I’m sure we’ve all been guilty of some cultural faux pas or other. Whether it’s not saying ‘God bless you’ after someone sneezing, opening an umbrella indoors, or unknowingly using bad table manners, we’ve all done something to make others uncomfortable.
And in Japan, there are many cultural faux pas that you have to be careful of. Now, while some of them come from standard etiquette (like eating on the train is a no-no), there are those that are based in superstition. So, after learning about some of these the hard way, I’ve decided to make a list of superstitions that you should be careful of when coming to Japan.
Of course, there are plenty of other strange beliefs (such as covering up your bellybutton during a storm), but the ones below generally cover superstitions that you have to remember not to break.
Once in a while little diddys get stuck in your head. And you can’t help but whistle them. But at night in Japan? Don’t do it. I learnt this one the hard way… and after being almost tackled by my Japanese friend, she explained why:
Just like in the Nigerian culture, whistling at night in Japan is believed to attract snakes. Snakes that will come to bite and attack you. However, this is not the only fear that the Japanese have about whistling at night. In certain areas, some people believe that whistling will also attract robbers or kidnapping tengu (demons).
As an English teacher, this superstition almost caught me out. Of course red ink in general is not illegal or scary, but it is specifically writing names in this particular hue that can get you into trouble.
This is because of the belief that writing a person’s name in red ink will cut their lives short. But where does this superstition stem from? Well, like many death omens, it stems from the graveyard… OooooOooooh!
You see, when gravestones are made in Japan, both spouses’ names are written – even if one of them is still alive. Therefore, to distinguish the difference between the living and the dead, the living person’s name is often filled in with red paint – to be washed away at the time of their death. Hence, the superstition.
Now this one is not too commonly known in Japan anymore, but is still a regular superstition among the older generation and those working in hospitals. You see, potted plants are terrible gifts to give – especially to those who have been hospitalized. This is because you seem to be sending a subtle message: “I hope you will stay rooted in the hospital forever! (Just like this gift)”.
It’s also a good idea to avoid giving white flowers (lilies, lotus blossoms, and camellias) as gifts to anyone as they are usually associated with funerals.
In many cultures there are certain unlucky numbers. For example, in Christian cultures, the number 13 is so feared that even movies are made about it’s sheer terror (see Friday the 13th).
But in Japan, the number 13 is not the one to be afraid of. These curses belong rather to two different numbers: the number 4 and the number 9.
But why? Well, the answer is far more simple and logical than the 13 apostles of Christ. You see, in Japanese, the number 4 is pronounced ‘shi’ (四/し) – exactly the same as the word for death (死/し). While the number 9 in Japanese is pronounced ‘ku’ (九/く), which is exactly the same as the word for pain or suffering (苦/く).
Therefore, people tend to steer clear of these numbers – whether it’s giving a number of gifts or numbering hotel rooms.
Although I will be doing a post on table manners specifically, I thought that this superstition was worth mentioning as it’s so important.
At Japanese funerals, chopsticks are stuck upright in a bowl of rice that sits on the alter (hotokebashi/仏箸). As a result, this image of chopsticks has become associated with funerals and death. So it’s clear to see why sticking chopsticks into rice at the dinner table is thoroughly frowned upon.
Just like the previous entry, black ties are usually reserved for funerals. And while this mistake might be less frowned upon than the one above, wearing a black tie with a white shirt is still considered to be very unlucky.
So if you’re visiting Japan on business, or working here, then you should steer clear of matching your black tie with a white shirt. Maybe try living a little and wear something less death-related.
It is common in Western weddings to give gifts to the bride and groom, and giving only money can sometimes be frowned upon. However, in Japan, it is customary to give the happy couple some cold hard cash.
But be careful! There are some superstitions around this one too… You see, usually, couples are given either 30 000 yen or 50 000 yen (about R3 000 and R5 000 respectively). So why not 20, or 40 thousand yen? Well that’s because those two figures can easily be divided by two – thus bringing about images of separation and divorce.
But for cash-strapped individuals, you can still give the lucky couple 20 000 yen if you so desire. Just make sure that you give a 10 000 yen note and two 5 000 yen notes – once again, to make sure that it cannot easily be divided.