or a purse containing a wallet on the floor is not a good thing to do. It’s been told that the money would leave the house and it would also impact your luck with money where you would basically block cash flow so you would run into more money related problems, maybe even getting robbed. But don't worry! Just remember to keep your bags and wallets off the floor.

    Whistling (again) in the house 

    I grew up hearing my grandma say that it was bad luck to whistle in the house at night but I’ve never heard of this one before. Apparently the reason for this is because it’s not good luck for money. It’s also believed that you invite bad spirits into the house, so if you must whistle, it’s best to do it outside the house.

    Having a bird poop on you is good luck here too

    This one’s interesting. You would think it’s bad luck to have bird poop on you. In Japanese superstitions, it is considered good luck and that fortune of money is right around the corner if a bird poop lands on you. 

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    Food superstitions to know before you turn into a cow

    Don’t stab your chopsticks upright in your rice

    It’s not a good omen to stab chopsticks in your bowl of rice. This is also related to death and the food people offer to dead people called the Pillow Meal (Makura-meshi). The Pillow Meal is a bowl of rice with chopsticks stabbed on it and is provided to a dead person by their head. Japanese people avoid doing things that resemble funeral scenes or dead people. This is one of those superstitions parents tell their kids not to do at the dinner table.

    Don't lay down after eating

    This superstition had me really thinking a lot when I was a kid. My grandma used to say that laying down right after a meal turns you into a cow. The superstition was created based on the belief that it is bad manners to lay down right after eating. It is also not advisable because of digestion but if you do need to lay down facing right is better for your stomach.

    Seeing floating tea leaves is good luck

    This superstition is one of the most famous and widely believed. It has long been believed that it is a sign of good luck if you see the stem of the tea leaves float straight when brewing the tea. However, having leaves stems in your tea indicates poor quality of the tea. It is said that the superstition was created in order to turn its negative image.

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    Japanese superstitions for parents and children

    Cover your belly button

    This superstition is also popular among children and probably one of the weirdest on this list. This one says when there is lightning storm you should cover your belly button because the thunder god would see it if it's exposed and take it. This superstition might be based on the idea that when you’re covering your belly button you naturally lean forward and since lightning strikes tend to happen in higher places it was created to avoid getting struck by lightning. Another theory is that it was made to prevent children from getting sick by covering your belly button instead of exposing it which can increase the chances of getting a cold.

    Don't go fishing when your wife is pregnant

    It's bad luck to go out in the sea to fish when your wife is pregnant. In Shinto, giving birth is considered impure since a lot of blood is involved in childbirth. It was said that the impurities stuck around the man would attract bad luck. However it is also often said that the superstition was made to attempt men to keep close to their wife so they can be taken care of.

    Don’t leave the Hina-ningyo (hina doll) out too long

    Hina-ningyo are Hina dolls that celebrate the emperor’s wedding. Japanese people put up and decorate these dolls during March. However leaving out the dolls for too long instead of putting them away could affect the timing of  your marriage and delay it. It is also said that the superstition was created to teach girls to be a good wife by making them clean the house in times past.

    Twins are seen as evil and, therefore, bad luck

    Superstitions about twins are frowned upon in Japan. It is said that different sex twins are reincarnation of a couple who died together in their past lives. The saying says that if you eat eggs with two yolks you will give birth to a twin, which was created to associate twins with bad luck.

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    Japanese superstitions about blood types and personalities

    Japanese people have a strong belief about blood types. Blood type personalities are one of those things where people believe and practice it with no scientific evidence. In Japan, it’s normal to organize people’s behavior patterns into 4 different blood types like astrology. It’s super common in Japanese culture to associate personality traits with 4 blood types. Japanese people have many conversations about blood types and will definitely want to ask you about your blood type when you first meet them, romantically or friendly. 

    Blood type A is the most normal blood type with personality traits like being clean and organized, considerate and respectful. 

    Blood type O is considered to be most relaxed, open, patient, and considered to be good leaders. 

    Blood type B is the selfish type. People with blood type B don’t worry about small things and want to stand out. 

    Blood type AB are considered to be the rarest and most weird with a difficult personality. Lazy and slow paced, they like to keep their peace.

    Want to find out more about what your blood type says about your personality? Check out this article: The importance of blood type in Japanese culture

    Tattoo superstitions to be aware of before getting inked in Japan

    Tattoos are one of the oldest forms of body alterations in Japan. Even though tattoos are not as accepted in Japan now, we have an ancient history with tattoos and they were enjoyed throughout Japan. People used to mark maps and symbols on their body. However, nowadays Japanese people have an image of someone with tattoos being associated with a Yakuza member which is why you’re not allowed in hot springs, swimming pools, some beaches and gyms if you have visible tattoos. Business owners don’t want to give bad impressions to regular or untattooed customers which is why they deny entry if there is someone who might be a Yakuza member.

    Some people might not feel comfortable going to public places with Yakuza members and the business owners want to avoid having a bad reputation. However, it’s getting increasingly common to get tattoos among young people and the stigma is slowly going away also with an increased number of foreigners but these rules are still implemented throughout Japan. As a foreigner, the only places where it would be inconvenient to go with visible tattoos are hot springs/public baths and public swimming pools. 

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    Some gyms don’t allow visible tattoos but you will be fine as long as they’re covered. The only big thing you can’t do as a Japanese person with tattoos is you cannot apply to join the self-defense forces. It would also be harder to get a job if you’re covered in tattoos from head to toe. I feel like what’s preventing most average Japanese people from getting a tattoo is that people don’t want to be looked at a certain way from their neighbors. 

    I feel like there are so many Japanese people who care more about what other people think of them and blending in as much as possible to avoid standing out than to live their life to the fullest. That mainly applies to Japanese people though, so if you are a single foreigner with a couple tattoos you shouldn’t run into any major problems. But if you are a parent, chances are people will be talking about you and not in a good way. It doesn’t matter though, because people will talk whatever no matter what so it’s best not to worry. 

    If you want to find out about tattoos that are considered bad luck, check out this article: 10 Tattoos That Are Considered to Be Bad Luck


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    Top 5 superstitions ALL Japanese people know

    Draw 人 3 times in your palm and swallow for anti-anxiety

    When you are nervous, draw the word 人 (people)  3 times in your palm and swallow it. Feeling pressured and nervous is described as being swallowed by people, this superstition shows the act of swallowing people first to counteract the feeling of nervousness. There is also a point in the center of your palms where anxiety is said to gather. The point can be relaxed by pressing and massaging it.

    It will rain if the cat washes its face

    This superstition predicts the weather as well. It is believed that when cats wash their face it will rain soon as their body is sensitive to feeling humidity which makes them wash their face. There is also another saying that says if you see a bird flying low it will rain the next day. Birds, too, have a hard time flying high when it’s humid, so seeing them fly low could indicate the weather won’t be sunny and nice the next day. 

    Somebody is gossiping about you when you sneeze

    This superstition says that somebody is talking about you behind your back when you sneeze. Sneezing is part of the natural world but people back in the day thought of sneezing as a mysterious experience since you couldn’t control it and thought people sneezed when a higher being was sucking the human’s soul. This superstition is widely believed in other parts of the world as well, like how in the west you say bless you when somebody sneezes. However there is no such phrase in Japanese. 

    People with cold hands have a warm heart

    People who have cold hands have warm hearts. Human beings release heat by circulating blood throughout the body, meaning someone with cold hands doesn't have good circulation of the blood. Hence the idea of the inside (= heart) getting warmer in turn. So the next time you meet someone with cold hands, give them a big hug and appreciate them for their big hearts. 

    Teru teru bozu

    てるてる坊主(Teru teru bozu) is a special Japanese superstition where you make a doll and hang it outside so it will be sunny the next day. Every Japanese kid has made teru teru bozu before. They are a doll made up of tissue which you hang outside when it’s raining to wish for a clearer day the next day. You can make it with tissues, plastic band, and a sharpie. You make a ball of tissue first which you wrap around with another layer of tissue and tie it with a band. That’s supposed to be the head where you draw face parts. 

    That concludes our list of superstitions relating to Japanese culture. Did you have a favorite one or recognize any? Did you find some superstitions to be surprising or were they expected? Japanese superstitions are pretty weird and unique like the culture, some of them so deeply rooted that even though it sounds super ridiculous people still practice it. Make sure to check out other guides about living in Japan, the culture, and learning Japanese if you want to learn more.

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