Superstitious Japanese: Lucky Numbers

Japanese are superstitious people.

One of the most traumatic experiences in my life was when I was asked to MC at my sister’s wedding.

Sure, it was a happy occasion, but my mind was constantly on the edge as I was not allowed to utter a single word that was not auspicious.

At a Japanese wedding, you cannot use words such as “break”, “end”, “separate”, or any expression that implies that the newly-formed relationship would not last… even if it is used in a completely different context.

At the end of a wedding, we cannot say “This is the end of the ceremony.” but instead we say “we open the ceremony.” (お開きにいたします。)

We have to be careful with the use of numbers as well.

Numbers 4 and 9 are considered unlucky in Japanese culture.

4 (四; Shi) rhymes with “death (死; Shi)”, and 9 (九; Ku) rhymes with “hardship” (苦; Ku).

Even numbers (2, 4, 6…) are considered less lucky compared to odd numbers (1, 3, 5…) as they can be split in half.

If you pay attention to the number of letters used in kabuki/ bunraku titles, nearly all of them are in odd numbers with a very few exceptions (here is the list of kabuki titles in Japanese if you are interested).

For example, the kabuki/ bunraku play “Hirakana Seisuiki” is written “ひらかな盛衰記” even though it would normally be written “平仮名盛衰記” as the former has 7 letters and the latter has 8.

They really made sure that the number of letters used are in an odd number.

Now…

Me being me, I did accidentally use a few inappropriate expressions at my sister’s wedding, but she is still with her childhood sweetheart, so really…

Superstitions are superstitions after all.

The True Name of the “Thunder Gate”

Kaminarimon (Thunder Gate)

One of the most famous landmarks in Japan is Kaminarimon (雷門; かみなりもん) or the “Thunder Gate” in Asakusa, Tokyo.

Along with Mt. Fuji, Tokyo Skytree, and Tokyo Tower, it is no exaggeration to say that it is recognised by virtually all Japanese people.

But did you know that “Kaminarimon” (Thunder Gate) is just a nickname for this gate?

Many Japanese do not even know this, but its real name is “Furaijinmon” (風雷神門; ふうらいじんもん) or “The Gate of the Gods of Wind and Thunder”.

If you look closely at the picture above, you’d probably notice that there are two deities displayed on the sides of the gate.

The one on the left with the drums is Raijin (雷神 らいじん) or the god of thunder. He makes thunder with those drums.

I remember as a child I was told to hide my belly button as Raijin likes to eat it for whatever reason…

The one on the right is Fujin (風神 ふうじん) or the god of wind.

Therefore, the official name of Kaminarimon is Furaijinmon.

In fact, if you look at the giant red lantern from the other side, its official name is actually written on it.

Furaijinmon (風雷神門; ふうらいじんもん)

Asakusa is one of the destinations that I definitely recommend you to visit once the Corona crisis is over.

The remnants of the Edo period (1603-1867) can be still felt in this area, and it is widely considered the heart of the Edo culture. For rakugo lovers, it is also known as the home of Asakusa Engei Hall (浅草演芸ホール), one of the four full-time rakugo venues in Tokyo.

I am so looking forward to visiting Asakusa again myself!

Asakusa Engei Hall

Photo Credits

Asakusa Engei Hall: Kakidai, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Furaijinmon: Moyan Brenn from Italy, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Kaminarimon at night: Steve Collis from Melbourne, Australia, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Four Defenders of Japanese Festivals

At Japanese festivals, four banners with the pictures of the four divine beings are sometimes displayed.

You might have also seen them at a ceremony at the imperial palace.

They are the defenders of Shin’iki (神域 しんいき) or the sanctuary of the shrine.

These four defenders are: Blue Dragon (青龍 せいりゅう Seiryu; the defender of the east), White Tiger (白虎 びゃっこ Byakko; the defender of the west), Vermilion Bird (朱雀 すざく Suzaku; the defender of the south), and Black Tortoise (玄武 げんぶ Genbu; the defender of the north; usually entwined together with a snake).

Together these four flags are called “Four Godly Flags/ Banners” (四神旗 しじんき Shijinki).

But in the Edo period (1603-1868), they were also called “Four Godly Swords” (四神剣 しじんけん Shijinken) in the Tokyo area as they put swords at the tips of the flags.

There is a hilarious rakugo story that involves a set of “Four Godly Swords”, which is based on a true story that happened at a restaurant called Momokawa (百川 ももかわ).

Unfortunately, it is one of those stories that would get lost in translation, but I will attempt explaining it another time!

See you next time!

“Mummy” Medicine of Edo!

If you are a speaker of British English, you might be slightly confused if I’m talking about an adult female human with a child/ children or a preserved human body that could’ve been a mummy… or a daddy.

If you are a speaker of American English, you are right I meant a mummy by “mummy”.

The Egyptian kind of mummy, who could’ve been an Egyptian mummy before her passing (OK, I’ll stop annoying you!).

I recently learned a shocking fact about a Japanese medicine during the Edo period (1603-1868), and I couldn’t resist sharing this particular one!

Kaibara Ekiken* (貝原益軒 1630-1714) was a very well-known Neo-Confucianist philosopher (じゅがくしゃ 儒学者) and botanist who studied the medicinal herbs used in traditional Chinese medicine.

Ekiken is especially known for his books called Yojokun (ようじょうくん 養生訓), which was a collection of his health advice, and Yamato Honzo (やまとほんぞう 大和本草) that introduced medicinal plants from China and Japan.

Yamato Honzo (やまとほんぞう 大和本草)

Kaibara Ekiken* (貝原益軒 1630-1714)

In Yamato Honzo, mummies… or mummified human bodies probably from Egypt… are introduced as a medicine!!!

Mind you, Ekiken himself opposed to the use of mummies as a medicine for ethical reasons, but researches suggest that they were widely used as all-purpose cure though they cost a fortune.

We don’t know exactly where they were imported from (and how they were sourced), but it was likely to have been via China or Netherlands as Japan only traded with these two countries then. It could’ve also been from Korea (via Tsushima), Ainu (via Matsumae/ Hokkaido), or Ryukyu/ Okinawa. **

According to Yamato Honzo, mummies were good for toothache, headache, chest pain, high fever, antidote for poisonous insects, and others.

* Some people also call him “Ekken”.

** If you know the answer to this question, please comment below!!!

Reference

貝原益軒著「大和本草」記載のミイラの薬効について 江頭啓介・原敬二郎

Photo Credit

Yamato Honzo: Momotarou2012, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Origin of Waribashi (Disposable Chopsticks)

If you have been to a Japanese restaurant, I’m sure you have seen those waribashi (割り箸, わりばし) or disposable wooden chopsticks that you pull apart before digging in your yummy Japanese dishes.

Personally, I have a love-and-hate relationship with them- I love them because they are sanitary; I hate them because they are an absolute waste of trees.

Anyway… I came across the origin of those chopsticks the other day, so I’m sharing it with you 😃

It is said that waribashi was first created by an eel restaurant in Edo (1603-1868), which is the old name for Tokyo.

They were originally made of bamboo and called “Hikisakibashi” (引裂箸 ひきさきばし), which roughly means “chopsticks to split apart”.

However, the wooden disposable chopsticks that we use today were actually invented in Nara Prefecture (奈良県 ならけん).

It is said that a monk called Sugihara Souan (杉原宗庵, すぎはらそうあん) invented them from Japanese cedar from the Yoshino region (so called “Yoshino Cedar”; 吉野杉, よしのすぎ) in 1827.

They used the scrap wood from making sake barrels, and even today they only use wood from forest thinning in the Yoshino region, therefore making them more ecological than the imported ones from overseas.

I personally think it’s best to use reusable metal chopsticks like Korean people do for the environment, but if you are into waribashi, I recommend you get ones from Yoshino!

References

わが国における食事用の二本箸の起源と割箸について 向井由紀子, 橋本慶子, 長谷川千鶴

You can access this document, but it takes ages to load somehow: https://www.jstage.jst.go.jp/article/cookeryscience1968/10/1/10_41/_pdf

箸の本 本田総一郎

Many Ways to Say “I” in Japanese Explained

A while ago, I made a silly video about different ways to say “I” in Japanese.

Some people have asked me in what context each expression is used, so I have decided to explain that in this article!

Hope this is helpful for you 🙂

Also… if you like this kind of video, please follow my YouTube channel, too. That will definitely make my day!!!

私(わたし Watashi): The most standard “I” in Japanese. The textbook definition!

私(わたくし Watakushi): This is a more polite version of “watashi”. As you may have noticed, the kanji for “watashi” and “watakushi” is the same “私”.

僕(ぼく Boku): This “I” is usually used by a male speaker regardless of his age. When used by an adult, it is usually with someone with an equal or a lower social standing. In recent years (especially in the manga context), some women use “boku” to address themselves as well.

俺(おれ Ore): Casual “I” used by men. It is only used with someone in the same or lower social standing or someone who is really close such as family members. This is my default “I” with my parents and older sister. I have met some non-native speakers of Japanese who think this is an impolite expression, but this is not the case as it completely depends on the context and its use is often a show of closeness to the person.

俺様(おれさま Oresama): This is the arrogant version of “ore”. I have never heard of this expression in real life except when someone is being silly on purpose. You might encounter this expression in books particularly in comic books 🙂

自分(じぶん Jibun): A formal “I”. According to this dictionary website, it was originally used as a second-person personal pronoun during the Edo period (1603-1868). In Osaka dialect, it is used to address a close friend i.e. it can also mean “you”! Confusing, isn’t it?

当方(とうほう Touhou): Wow, my sincere apology, this expression actually means “we”!!! I accidentally included it as it literally means “this side” or “the group I belong to”… but it should really be treated as “we” because the person is talking about the group s/he belongs to as a representative… Sorry!!! (You now know Japanese people don’t always know Japanese!)

身共(みども Midomo): This is a formal “I” used towards someone in the equal or lower social status.

手前(てまえ Temae): This is a humble way to refer yourself. But the confusing thing is that it could also be used to mean “you” towards someone in the same or lower social status. For this use, its variation てめえ (teme’e) is often used, but remember it is a very rude expression!

おら (Ora): This “I” is usually used in the Tohoku region. It is mainly used by men, but it is used by some old women as well.

俺っち (おれっち Orecchi): A casual and almost uncouth “I”. Not many people actually use this expression, but you do hear it spoken by some stereotypical characters in drama, manga, etc. Some people say it is the short version of “俺達” (おれたち Oretachi) or “we”.

あっし (Asshi): This is often used in “jidaigeki” or a period drama. It is often used by the craftsmen of Edo.

あたし (Atashi): Informal “I” used by women. It was used by men as well during the Edo period (1603-1868), and rakugo performers still use this expression even today. I use it myself with my rakugo friends.

あたい (Atai): This “I” feels a little archaic to me, but it is used by little children and sometimes by adult women. “Atai” is used by Yotaro, one of the star characters in rakugo!

拙者(せっしゃ): This is the “I” used by samurai warriors. You still hear it a lot in period dramas!

わし (Washi): This is a variation of “watashi” used with someone in the same or lower social status. It can sound a bit arrogant.

我 (われ Ware): This is a formal “I” that shows up often in Japanese literature, and I have never met anyone who uses this “I” in conversation.

余 (よ Yo): An archaic “I” used by the feudal lords and samurai warriors in high social status.

朕 (ちん chin): “I” only used by the emperor!