How to tip the hand of fate

Not your lucky day? We can fix that!

Lion dog with omikuji fortunes at a shrine in Karatsu, Kyushu

If someone told you they wanted to move a meeting you’d scheduled because the astrology forecast for that day is too unlucky, you’d probably be moving them right off the payroll, wouldn’t you?

Unless you live in Japan. In Japan, that’s a perfectly legit reason to reschedule a meeting, delay a product launch, or wait to buy a car.

Where I come from, most people prefer to believe that everything good that comes their way is because they worked hard, and that everything bad is their own—or somebody else’s—fault. And while that may be partially true, denying that luck plays a part in everything we do is actually as just as wacko as thinking it controls everything.

Let me give you an example: getting into Harvard. That’s about the biggest “hard work and talent pays off” trope I can think of.

Harvard gets 22 applications for every spot in their incoming class. Let’s say that ten of those candidates worked their butts off their whole lives in every way, were voted most likely to succeed at their high schools, and nothing on their applications disqualifies them. Of those ten, three will be truly amazing. (Admissions officers at Harvard and other elite colleges often say they could fill their incoming class three times over with candidates who are equally fabulous and would be successful students there.)

Now comes the luck part. How do they choose between those three equally stellar beings? Maybe they’ve already got fifteen nationally ranked swimmers, but their Olympic hopeful diver just graduated. Maybe there are two national award-winning classical musicians among the applicants, but what they’re really lacking this year is a pianist for the jazz band. Or maybe their chief reader ate a bad tuna sandwich for lunch and the applications she’s wading through while worrying that she might hurl are failing to be as impressive as usual.

Do you feel like pulling out the rabbit’s foot yet?

In Japan, people take it as a given that there are many things in our lives that we can’t control. When fate blocks the path they’re hoping to take, they accept it and change direction instead of railing against it.

But that, of course, doesn’t stop people from trying to influence the gods of good fortune and get themselves a better slice of luck!

Let’s look at all the ways Japanese people put their thumbs on the scale to tip fate in their favor

Japanese palm readers using xerox machine to tell fortunes
Palm reading gets a distinctly modern and hygienic twist at this Japanese street market stall, where they read a xerox of your hand instead

Here are the three favorite Japanese ways to get a leg up on Lady Luck:


Pick a lucky fortune

The simplest way to catch a glimpse of what life has in store is to spend a few hundred yen on a fortune. Shrines and temples dispense predictions called o-mikuji. They’re random selected, which is key to allowing Fate a free hand when whispering its intentions.

O-mikuji fortune from the shrine maiden vending machine on Yanaka Ginza in Tokyo
Serious shrine and temple fortunes are nearly always written in Japanese and take a fairly dire tone, but this funny version intended for tourists nevertheless dispenses advice on four of the fortunetelling hot topics: future plans, wealth, love and work.

Fortunes come in two flavors:

Lucky Unlucky

And those come in three degrees:
大 Big
中 Moderate
小 Small

The usual range of fortunes ranges from Very Lucky (大吉), Lucky (吉), Moderately Lucky (中吉), and Slightly Lucky (小吉), to Slightly Unlucky (小凶), Moderately Unlucky (中凶) and Unlucky (凶). (Nobody wants to go back and buy another fortune from a place that gave them a dire prediction, so Very Unlucky (大凶) is bad for business and almost never dispensed.)

Here’s how it works:

O-mikuji fortune stand at Senso-ji temple in Tokyo
That shiny hexagonal box contains numbered sticks corresponding to the numbers on the drawers. You drop the suggested coin in the offering slot, then shake the box and tip it over, allowing one stick to fall through the hole in the top. Find the drawer that matches the number on the stick—in it will be slips of paper printed with that number’s predictions for health, wealth, love, work, and how much luck you can expect in the future
O-mikuji fortune vending shaker at the Nezu Shrine in Tokyo
Some shrines dispense fortunes from this traditional hammer-ish looking thing instead. Take it by the handle and shake it, then let the stick fall out the hole and hand it to the priest manning the booth
o-mikuji fortune vending machines at the Narita Shrine in Narita
Naturally, anything that can be automated, will be. Here’s a bank of vending machines, for all your fortune-dispensing needs
Shrine maiden o-mikuji fortune vending machine on Yanaka Ginza in Tokyo
But the most entertaining dispenser of fortunes I’ve seen is this one—the doors open, the little shrine maiden spins around and goes inside to fetch your fortune, then dumps it into the offering bin for you to retrieve

But here’s the best thing about o-mikuji:

Little girl tying an o-mikuji fortune onto a rack at the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine in Kamakura
If you get a bad one, all you have to do to escape that fate is to leave it behind at the shrine or temple where you got it! It’s considered to be a message from the gods, so you can’t just toss it in the trash bin, but if you tie it to a rack (or even a nearby tree branch), it won’t follow you home


Pick a lucky day

Wedding at the Meiji Shrine

One of the characters in The Last Tea Bowl Thief doesn’t do anything important without consulting the lucky day calendar, because in Japan, nobody gets married, schedules a funeral, opens a business or plans a vacation before consulting the stars. Hotels charge top rates for wedding receptions when taian (good luck all day) falls on a weekend, and give steep discounts when butsumetsu (bad luck all day) does the same. Wholesalers at the fish market sell three times as much fish on taian days, because events ranging from store openings to ground-breaking for construction projects crowd onto those days, and are celebrated afterwards with sushi feasts. The only events avoided on good luck days are funerals. Funeral halls are busiest on butsumetsu.

But there are also four varieties of lucky days in between, and rokuyō (lucky day fortunetelling) enthusiasts consider them in a more minor way before planning their daily schedules, like which train to book tickets on, and other stuff on their to-do lists that could benefit from avoiding unlucky times. Stuck in an unnaturally long line at the post office? You should have put that errand off until after lunch!

Here are the six kinds of lucky/unlucky days:

Taian – Good luck all day

Best for: Weddings, starting new business ventures, surgery, breaking ground on building projects, moving house, starting a trip

Tomobiki – Good luck all day, except at noon*

The characters literally mean “pulling friends,” so tomobiki is:
Good for: Weddings
Bad for: Winning sports matches (since friendship wins out over competitive edge)
and funerals (you don’t want your friends to be pulled to the “other side.”)

Sensho – Good luck in the morning, bad luck in the afternoon.

Good for: Starting new ventures, dealing with urgent business, reaching new personal bests in sports, getting a favorable court ruling

Sakimake – Bad luck in the morning, good luck in the afternoon.

Better not start any new venture until after lunch. Wait to conduct urgent business until later in the day, and don’t attempt to settle disputes in the morning.

Shakku – Bad luck all day except at noon*

The kanji literally means “red mouth” so it’s an especially dangerous day for carpenters, chefs, and anyone who uses sharp tools.

Butsumetsu – Unlucky all day (because it’s the day Buddha died)

If you attempt to do anything important on this day, you’re cruisin’ for a bruisin’.

*Noon is considered to be from 11:00 – 13:00

But…how do you know if it’s a lucky day or not?

You consult the internet, of course! Which days will be lucky or unlucky have already been foretold by astrological reckoning, so all you have to do is check the online rokuyō calendar and plan accordingly.

This website is my favorite, because it not only tells you whether today is lucky or not, you can search past and future calendars to find out what kind of day you were born on, when to take that driving test, and what days to avoid getting that filling replaced…

Seiyaku lucky day calendar screen shot


Pick a lucky name

Maneki neko cat figures at Gotokuji temple

When I was naming characters in The Last Tea Bowl Thief, I had to learn how to calculate fortunes based on a baby’s name before I could settle on one that would satisfy the main character’s oh-so-traditional family. In addition to the usual things I pay attention to when choosing Japanese names for Western readers—making sure it doesn’t start with the same letter as another character’s, choosing names that can easily be pronounced inside a Western reader’s head, and names that don’t rhyme with or resemble a bad word in another language—I also had to make sure the sums of the strokes in various combinations of the characters were as auspicious as her grandmother would have insisted upon.

How to calculate your luck with a Western name
All the stroke numbers of this first name add up to an acceptable level of luck with Nori’s family name, but this choice of characters also tells you a secret about the relationship between Nori and her grandmother. It’s one of the more unusual character combinations that produce the name “Nori,” which means she’ll have to explain the spelling her whole life (like if your parents named you Geoff instead of Jeff). Nori’s grandmother would have insisted on this spelling, because she’s much more concerned with how lucky the strokes are than in Nori’s convenience, and believes that building a little hardship into life is what makes people strong.

So…how lucky is YOUR name?

Here’s how to adapt this system for Western names. Each character (or letter) is made up of strokes, and every time the pen lifts from the paper, it’s counted as a separate stroke. Here’s the stroke count for every letter of the alphabet.

Stroke count for calculating your luck with a Western name

Some letters can be written more than one way, so if you’ve got one of those letters in your name, you can choose which number (and fortune) you like better!

Next, figure out your Overall Fortune number, like this:

How to calculate your luck with a Western name

Got it? Now click the button below to nip over to my blog post with all the fortunes corresponding to the numbers 1-60 translated into English, and scroll down until you find your number.

If you really want to dive deep, there are other calculations that supposedly divine how lucky you were before you became an adult, what kind of love life you’re likely to have, and even your personality!

How to calculate your luck with a Western name
I bet you’re wondering about what happens when a woman gets married and changes her name. Naturally—according to this system—her luck changes too. Most sources are vague about how quickly this happens, but seem to agree it’s gradual, not instantaneous. Might even take a few years.

Like all fortunetelling, none of these systems claim to make a certain kind of future happen, they just shine a light on what’s ahead, so pitfalls can be avoided, if possible.

And although few people take these fortunetelling methods so seriously that it impacts their life decisions in significant ways, most Japanese people feel it pays to hedge their bets, if it’s not too much trouble. Like tossing a coin in the offering box every time they pass the local shrine, or buying a prayer plaque at the education shrine before you taking entrance exams, taking a peek into the future never hurts.

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Jonelle Patrick writes mystery novels set in Tokyo, and blogs at Only In Japan and The Tokyo Guide I Wish I’d Had

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