So I recently got to see a little bit of the more Japanese side of my girlfriend lately in the form of a lesson in Japanese superstition, which I shall now pass on to you. See there's this thing in Japanese called 厄年 (read yakudoshi, year of bad luck/calamity) in which all sorts of bad things can happen to you - you're supposedly more likely to lose your job, get cheated on, get seriously injured or what have you. Normally being a rather sane and grounded individual she of course didn't believe such nonsense, but she's had a series of unlucky experiences lately which she has come to associate with this, such as feeling the squish of a roach-zilla on her toes as she put on her sock (not sure if it was already dead or if she killed it), almost getting hit by a car on her bike (I got her beat on that one) and other such things. As other examples of yakudoshi, I found stories about people getting hit while standing waiting for a stoplight by a bike at just the right angle to break a leg, and apparently Princess Diana was on her yakudoshi the year everyone found out about her affairs and she got divorced (!!).
I personally had not heard of yakudoshi, but here's the gist as it was explained to me. There are apparently some slight regional variations on this, but basically it goes that at the ages of 25, 42 and 61 for men and 19, 33 and 37, you better watch your back for the boogeyman because random shit is waiting for you around the corner. These years are based on the old system for counting years in which you are born at age 1, so basically you just take a year off that. The middle of these is supposedly the worst (called taiyaku 大厄 in Japanese - 42 and 33 for men and women respectively) with the year itself (本厄, honyaku) being preceded and followed by years that lead into and tail off with the bad luck (前厄 and 後厄, maeyaku and atoyaku). You can see a chart of this year's yakudoshi to the left. As with some other Japanese superstitions, reasons for the years picked is widely thought to do with alternate meanings for the readings of the numbers. 4 is generally an unlucky number in Japanese because it can be pronounced shi, as in 'death', and thus 42 (shi-ni) is bad... but only for men. 33 for women can be pronounced 'sanzan', which can mean terrible.
So what do you traditionally do in such years of calamity? Well in order to shoo away the bad luck you go to a shrine for either 厄祓い or 厄除け(yakubarai and yakuyoke) in order to get rid of bad luck or serve a preemptive blow to possible forthcoming calamities. At the shrine you can either give the priests a few man (couple $100USD) to put your name in a ceremony they go through several times a day to scare away the bad luck demons, or you can buy one of their lovely, overly-priced protective charms. Obviously the more money you spend the better, so they have charms anywhere from 500 yen to 50,000 yen (the crystal ones are allegedly most effective for yakudoshi... expensive buggers). My girlfriend went for one of the cheaper options - they sell you a wooden peg which you write your name onto and then smash it down into a board with holes using a mallet as shown above. There was also the standard omikuji, which are sort of like your luck horoscope which you read and then tie onto a string with all the other omikuji for the day as a sort of prayer to the luck gods. (Mikuji picture on the left courtesy of Wikipedia)
Where does such superstition come from? Well, it comes from onmyodo (陰陽道), the Japanese version of astrology based on the Chinese zodiac system. Exact roots aren't known for sure, but there was an ancient custom in China stating that children from the ages of 7 to 9 should be careful of calamities which some think may have some correlation. Onmyodo originally came from Chinese Wu Xing and the yin/yang principle introduced to Japan in the 5th and 6th centuries, then was mixed with Shintoism, Taoism and Buddhism. This form of astrology is more popular out here than that associated with the western zodiac. The whole yakudoshi biz was believed by the aristocracy and higher ups by the Heian Period, and knowledge had spread to the general population by the Edo era.
And you may wonder why does it last for 3 years and not just one? One opinion I found from a Shinto scholar is that this comes from an ancient Japanese tradition called 致斎 (chisai) in which you are supposed to distance yourself from celebration, mourning or any other gathering for 3 days if you are in contact with a death, birth or other bloody act which needs purification in the sight of the gods. This normally holds for the day before and the day after the actual event itself, a concept that could have been carried over to yakudoshi as well.
I found one site trying to make some ridiculous parallels between yakudoshi and supposed superstitions in the west and other countries, but I couldn't find any information anywhere online to corroborate these correlations in English. Just out of interest I'm going to list these to see if anyone else has heard of any of these superstitions:
- ENGLAND - for men any year ending in 4, and for women any year ending in 7. To ward off bad luck you're supposed to gather fruit off a tree in the number corresponding to your age and leave them outside for 3 days and 3 nights, then burn them. The more witnesses you have the better (so everyone can laugh at your superstitious ass).
- SPAIN - for men 24 and 44, for women 14 and 34. To cure yourself, you're supposed to surround yourself by relatives and friends while eating a certain number of pieces of horse meat corresponding to your age. After this there's a big party with singing and dancing... silly Spaniards, that's their solution to everything!
- EGYPT - for men and women every 4th year from the age of 4 all the way through your 50's. To cure this you're supposed to get a piece of fabric from a local elder and keep in on you for that year. I think this sounds sort of like a Muslim "DON'T kick me" sign.
- TURKEY - for men 23, 43 and 63 and for women 13, 33 and 53. This is cured by the relatives and friends getting together and making a life-sized clay doll and robing it with colorful clothing, then washing it away with water. The person has to stay in the house while this is being done so he can keep from laughing at all his stuperstitious relatives and friends.
These all sound rather ridiculous and I doubt any of them really exist, but then again I think the whole yakudoshi thing is ridiculous too. I think I'll just hide up on the 13th floor with my black cat underneath a ladder and toss salt over my shoulder until the whole thing blows over.