You might say the Japanese are a bit obsessed with numbers. Some numbers are lucky, some are unlucky, and there’s a reason for each one.
Take 4 and 9 for example. If you pass by a parking lot or visit a hospital in Japan for the first time, you might wonder if they forgot to paint a 4 or if they ran out of numbers for the patient room doors. Trying to find a set of 4 plates or cups? It may be hard. Skipping these numbers is just one of ways Japanese cultures deals with bad luck.
The superstitions about numbers don’t have a historical background like the number 13 in Western society. Instead, numbers are unlucky because of their pronunciation and meanings. The unluckiest is the number 4, which is pronounced shi meaning death. The number 9 is ku, which can mean suffering. 4 and 9 together imples continuous suffering or agonizing death. In some Japanese dialects, 49 is pronounced hiku which can also mean to run over, so license plates with the last two numbers 49 are not issued unless especially requested.
There are a few lucky numbers. The number 8 written in kanji spreads open toward the bottom. This is called suehirogari, and means good fortune can come in. License plates with the number 8, 88 and so forth are so popular, they are often chosen by lottery.
13 is also considered lucky in some parts of Japan. In old Japan, combs were sold at the Jusan-ya (#13 shop) so named because combs (kushi or 9 4) represented unlucky numbers. Shop owners added 9+4=13 and named their shops Jusan-ya. As it can also be pronounced to mi, you will find many shops called the Tomiya written in kanji as the #13 shop. Many areas have the number 13 in their name, and 13 is an age where we celebrate a young woman’s first step into womanhood.
Numbers also play an important part when giving gifts of money. The numbers 3, 5, 7 and 8 are okay for a celebration, and 4 and 9 should be avoided for a sad occasion. Never send an even amount as a wedding gift, as it can be divided by 2 and can suggest a split or divorce. It’s also customary to use new bills for weddings and used bills for funerals.
Sarah is a long-time resident born and raised in Japan. She spends her time trying to raise her children, translating and making soy candles on the side. She loves the beach, paddle boarding, mountain lakes and Japanese beer :)