10 Unique Japanese Superstitions to Know (and Why)

While you might not believe in the otherworldly and mythology, it’s best to avoid going against Japanese superstitions. A lot of countries have their fair share of unique superstitions, Japan takes the occult, taboos and superstitions to another level. They’re so baked into the culture that everyone is probably familiar with them.

From hiding your thumb to holding your chopsticks wrong, these seemingly small actions might spiral you to a series of unfortunate events — or, worse, curses. In the United States, Halloween is a time for everything spooky and horrific.

Young people in Japan celebrate Halloween too, but traditionally, there is another month reserved for scary stories and horror myths: August. Around this summertime, Japanese people celebrate a Buddhist festival called Obon, which is a time when they honor the dead and ancestors by inviting them back to the human realm.

A lot of these may seem strange to someone who’s not familiar with Japan as they’re based on the country’s history, mythology and culture. That being said, some have more unique origins, and we’ll be sure to cover those.

We’ve compiled a list of some common Japanese superstitions.

Table of Contents

Hide Your Thumbs if You See a Hearse

When you see a hearse, or a funeral car, you hide your thumbs in the palm of your hand. In Japanese,  ‘thumb’ is written as 親指 (おやゆび). 親 (oya・おや) translates to ‘parent’, while 指 (yubi・ゆび) translates to ‘finger’. Together it literally means ‘Parent finger’, as the thumb is your first finger.

What does this mean, and why is it important to “hide your thumb”? Japanese people believe that the dead spirits, regardless if they are vengeful or not, have not passed to the other world, and instead hang around the funeral car. Wrapping your thumb in your finger is believed to prevent the soul of the dead from entering your body and possessing you. Otherwise, they might slip from the cracks of your fingernails.

Plus, it is also believed that your parents will die early if you don’t hide your thumb.

Don’t Say These Words at a Wedding

At a Japanese wedding, it’s important that you don’t say the words 帰る (kaeru・かえる) or 戻る (modoru・もどる). 帰る means to ‘go home’ while 戻る means to ‘return’. Saying these two phrases at a wedding is considered to be bad luck, and will jinx the marriage.  This will supposedly cause the bride to leave the groom and go home and return to their parents. These aren’t the only terms you should avoid at a wedding.

Generally, anything to do with break-ups or death should be avoided. Besides not saying certain things, Japanese culture frown upon giving wedding gifts at certain amounts. It is considered customary for guests to bring gift money called goshugi on the day of the wedding. The number can go as high as 100,000 yen, but it’s not fixed.

What you want to do is to avoid numbers starting with even numbers such as 2, 4 and other of these multiples. Why? Because these numbers can be divided, nudging the idea that the newlywed will split.

Lucky Numbers

We’ve gone over an unlucky number in our other article, so how about we go over some lucky numbers here? In Japan, the two main lucky numbers are seven (七) and eight (八). Curiously, unlike four, the reasons behind the two’s luck have nothing to do with their pronunciation. Seven is a lucky number in Japan largely because of its significance in Buddhism. Additionally, seven is used with the Seven Gods of Luck (七福神).

Eight is a less popular yet still lucky number. In Japan, fans are a sign of wealth and prosperity, because it spreads from narrow to broad, meant to reflect wealth. This is known as 末広がり (suehirogari・すえひろがり). What does this have to do with eight? Well, if you look at the kanji for eight, 八 (hachi・はち), you’ll notice that it resembles the shape of a fan. As such, eight is considered lucky.

japanese superstition

Lie Down After a Meal to Turn Into a Cow

The title really gives it away, but this is a superstition in Japan. Bear in mind that no one really believes this. It’s just something said to children to prevent them from being lazy or lounging around. 

Purification with Salt

Salt in Japan is used in a lot of purification rituals. It is believed to have a cleansing effect and is thought to be capable of purifying people spiritually. You may notice its use at funerals, where those who attended will scatter salt on them and their front doors to prevent evil spirits from following them. It’s similarly used in weddings and even sumo matches.

Another practice involving salt is 盛り塩 (morijio・もりじお), literally meaning ‘pile of salt’, where — you guessed it — piles of salt are put alongside an entryway. This is meant to attract customers and ward off evil spirits. So if you ever see a pile of salt in Japan, leave it be, as someone might have put it there on purpose.

japanese superstition manekineko  lucky cat

Japan’s Lucky Cat

This one? You probably know. The manekineko (招き猫 ・まねきねこ), or ‘beckoning cat’, is one of Japan’s most recognizable superstitions. We can even go as far as saying it’s a cultural icon. You’ve probably seen or owned some version of a manekineko, as they’ve been sold all around the world as all kinds of trinkets. How to tell if something is a manekineko?

Typically, manekineko are depicted as seated cats with a single paw raised. The paw is meant to look like it is beckoning you towards it (hence the name). They are also commonly seen with a koban (小判 ・こばん), an old oval gold coin. If you see a manekineko with its left paw raised, it is meant to attract customers. If its right paw is raised, it’s meant to attract money.

Its origin isn’t set in stone, but the most popular legend is that of the Goutoku-ji temple, where, while out hunting, the 大名 (daimyo・だいみょ) Ii Naotaka was beckoned by a cat to the temple. In doing so, it saved him from a lightning bolt. Feeling gratitude he erected a statue of the cat and made it a patron of the temple where it became the symbol it now is. Whether or not this is true, we don’t know, as this is not the only story involving the manekneko. Still, the cat lives on as an immensely popular and recognizable figure.

Fun fact: If you’re familiar with Pokémon, the Pokémon Meowth is based on the manekineko.

Related article: Japanese Animal Vocabulary

A Crow’s Cawing

Crow have an interesting significance in Japan. It’s a bad omen to hear one cawing, usually indicating bad luck or death will come upon you. The reason for this is tied to yatagarasu (八咫烏・やたがらす), a three-legged crow that is a Shinto guiding god. In Shinto mythology, yatagarasu is said to have guided Emperor Jinmu to Kashihara in Yamato, and is considered to be a divine messenger. It relays the messages of the deities. This has resulted in crows cawing to be viewed as the deities meddling in human affairs, usually resulting in bad fortune.

japanese superstition rain charm

てるてる坊主 (teruterubouzu・てるてるぼうず)

Teru teru bozu are rain charms meant to bring good weather. てる, or 照る, means shine, and 坊主, means a Buddhist monk. People in Japan, mainly kids, hang them up either to prevent rain from happening during a school outing or to stop a rainy day. Nowadays, kids make them with tissue or cotton, but they were originally hung up by farmers and made with white paper or cloth.

You can also make a reverse rain charm. By hanging the teru teru bozu upside-down, you’ll wish for rain.

Don’t Hang Clothes Out to Dry at Night

You shouldn’t hang your clothes out at night, because you’ll be practically begging a spirit to come and haunt them. This came about as there used to be a belief that clothes retain an owner’s spirit after death. Back in the day, kimonos are passed down from parents to their children due to their expensive price. The soul of the diseased is believed to live in old kimono, which created the custom of hanging traditional Japanese clothes of the diseased at night.

Time passed and such custom turned into this superstition that believes that hanging laundry at night may call the soul of the diseased who shall also bring the bad luck related to death.

Now, when left out to dry during the day, the spirit could be cleansed. So, if you leave your clothes out to dry at night, your clothes will attract any nearby roaming spirits.

Blood Type Personality Test

Less a superstition and more a pseudoscience, there is a belief in Japan that your blood type dictates your personality. Unlike a lot of the other superstitions on here, this one is actually believed by quite a few today! If you’re type A, you are described as 几帳面 (kichoumen・きちょうめん), or someone who is well-organized. If you’re type B, you are described as 自己中 (jikochuu・じこちゅう), or selfish.

If you’re type AB, you are considered a mix of A and B, and are described as 変わり者 (kawarimono・かわりもの), or eccentric. Finally, type O. If you are type O, you are 楽観主義 (rakkanshugi・らっかんしゅぎ), or optimistic. There’s no real science backing up this belief, but it can be fun to categorize yourself. Did it get it right for you?

We hope you enjoyed the list! It’s important that you know that most Japanese people don’t really believe in a lot of stuff on this list, it’s just fun to know that it exists. So don’t take anything on this list too seriously.

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