10 Spooky Japanese Superstitions That Will Totally Freak You Out
Japan is a land full of superstitions. It’s also famous for its relationship with the otherworldly and the occult, so takes its superstitions to a whole other level.
If you’ve been watching Japanese films or anime programs to improve your Japanese, you know better than to mess around with angry Japanese ghosts.
Looking to arm yourself against evil spirits once and for all? Then follow these ten well known superstitions from the Land of the Rising Sun.
- 1. Don’t Cut Your Nails at Night
- 2. Hide Your Thumbs from Funeral Cars
- 3. You Shouldn’t Whistle at Night
- 4. Visit a Shrine to Make a Curse
- 5. Visit a Shrine to Make a Wish
- 6. Unlucky Dates and Numbers
- 7. Don’t Step on the Border of a Tatami Mat
- 8. Hide Your Bellybutton
- 9. Don’t Sleep Facing North
- 10. Never Write A Person’s Name in Red Ink
- And One More Thing...
1. Don’t Cut Your Nails at Night
夜に爪を切っては行けない/よるにつめをきってはいけない (夜に爪を切っては行けない/よるにつめをきってはいけない) – yoru ni tsume wo kitte wa ikenai
In the past, there was no electricity to light the streets or your home at night. People believed evil spirits, akuryou (悪霊/あくりょう), would come around when evening approached.
It was believed that cutting tools like fingernail clippers had spiritual power, known as reiryoku (霊力/れいりょく) and could divert evil. At the same time, cutting instruments created a gap in whatever they cut which allowed evil spirits to enter through the gap if used at night.
Although this saying isn’t so popular in modern times, it might be a good idea to keep the light on next time you cut your nails.
2. Hide Your Thumbs from Funeral Cars
霊柩車から親指を隠す/れいきゅしゃからおやゆびをかくす (霊柩車から親指を隠す/れいきゅしゃからおやゆびをかくす) –reikyuusha kara oyayubi wo kakusu
The Japanese word for “thumb” is oyayubi (親指/おやゆび) which translates into “parent finger.” You might hear something along the lines of, “your parents will die young if you don’t hide your thumbs!”
It’s believed that spirits of the dead, vengeful or not, hang around hearses. If you don’t hide your thumbs while a funeral procession passes, then the spirit will enter your body from underneath your thumbnails!
Some people will even hide their fingers as they pass a graveyard or a funeral as well.
3. You Shouldn’t Whistle at Night
夜の笛すべきでない／よるのふえすべきでない (夜の笛すべきでない／よるのふえすべきでない) –yoru no fue subeki de nai
In the past, whistling was a sign used by burglars and other criminals to communicate with each other. In Japanese, a “night burglar” has their own special word: yatou (夜盗/やとう).
You may recognize the kanji as the first character (pronounced “ya“) means “night” and the second kanji character (pronounced “tō“) means “steal” or “rob.”
Because of this, whistling was associated with intruders, thieves and other villains. It was said that whistling at night would attract these villains — or a snake — into your home.
4. Visit a Shrine to Make a Curse
丑の刻参り／うしのこくまいり (丑の刻参り／うしのこくまいり) – ushi no kokumairi
Some Japanese horror film addicts and anime fans alike might be familiar with this curse. This ceremony is called ushi no koku mairi (丑の刻参り／うしのこくまいり) where people visit a shrine during the “hour of the ox” (1:00 – 3:00 AM).
They bring with them a straw doll known as a waranigyou (藁人形／わらにんぎょう) that represents the person who will receive the curse and use a long nail called a gosunkugi (五寸釘／ごすんくぎ) to nail the doll to the shrine’s holy tree. Wherever the nail penetrates the doll is supposed to bring pain to the same part of the cursed person’s body.
It’s believed that after seven days have passed, the hate that someone has felt will disappear from their body. However, if the person making the curse is seen while committing the curse, then the curse will reverse itself and bad luck will fall upon the curse maker instead.
5. Visit a Shrine to Make a Wish
御百度参り／おひゃくどまいり (御百度参り／おひゃくどまいり) – ohyakudo mairi
If you’re making a big wish, consider doing it at a shrine, or jinja (神社／じんじゃ) or at a temple or otera (お寺／おてら) and participate in a ceremony called ohyakudo mairi (お百度参り／おひゃくどまいり), which means “the 100 times pilgrimage.”
To do this, walk from a shrine’s gate to its altar 100 times while praying for your wish to come true. To increase the chances of your wish coming true, walk barefoot.
People follow this tradition when they need a prayer to be answered. If the wish does come true, then in return, the wisher will offer something to the shrine or temple such as money to show their thanks.
6. Unlucky Dates and Numbers
Imagine if everyday was Friday the 13th… for a year! It’s believed that at a certain age of life, people will experience their unluckiest years. The unlucky years, called yakudoshi (厄年／やくどし), vary between men and women.
Today the main unlucky years known as honyaku (本厄/ほんやく) that a person experiences are the ages of 25, 42 and 61 for men, and 19, 33 and 37 for women.
The year before (maeyaku 前厄／まえやき) and after (atoyaku 後厄/あとやき) the main unlucky years are also considered unlucky. To prevent three years of misfortune, those entering their unlucky years will get purified at a temple or shrine.
Besides unlucky years, there are also numbers that are considered unlucky in Japan. The number four is considered to be unlucky because the word for four is shi (四/し) closely resembles the word for death shi (死/し).
Likewise, the word for nine, ku (九/く), sounds similar to the word for pain and suffering ku (苦/く). This is why gifts should never be presented in fours, but rather in sets of three or five.
7. Don’t Step on the Border of a Tatami Mat
畳のへり踏んではいけない/たたみのへりふんではいけない (畳のへり踏んではいけない/たたみのへりふんではいけない) – tatami no heri funde wa ikenai
Tatami mats are traditional woven floor mats that you may see in traditional and modern Japanese homes.
One thing that you should never do is step on the border of a tatami mat, called tatami no heri (畳のへり/たたみのへり), as it is said to bring bad luck.
Some tatami borders have family emblems engraved on them, so stepping on the border is said to be “stepping on your parents’ heads.
8. Hide Your Bellybutton
へそを隠す/へそをかくす (へそを隠す/へそをかくす) – heso wo kakusu
It’s believed that Raijin (雷神/らいじん), the god of thunder, lightening and storms, would eat the bellybuttons of children. The origin of this tale isn’t clear, but to this day you’ll hear parents warning their children to cover their stomachs during a storm.
The god Raijin is often seen with his companion Raijuu (雷獣/らいじゅう). Raijuu is said to nest himself inside human belly buttons while they’re asleep. When Raijin wants to wake his companion, he strikes Raijuu with lightning. Covering your midsection is a way to prevent Raijuu from sleeping in your stomach and potentially being struck by lightning as a result.
Parents use these stories to keep their children from exposing their stomachs and getting cold.
9. Don’t Sleep Facing North
北向きに寝てはいけない／きたむきにねてはいけない (北向きに寝てはいけない／きたむきにねてはいけない) – kita muki ni nete wa ikenai
At funerals, corpses are positioned so their head is facing north. As a result, when setting up beds, Japanese people are attentive to the direction that their heads will point.
Sleeping with your head facing north is called kita makura (北枕/きたまくら). Someone who sleeps with their head facing north will receive bad luck as consequence, or worse, death.
A cup of rice called maruka meshi (枕飯/まるかめし) is left beside the body with two chopsticks standing upright into the rice. The rice is left for the deceased and is not to be consumed by the living. This is why it’s taboo to stick your chopsticks so that they’re standing straight in your dish.
10. Never Write A Person’s Name in Red Ink
人の名前を赤字で書いてはいけない／ひとのなまえをあかじでかいてはいけない (人の名前を赤字で書いてはいけない／ひとのなまえをあかじでかいてはいけない) – hito no namae wo akaji de kaite wa ikenai
Japanese tombstones, bohi (墓碑/ぼひ), are marked with the names of family members, with names written in black and red ink. The deceased members have their names marked in black, while those who are still living will have their names written in red.
Writing someone’s name in red is inauspicious, or fukitsu na (不吉な／ふきつな). Today this ties into business and social etiquette too, so make sure to trade your red pens for another color when traveling in Japan.
As I said before, watching Japanese anime or movies is a great way to acquaint yourself with Japanese superstitions. One easy way to do this is by using the language learning program FluentU to watch Japanese videos with interactive subtitles.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
So there you have it! Make sure you keep these superstitions in mind on your next trip to Japan— otherwise proceed with caution!
And One More Thing...
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