Ah-choo! Hang on… am I being gossiped about? Is it true that if you sneeze, someone else is talking about you? We’ll never know.
That’s only one of the many Japanese superstitions that you might encounter during your stay or in popular culture. There’s a ton of famous superstitions, but a few unknown ones can be unique to a certain region or prefecture.
For now, we will be covering some popular Japanese superstitions and sayings for good and bad fortune, food, animals, death, and a lot more!
- Words for superstition: Meishin and Engi
- Interesting Japanese superstitions
- If you have big ears or earlobes, you are very lucky
- If a tea leaf or stalk floats up standing, you will have good luck
- If a yellow butterfly crosses your path early in the year, you will have good fortune
- Odd numbers like 7, 5, and 3 are lucky
- Don’t let your daughter-in-law eat autumn eggplants!
- Don’t have a daughter during the year of the fire-horse
- The numbers 4 and 9 are considered unlucky
- Don’t sleep with your pillow facing north
- Hide your thumbs when you see a funeral car
- If you take a photo of 3 people side by side, the middle one dies first
- If you encounter a white cat on a date, you’ll be together forever
- If a cat washes its face, it will rain
- When swallows nest under the eaves of a shop, business will be good
- Don’t stick your chopsticks upright in food
- Vinegar makes your body flexible
- If you eat too much myoga, you will become forgetful
- Couples who watch a solar eclipse will be together forever
- If you sneeze, somebody is talking about you
- Never ever take a spider lily home
Words for superstition: Meishin and Engi
Meishin (迷信 / めいしん) is the Japanese word for ‘superstition’ or ‘superstitious belief’. It is composed of the kanji mayou (迷 / まよう) meaning ‘lost’ or ‘in doubt’, and shin (信 / しん), which means ‘faith’.
Meanwhile, engi (縁起 / えんぎ) is a word meaning ‘omen’ in Japanese. It can be an omen for good or bad luck.
Engi is also connected to the Buddhist saying innenseiki (因縁生起). It is the belief that because everything in this world is interconnected, everything has a cause and origin. That’s why our words and actions can play a role in determining our luck.
To help improve their fortune, some Japanese people gain an interest in engimono (縁起物) or lucky charms! There are different types of amulets and trinkets to increase your luck in your studies, wealth, health, and work, to name a few.
Interesting Japanese superstitions
If you have big ears or earlobes, you are very lucky
Did you just check your ears? This Japanese superstition is connected to Buddhism, where big ears are said to symbolize one’s wisdom and compassion, making them a very lucky person! Most images of Buddha depict him as having long earlobes.
Big ears are also closely linked to Hotei, one of the 7 Gods of Fortune. He is the god of contentment and happiness, also known as the Laughing God!
If a tea leaf or stalk floats up standing, you will have good luck
It is very rare for a tea stalk to end up in your cup, and even more rare for it to float upright! This phenomenon is called chabashira ga tatsu (茶柱が立つ) or ‘the tea pillar stands’. If this happens to you, don’t tell anyone or else your good luck will go away!
If a yellow butterfly crosses your path early in the year, you will have good fortune
This Japanese good luck superstition is based around the word for butterfly, chou (蝶 / ちょう). It sounds like choujiru (長じる) meaning ‘to excel in’. Yellow is also seen as a positive, happy color.
Odd numbers like 7, 5, and 3 are lucky
There is even a holiday containing these lucky numbers! Shichi-go-san (七五三) – literally ‘7-5-3’ – is a festival for Japanese children at these ages. It is held annually every November 15th. Because these particular ages are considered important for a child’s growth, parents take their kids to their neighborhood shrine and engage in a ceremony and family feast for them.
Don’t let your daughter-in-law eat autumn eggplants!
This sounds strange but it can be interpreted as a pregnancy superstition. Eggplants in autumn are said to have a cooling effect on a woman’s body, which might hinder them from having a baby. On the other hand, autumn eggplants are simply delicious, so you might like to keep them to yourself instead!
Don’t have a daughter during the year of the fire-horse
The hinoe-uma (丙午) or ‘fire horse’ year happens every 60 years in the zodiac calendar. The older generation believed that children, particularly daughters, born during this year will grow up hot-tempered and aggressive. Because of their fiery personality, females born in the fire-horse year might face social hardships, like difficulties finding a marriage partner.
The last fire-horse year was 1966, during which an increase in abortion rates was observed. This pregnancy superstition had a larger impact on arranged marriages and couples living in rural areas of Japan. Although the next fire-horse year is in 2026, it’s doubtful that modern-day couples will care much about this superstition.
The numbers 4 and 9 are considered unlucky
In most countries, the number 13 is seen as unlucky (hello, Friday the 13th!), but in East and Southeast Asia, the numbers 4 and 9 are the feared ones. In the Chinese language and similar ones, the number 4 is sometimes pronounced the same way as the word for ‘death’.
This scary Japanese superstition is why you might find some buildings that skip out on the fourth floor!
As for the number 9, it’s pronounced as ku or kyuu, similar to the kanji for ‘suffering’ (苦). It’s bad to combine certain numbers because of their ominous homonyms, such as 42 or shini (‘to death’), 43 or shizan (‘stillbirth), and 49 or shiku (‘painful death’).
Don’t sleep with your pillow facing north
In Buddhist funerals, the body of the deceased is laid with its head facing north. If you’re getting ready for bed, make sure that your pillow is facing anywhere but north, or else you’ll die early!
Hide your thumbs when you see a funeral car
In Japanese, the thumb is called the oya yubi (親指), or ‘parent finger. It’s believed that you will be cursing your parents with death if you don’t hide your thumbs upon seeing a hearse.
If you take a photo of 3 people side by side, the middle one dies first
Cameras, much like mirrors, are believed to capture souls in many Asian superstitions. This is also one of the more popular Japanese superstitions about death. Make sure you get a fourth person in your photo or else!
If you encounter a white cat on a date, you’ll be together forever
It’s no wonder felines are much loved in Japan – they can even seal your romantic fate! White cats in particular are said to bring luck into one’s life, even in the love department.
Another example is the use of maneki-neko or a ‘beckoning cat’. Most businesses will have this cheery porcelain cat on their storefront to attract good fortune!
If a cat washes its face, it will rain
Maybe cats can sense the rain arriving, or it’s turning its head to the direction the wind is blowing! A cat washing its face can also mean a visitor is about to arrive. A similar saying is ‘when frogs croak, it’s going to rain’.
When swallows nest under the eaves of a shop, business will be good
Swallows are seen as helpful to farmers and the agriculture industry in general. They eat insects and pests that can harm crops. Swallows can also feel safe under the eaves of a shop or building if they’re nesting there, so it can mean a steady stream of loyal customers!
Don’t stick your chopsticks upright in food
Not only is this a disrespectful act, it’s something that should only be done when offering food for the deceased! Be sure to use the chopstick rest instead.
Vinegar makes your body flexible
Aside from being a healthy condiment, vinegar is also used in marinating meat to make it soft. Because of that, this Japanese food superstition that drinking vinegar will help make your body soft and flexible was formed!
If you eat too much myoga, you will become forgetful
Myoga is a type of ginger that is native to Japan and South Korea. According to legend, Buddha had a follower who was very forgetful. When he died, myoga randomly started sprouting on his grave.
Couples who watch a solar eclipse will be together forever
This Japanese superstition about love is based on the shape of a circle. Solar eclipses happen when the moon covers the sun, forming a glowing ring around it. Because circles have no end, the love between a couple who witnesses an eclipse together will last for life. Rings are also associated with marriage!
If you sneeze, somebody is talking about you
This is a popular, bizarre Japanese superstition that can be found in anime and manga. There is no scientific explanation for this, but it’s said to vary depending on how many times you sneeze.
One sneeze simply means someone’s talking about you. Two sneezes means they’re probably saying nasty things. Three sneezes means they might have already caught feelings for you! (No pun intended.)
Never ever take a spider lily home
Another scary Japanese belief is that the dead will rise or a fire will start if you pick gorgeous spider lilies! The actual reason why you’re not supposed to take them home is because the bulb of a spider lily is poisonous.
This flower is often found in graveyards or fields, where they grow to keep pests and animals away.
Have you heard of other Japanese superstitions we missed out on? Do you have a favorite among these? Share them in the comments below!
Thea is a freelance content writer, currently majoring in Japanese studies. She likes to create art and draws inspiration from film and music. Thea was inspired to study Japanese language and culture by reading the literary works of Haruki Murakami and Edogawa Ranpo.