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You may find mei mystifying

by Mark Schreiber

Special To The Japan Times

It’s almost Halloween again, so before I set out my カボチャ提灯 (kabocha chōchin, jack-o’-lantern), I thought the time is right to take up the topic of 迷信 (meishin, superstition). The first character is 迷, meaning lost or puzzled, made by combining the phonetic 米 (alternatively read mai, mei, bei, kome and yone, and meaning “rice”) with 辶 (shinnyō, the classifier for motion). Its verb form is 迷う (mayō).

The second character is 信 (shin, meaning to trust, believe or to have faith in), formed by 亻 (ninben, the person classifier), and 言 (gen, speech). So taken in context the characters mean “confused beliefs.”

A superstitious person is said to be 迷信深い (meishinbukai). The mei in meishin appears in numerous compounds, such as 迷路 (meiro, “confusing road,” i.e., a maze); 迷子 (maigo, a lost child); 迷彩 (meisai, “confusing color,” i.e., camouflage); and 迷惑 (meiwaku, annoyance).

Once a person begins living in a new foreign environment, he or she becomes aware of all sorts of superstitions, folklore or social customs. Take 十三日の金曜日 (jūsannichi no kinyōbi, Friday the 13th) for instance, which, as far as I can tell, Japanese people do not go out of their way to avoid. For them, a less auspicious calendar date would be a 仏滅 (butsumetsu, an ill-fated or unlucky day), on which, for example, no sensible person would ever schedule a wedding.

The superstition that the third man using the same match to light a cigarette would be killed is said to have originated from soldiers who fought in the Crimean War (1853-56) through World War I (1914-18). When I first arrived in Japan I noticed that people often avoided posing for photos in groups of three. When I asked why, I was told,「3人で写真を写った場合、中央にいた人が最も早く死ぬ」(“Sannin de shashin wo totta baai, chūō ni ita hito ga mottomo hayaku shinu,” “When you take a photo of three people, the person in the center will die sooner”). I’m not entirely sure where this belief originated, but it appears to be unrelated to the three cigarettes on a match.

You’ve probably also heard that in Japan gifts of anything in sets of four are to be avoided, since 四 (shi or yon) is a homonym for 死 (shi, death).

While numbers three and four might have bad connotations, five and eight are good. When presenting someone with the gift of a 小銭入れ (kozeni-ire, coin purse) or 財布 (saifu, wallet), it is customary to insert a ¥5 coin. This is because 五円 (goen, ¥5) is a homonym for ご縁 (goen), meaning an “honorable relationship.” And 八 (hachi, eight) is regarded as lucky because the shape of the character expands outward, suggesting growth or profit, which is why eight is found in the names of many businesses, such as bedding manufacturer 丸八 (Maruhachi).

Below I’ve listed a few other amusing superstitions that may still enjoy credence:

• 北枕は早死する (Kitamakura wa hayajini suru, If you sleep with your pillow, i.e. head, pointing toward the north you will die an early death).

• 火遊びするとおねしょする (Hi-asobi suru to onesho suru, If you play with fire, you will wet your bed).

• ミミズに小便をかけるとおちんちんが腫れる (Mimizu ni shomben wo kakeru to ochinchin ga hareru, If you urinate onto an earthworm, your “weenie” will swell up).

• 寝言に答えると寝言を言っている人は早死する(Negoto ni kotaeru to negoto wo itteru hito wa hayajini suru, If you respond to someone while he’s talking in his sleep, he will die young).

• 荷出し車はバックしてはいけない (Nidashi guruma wa bakku shite wa ikenai, A car that carries a bride’s possessions to her new home must not enter the driveway backward — otherwise the bride might divorce the husband and go back to her home).

• 茶柱が立つといいことがある (Chabashira ga tatsu to ii koto ga aru, To have a tea twig floating vertically in your tea is a sign of good luck).

• 黄色いサイコロや蛇の抜け殻を財布に入れておくとお金が貯まる (Kiiroi saikoro ya hebi no nukegara wo saifu ni irete oku to, okane ga tamaru, Putting a yellow dice or a snake’s cast-off skin in your wallet will cause wealth to accumulate).

Even popular music has contributed to the dissemination of some strange beliefs. Kenichi Mikawa’s 1972 hit record「さそり座の女」(“Sasori-za no Onna,” “A woman born under the zodiac sign Scorpio”) was said to have reinforced the stereotyping of such females as being 嫉妬深い、ねちっこい (shittobukai, nechikkoi, given to deep jealousy and obstinacy).