Mystical Impressions: Views of Luck in Japan and Abroad


Superstitions lurk in every culture. Whether people try to avoid opening an umbrella indoors, crossing paths with a black cat, spilling coffee, or clipping their nails after dark, their beliefs are positioned as mental guards against the malicious forces of the unseen.

Western cultures attach a strong stigma to the number 13, although the roots of this aversion are hard to pin down. Some believe it derives from the Last Supper, with the numeral representing Judas, the betraying apostle of Jesus Christ. Others say it comes from the number of steps on the gallows—a dozen up and one deadly one back down. The origin of the belief, however, seems to be of little importance.

Indeed, few people think to question the origin of these practices and instead admit to observing them, just as their ancestors had, as a matter of course. The outcome is that society willingly continues to propagate the superstition.

Good and Bad Omens

Arab cultures are no different. Since ancient times owls and crows have been viewed as inauspicious beasts, and their images as heralds of disaster are such that their names are invoked to cast insult and to disparage. For owls, this sinister reputation stems from a belief that the birds conceal themselves during the daylight hours, only emerging from their ominous, solitary hideaways when night has fallen. Another superstition sees their habit of nesting in graveyards as a sign that they are incarnations of the souls of the deceased.

Crows, meanwhile, are reviled largely for their purported role in Abel’s slaying of Cain: Several ancient scriptures depict a crow as tutoring the older brother in burying his murdered sibling. The bird’s alleged skill in this endeavor is linked to its reputation for interning dead compatriots, a superstitious belief that has forever tied the crow to ideas of death and the grave.

In Japan, by contrast, the owl enjoys a highly venerated status as a symbol of wisdom and fortune. The Japanese name for the bird, fukurō, has an auspicious ring, carrying the homophonic meaning of “without hardship”—the negative prefix fu (不) attached to kurō (苦労)—as well as containing the word fuku (福), or good luck. Likewise, crows have traditionally enjoyed a revered status as divine messengers, and a mythological three-legged incarnation of the bird, the Yatagarasu, even appears on the jerseys of the national soccer team.

Numerical Perceptions

In Japan, the criteria for judging something as inauspicious tend to fall more along linguistic lines than religious ones. For example, the numbers 4 (shi) and 9 (ku) are considered unlucky for sharing readings with the characters for death (死) and hardship (苦), respectively. Out of a desire to avoid these unsavory connections, many hospitals exclude the digits from room numbers.

Similar rules apply to words of foreign origin. Flowering cyclamen, while revered for their beauty, are considered an inappropriate gift for someone convalescing for the simple fact that the Japanese pronunciation of the plant, shikuramen, begins with the unfavorable syllables shi and ku. Incidentally, presenting an ill person with any variety of potted plant is frowned upon for the fear of prolonging their hospital stay by causing the patient to become “rooted” in his or her sick bed.

While Islamic cultures generally do not deem specific numbers as unlucky per se, there is a tendency to favor odd numbers. Muslims pray to one god, Allah, five times each day. Seven is especially prominent: pilgrims to the Grand Mosque at Mecca circle the holy Kaaba seven times, Allah created seven heavens and earths, and there are seven days in one week.

Even as the march of science expands our collective knowledge, people in the twenty-first century still willfully rely on archaic omens and symbolism to make sense of their world. And this strong leaning toward supernatural interpretations of unresolved natural phenomena seems likely to continue for generations to come.

(Originally published in Arabic on February 11, 2017. Banner photo courtesy Hirano Yuki.)

religion superstition linguistics