Common Japanese Superstitions

kuniyoshi_utagawa2c_catfish_5Knock on wood, don’t open an umbrella indoors… All cultures have superstitions and the Japanese are no exception. If you spend time in Japan or even if you just watch Japanese TV shows and movies, you may notice a few superstitions that aren’t familiar to you. Of course, like with most people, most Japanese take these superstitions with a grain of salt.

Sneezing: In the West, you may have heard the superstition that when your ears ring, someone is talking about you. In Japan, a similar superstition is that when you sneeze, someone is talking about you. If you’re like most people, you tend to sneeze more than you suffer from ringing ears, so perhaps a lot of Japanese people are talking about you!

Floating tea stalk: Tea is important to traditional Japanese culture. Traditionally, tea is brewed with tea leaves. One Japanese superstition says that if you notice a green tea stalk floating vertically upright in your cup, you will enjoy good luck.

Upset catfish: In some areas of Japan, a long-standing superstition dictated that when catfish began acting strangely, an earthquake would soon follow. Ancient Japanese who came up with this superstition may have been on to something; some scientists believe that the fish act strangely due to their ability to sense the changes in the earth before humans. However, long before scientific research, the Japanese used to believe the catfish caused the earthquakes! (One particular large catfish, the Namazu, was to blame.) You’ll notice catfish associated with earthquakes even today; the early earthquake warning symbol includes a catfish.

Death and four: In Japanese, the word for death is “shi.” One pronunciation of the number four is also “shi.” So rather than being afraid of the number thirteen, the Japanese are leery of the number four. Some buildings, like hotels and apartment complexes, avoid having a floor or a room numbered four (whether it’s truly the fourth floor or room or not). The dislike for four extends into basic parts of Japanese life, too. For example, when you give someone a gift, make sure it’s not four of an item. (Fruit, dining ware, etc.)

Have you ever encountered these Japanese superstitions? What other Japanese superstitions do you know?

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Tags: japan, japanese customs, superstitions