20 Unusual And Sometimes Strange Japanese Superstitions

Are you superstitious? Maybe you avoid walking under ladders, or you throw salt over your shoulder when you spill it. Superstitions often arise from historical folklore that varies from country to country.

If you’re planning a trip to Japan, you may be surprised to see the fourth floor missing on elevators buttons or you see the color red in many temples or shrines to protect from its disaster. Perhaps much of the superstitions stem from Shinto or Buddhist beliefs.

A quick synopsis of each is here in our list and detailed reasons and meaning are below.

  • The number 4 is related to death and misfortune
  • Scissors under your pillow prevent nightmares
  • A broken comb brings bad luck
  • Walking on the edge of tatami mats is bad family karma
  • A north facing pillow is bad for your health
  • Exposed belly buttons in thunderstorms are dangerous
  • Fingernail trimming at night shortens your life
  • Your name written in red ink is bad in business and life
  • Large earlobes will make you rich
  • Dreams from January 1st predict your year
  • Cats can predict the weather
  • Vinegar laced drinks make you healthy
  • A tea leaf in your cup can bring peace and prosperity
  • Cleaning your home isn’t good on New Years day
  • Count your sneezes as they have special meanings
  • A new babys health has a connection to your bathroom
  • Shoe size and IQ are related
  • Snakeskin in Japan is like a rabbits foot in the west
  • Swimming during Obon festival can be fatal
  • Persimmon trees and death are related

Here’s an exploration of 20 of the most prominent and intriguing Japanese superstitions. Find out why this Eastern nation sleeps with scissors under their pillow, why having large ears is a sign of good fortune, and why they might drink tea with a splash of vinegar.

The Number Four

The Sino-Japanese term for “four,” shi (in Japanese), sounds almost identical to the word for “death.” Additionally, the number four appears in various numbers that you can interpret in unlucky ways; 24 has the potential to become nishi or double death, 42 can become shini, which means “death” or “to death.”

Because of the number four’s macabre associations, you’ll find examples of this phobia in many locations throughout Japan. For example, elevators frequently lack a fourth floor, which is analogous to how some Western buildings bypass the 13th floor.

Scissors

In Japan, placing a pair of scissors underneath your pillow is thought to be an effective way of warding off bad dreams and evil spirits. There is some merit to this technique in that possessing a weapon of defense can help calm your mind and prevent worrysome thoughts because you feel safe.

Combs

In the same way that breaking a mirror brings bad luck in Western cultures, the Japanese believe breaking a comb, or its teeth will bring bad luck.

This concept stems from legends about the God Izanagi no Mikoto, who used his comb to save himself several times in bizarre and unusual ways.

Tatami

A tatami is a type of Japanese mat used as a floor covering in traditional Japanese rooms. Stepping on the tatami border can bring bad luck and is something you should never do.

Walking on the border is believed to be like stepping on your parents’ head since some tatami borders contain a family crest etched on them.

Sleeping Pillows

The Japanese believe that sleeping with your pillow facing north is unlucky. It’s known in Japanese as ‘Kita Makura,’ and while many people believe it stems from Buddhism because Buddha is said to have died with his head pointing north, the true origin of this superstition is unknown.

At funerals, the bodies have their heads facing north. When setting up futon mattresses, Japanese folks pay close attention to which way their heads will point. As a result, anyone who sleeps with their head pointing north will have poor luck, or worse, death will greet them.

Thunderstorms

Many Japanese people will recall hearing the expression “Hide your belly button during a rainstorm!” as children. Raijin, the deity of thunder, lightning, and storms, consumes children’s belly buttons.

Raijin is often with his friend Raijuu. Raijuu is supposed to sleep by nesting inside human belly buttons. Raijin smacks Raijuu with lightning to rouse him up! Raijuu will not sleep in your stomach if you cover your belly, which prevents you from being struck by lightning.

Nails

According to Japanese folklore, you should not trim your nails at night because if you do, it will cause you to die young.

One theory behind this tale is that long ago if you clipped your nails at nighttime, you most likely did so by the fire. If your nail clippings went into the fire, the smell of your burning nails could send a message that you are inviting death to take you.

Red Writing

There are several ideas as to why writing someone’s name in red ink is considered bad luck. One reason is that the color red conjures up images of war and bloodshed. 

Other factors include the fact that criminals’ names are inscribed in red in some locations, and the Japanese concept of “becoming red numbers” associates the color red with failure in business. 

Lucky Ears

In Japan, people believe that if you have large earlobes, you will become rich. The Japanese revere Seven Lucky Gods as part of a religious system that combines indigenous Shinto and Buddhist beliefs. The God of wealth has larger ear lobes than average, and the Japanese believe that a physical resemblance to him can bring about good fortune.

Additionally, it’s believed that anyone with body parts that resemble Buddha’s will be blessed. Many believe the Buddha’s ears are the luckiest bodily part to share with him.

First Dream Of The Year

Hatsuyume is the name for the first dream of the new year in Japanese culture. Traditionally, the contents of these dreams would predict the dreamer’s fortune for the following year.

Many believe that dreaming of Mount Fuji, a hawk, or eggplant will bring good fortune. In Japanese, each element is a homonym for a positive term. Mt. Fuji is a homonym for “safety,” a hawk is a homonym for “higher,” and eggplant is a homonym for “accomplishment.” 

Cats

In Japan, it is a well-known belief that when cats begin to groom their faces thoroughly, it will rain the next day. Maybe cats can detect moisture in the air, or cats don’t enjoy having wet whiskers, so they take care of their face when there’s a lot of humidity in the air. This is a widespread belief among the Japanese, but no one knows why scientifically.

Vinegar

Vinegar is said to be highly healthful in Japan because it cleanses your body when you drink or consume it. There is limited scientific backing for this, but the Japanese say that ingesting vinegar makes you more flexible. After spending time in the onsen, it’s even customary to drink vinegar-based drinks.

Tea Leaves

When you serve Japanese green tea from a porcelain tea pot, a tea leaf will occasionally float into the standing teacup. People believe it is a sign of good fortune because it is so uncommon.

Because an upright-floating tea stalk is termed a “pillar of tea” in Japanese, and it’s reminiscent of a traditional house’s central pillar, it’s viewed as a sign to ensure the family’s peace and prosperity.

New Year’s Day

Some individuals view the New Year Holiday as a fresh start and an excellent opportunity to purge their homes of any clutter. However, cleaning during this time is said to drive away well-meaning spirits who come to visit your home, according to the Japanese.

Sneezing

Sneezing is a commonly known bodily reflex to an irritant, but many people are unaware of what it signifies or does to the body. Sneezing has been the subject of myths and superstitions for practically as long as civilization has existed.

In Japan, the total number of your sneezes has different meanings. One sneeze means that someone is praising you. Someone seems to be speaking poorly of you after two sneezes; If you sneeze three times, you’ll fall in love (or your beloved is thinking about you), and if you sneeze four times, you’ll have a cold.

Clean Bathrooms

For the hygiene-conscious Japanese, cleanliness has traditionally been second only to godliness, and the belief that a clean toilet can bring good fortune has existed in Japan for many years.

According to this idea, if you want to have a beautiful baby boy or girl, all you need to do is keep your bathroom clean!

Large Feet

Big feet in Japan denote a lack of intelligence. People with large feet are frequently tricked into believing they are unintelligent to “prove” their point.

There may be no scientific basis for it, and there’s no scale to quantify how big or little one’s feet should be, but it’s an interesting belief.

Snakeskin

Many people in the Western world associate snakes with evil; the Japanese regard them as a symbol of pleasure and wealth. As messengers of Benzaiten, one of the Seven Lucky Gods, snakes have become a good luck omen in Japan. 

Because snakes lose their skin, you can interpret them as a metaphor of rebirth or regeneration, which is why people believe that a wallet lined with snakeskin will bring you fortune and wealth. 

Swimming During Obon 

During Obon, flowing water is thought to be a route for ghosts returning to the human world. This Japanese folklore warns against swimming in the ocean because the spirits that glide through the water will grab you and carry you to the spirit world.

Additionally, there is a logical reason for this belief. Typhoon season occurs in Japan during the summer months, making swimming in the ocean extremely perilous. So, whether its spirits or the sea that whisk swimmers away, avoid swimming in Japan during the summer months or when Typhoons are common.

Persimmon Trees

In Nara Prefecture, it was usual to plant a persimmon tree to mark gravesites or use the tree’s wood as cremation fuel. Spirits are said to reside under persimmon trees in Nagano Prefecture, and souls will stick to persimmon trees near their family houses.

Many adults in Japan will recall being told, “If you fall from a persimmon tree, you’ll die in three years,” But parents likely made up this narrative to deter kids from climbing trees. 

Final Thoughts On Exploring Japanese Superstitions

From the unusual to the frightening, Japanese superstitions come with their own intriguing folklore that has led to today’s beliefs among some Japanese.

Japanese superstition has its origins in Japan’s ancient Shinto and Buddhists religion, animist culture or the belief that all things have a spirit within them, and the belief that certain natural objects also have kami or souls. As a result, many Japanese superstitions revolve around these beliefs and images of animals, inanimate objects, and actions in the natural world bringing good or ill fortune.

MT Lee
My fascination with Japan began several years back at a roadside bonsai stand while on vacation. I became more interested in the where and why's more than the trees themselves. My love of Bonsai led me to further research my interest in the gardens where they originated from and the places and people that surrounded those little trees. My curiosity was well rewarded upon visiting Saitama where the National Bonsai Museum was located and Omiya Village the bonsai mecca for lovers of this ancient art form. Exploring many towns and villages and even making my way to Japan's furthest southern prefecture of Okinawa. I hope to share my love of this wonderful and exotic place with all those who want to know more about Japan.