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Saturday, July 26, 2014

Japanese Superstitions: Four Ways To Die In Japan

Welcome to another edition of this blog, where we provide the 'what for' for all your superstitious needs.

One of the people I enjoy reading on-line—and there aren't that many—is Muza-chan… who provides the world with awesome photographs and some guidance about Japan, who recently posted a short piece on the Number 4 and Japanese superstition of said number.

She says that the Number 4 in Japan is an unlucky number, much as the Number 13 is in other countries. I knew that, but she offered a unique take on things, involving Tatami Mats (grass mats), of all things. Go check it out HERE - and come back when you are done. That, in reference to the blog title, is #1) .

Truth be told, however, the Number 4 is unlucky in many other countries besides Japan.

Known as tetraphobia (in Greek, tetras = four; phobos = fear), it is the 'practice' of avoiding the number four (4). It's not a FEAR of the number 4 - it's just a superstitious (or not) belief that the number can be construed as 'unlucky.'

As I said, it's not just Japan that seeks to avoid the number 4, it's China, Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, and other countries within East and Southeast Asia.

Okay… so what's up with the number four?
#2) In those countries (some of them for sure I know about), the way the word 'four' is pronounced in the respective languages, sounds exactly like how the word 'death' is pronounced.

In Japan, for example, it is 'shi' (sounds like 'she') for death (死) and four (四). Of course, the kanji used is different for those two words (in the brackets), but apparently it's the thought that counts… people simply dislike talking about death.
The only thing I find scary about Japanese pop-rock girlie band Scandal, is wondering if I have the stamina for four before death takes me via dehydration.
In China, the word for four is '' and 'sei', and the word for death is '' and 'sei'. In Korean, both are pronounced 'sa'; in Vietnamese it's 'tur'… if not exactly the same in pronunciation, then at least it is pretty bloody close, or so I hear.

Because this blog is about Japan, I'll try and stick to the topic, but know that in Japan, they take their shi very seriously. Ha.

# 3) It is not uncommon for apartment buildings in Japan, or parking lots to avoid having the Number 4 - as in a door number.
Cryptic? Or are the even numbers in the Japanese parking lot on the other side of the camera? 

It also means that an elevator will not contain a button with the Number 4… it will have 1/M-2-3-5-6-7-etcetera.

Just as in the West where the number 13 is avoided in apartment/office buildings, I wonder if the Japanese are wary of living on the 5th floor, knowing that it is, in reality, the 4th Floor… the Floor of Death?

Probably not.

The fourth physical floor of my apartment building in Japan listed a number 4, so I guess the building owners said either 'screw superstition' or 'screw the tenants', and unluckily numbered it appropriately.

I'm unsure if the numbering practice of shi avoidance still exists in Japan, however, as modern buildings and facilities are trying to ensure the country doesn't look so 'superstitious' in the eyes of the world.

Perhaps if there IS a floor number four/shi... people simply either never say the word, or they use a different word.

Yes, Japan has found another word to represent the word 'four'.

So, in order to avoid calling out death, or what sounds like death, all Japanese use the word 'yon' to represent the number four. It's the same kanji, however for the number four (see above).

People count as yon (four); ju-yon (14); niju-yon (24); sanju-yon (34) and so on. Ju means 10; ni is two, so 20 is niju - 2-10… san is three, so 30 is sanju. Yes… 44 is yonju-yon.

When it's ingrained in your number counting system(s), you know they take it seriously… but why have even created the word 'shi' for the number 'four' in the first place?

No one knows - except that when the word was created, the early Japanese probably weren't that afraid of a bad luck word considering there were so many other things that could kill them far more painfully. Like the sun or the moon spirits, or a wolf or bear or a poison fish, or a demon, ogre, hag, ghost or a joke-loving turtle spirit. All things the Japanese would be concerned about in the old days.

Now… Japan seems to want to avoid a few other numbers for fear of uttering a word that could be construed as something to call upon sickness or evil, like this:

Japanese hip-hop group High4. They never studied in school, but are cuter and richer than I am, if you like that kind of stuff - apparently many people do.
The Number 9 is another example. Why? The word nine in Japanese is pronounced as 'ku'.

Apparently, for some overly sensitive people, it reminds them of the Japanese word 'to suffer', which is 'kurushimu'.

Uhhhhhhh-huh. So the beginning of the word is apt to cause some stress to the Japanese? Yeesh.

As such, Japanese hospitals, in particular, tend not to use number Nine, which must make for some interesting medical choices when a 99-year-old patient needs 9-cc's of medicine after being in a car accident. The Japanese word for car is 'kuruma', which the last I checked, the first part of the word sounds the same as the Japanese word for nine.

My head hurts.

To make it complete, some Japanese dislike the number 49… because of the reasons above which combine to represent the words "death" and "suffer"…

They also seem to dislike the number 43, yonju-san, because it apparently sounds like the Japanese word for 'still-birth'.

To compensate, when the Japanese give gifts, it should never be in a set of four.

#5) Hmmm… I wonder if the Japanese feel uneasy when speaking English knowing that 'he said/she said' could bring the speaker bad luck. What if your name was Sheila?

Does hearing a gaijin (foreigner) say the word 'she' make them cringe inside? Could I have brought death upon every Japanese woman I slept with if I said the word 'she' while atop/below/behind or in front of them?

Just call me 'Killer',
Andrew Joseph


  1. Well I guess you are totally screwd, if you are born japanese in april, since the reading "shigatsu" still remains :D

    May I reommend you to use a macron for japanese transcriptions or writing it out with an extra vowel? Yeah I'm one of these guys, who likes there romanizations that way ... well besides me complaining about nonsense I wanted to say thanks. I enjoy reading your blog on a regular basis since I found it a couple of weeks ago. Keep it up.

    1. I had never heard of the term 'macron'.
      In my old town of Ohtawara, the Japanese spell it Ōtawara... and when spelled out it is Ootawara... which when said my any gaijin makes it sound and look wrong. It's why I spell it Ohtawara...
      What to do?
      Cheers and thanks for writing.

    2. Till recent, me neither.
      Well yeah, for me reading something like Otawara, this just looks misspelled to me so you could do the good old 'h' thing to make the vowel (seem) long. But then you got stuff like the counting word for ten, which should be written (according to hiragana) as juu and now you are screwed. Wanna write 'juh'? Or 'ehga' instead of 'eiga' for the word movie?
      While I see, that this ou-ei-aa-uu stuff might look wrong to people, I think using the 'macron' is a good tradeoff for romanizing japanese words.

      Well, just my two cents... Oh great, I found two cents.