Is it your lucky day? In Japan, here’s how to tip the hand of fate!
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…
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.
Fortunes come in two flavors:
And those come in three degrees:
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:
But here’s the best thing about o-mikuji:
Pick a lucky day
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…
Pick a lucky name
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.
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.
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:
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!
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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More Why, Japan, Why? features are in the JAPANAGRAM ARCHIVE
The Last Tea Bowl Thief was chosen as an Editor’s Pick for Best Mystery, Thriller & Suspense on Amazon
“A fascinating mix of history and mystery.”—Booklist