With the spread of 新型コロナウイルス (shingata koronauirusu, novel coronavirus), we could all do with a dose of the luck of the Irish right about now. Luckily, it’s March 17 and that means it’s St. Patrick’s Day around the world. 今年のパレードは中止になりましたが (Kotoshi no parēdo wa chūshi ni narimashita ga, While this year’s parade has been canceled) there’s still a chance you’ll see various green trinkets around Japan. After all, leprechauns and shamrocks are associated with 幸運 (kōun, great fortune) and that’s exactly what we need.
It’s true that all those things are signs of luck overseas as well, but other beliefs, superstitions and legends about both good and bad luck are, of course, different depending on the culture you’re raised in. In North America, 黒猫が前を横切ると縁起が悪い (kuroneko ga mae o yokogiru to engi ga warui, if a black cat crosses in front of you, it’s bad luck). In Japan, though, 黒猫 were traditionally thought to bring good luck and, to single women, potential suitors. Nowadays, it seems some of us have adopted the Western view of black cats, though.
Diving head first into Japanese 迷信 (meishin, superstition), let’s first check our ears. Why? Well, the story goes that 福耳はお金持ちになる (fukumimi wa okanemochi ni naru, plump earlobes mean you’ll be rich). This superstition is linked to the religions of 仏教 (bukkyō, Buddhism) and 神道 (shintō, Shintoism) as both 仏 (hotoke, Buddha) and 恵比寿様 (Ebisu-sama, Ebisu), the god of business and fishing who is one of the 七福神 (shichifukujin, seven gods of good fortune) have big earlobes.
Ears plump? Great! Now look down into the cup of green tea you’re drinking. Legend dictates 茶柱が立つと縁起がいい (chabashira ga tatsu to engi ga ii, if the tea stalks are floating upright, it’s good luck). Breaking down the superstition a little bit, you’ll notice “柱が立つ” (“hashira ga tatsu“), which means a pillar is standing upright. Such 柱 are a part of constructing houses and, as the thing that keeps your home standing, they imply reliability. That’s why 茶柱 has positive connotations.
Feeling lucky? Not so fast. Go outside to check out our third superstition, which depends on how low the birds are flying: ツバメが低く飛ぶと雨になる (Tsubame ga hikuku tobu to ame ni naru, When swallows fly low, rain will fall). This 迷信 is based more on science than old beliefs, as it’s believed that swallows fly closer to the ground to hunt for low-flying insects whose wings have been somewhat deformed due to the humidity caused by the approaching downpour.
These aren’t the only superstitions the Japanese believe in. In fact, お箸のマナー (o-hashi no manā, chopstick manners) present a whole slew of traps that people unfamiliar with Japanese culture can fall into.
For instance, 箸から箸へ食べ物を渡してはいけない (hashi kara hashi e tabemono o watashite wa ikenai, you must not pass food from one person’s chopsticks to another’s) and 箸をご飯の上から刺してはいけない (hashi o gohan no ue kara sashite wa ikenai, you must not stick your chopsticks upright into your rice). Both these actions — known as 箸渡し (hashiwatashi) and 刺し箸 (sashibashi), respectively — are performed as part of funerals and doing them at someone’s dinner table may prove a fatal (well, not literally) breach of etiquette. Japanese uses the 〜てはいけない/〜てはいけません ending on the te-form of a verb to indicate something you must not do. For example, 西洋では、室内で傘を開けてはいけません (seiyō de wa, shitsunai de kasa o akete wa ikemasen, in the West, you must not open your umbrella indoors) and 日本では、朝蜘蛛を殺してはいけません (Nihon de wa, asagumo o koroshite wa ikemasen, in Japan, you must not kill a morning spider [in your home]) because doing either is 縁起が悪い depending on where you live.
Back to lucky things. Head to a temple for a lucky だるま (daruma), a round doll with blank eyes (you paint one when you set a goal and the other when you achieve it), or a shrine for an 絵馬 (ema), which is literally a “horse picture” but is what you call the wooden placards you write your wishes on. Chow down on a 黒たまご (kurotamago, black egg) or two (one egg adds seven years of life!), or purchase an お守り (o-mamori) charm for good health. Whatever you do, 手を洗うのを忘れないで (te o arau no o wasurenai de, don’t forget to wash your hands). That’s not superstition, in the age of 新型コロナウイルス it’s just good hygiene!