Put a broiled fishhead in your entryway. Pile salt just outside your front door. Avoid cutting your fingernails after dark. Paint your house neon yellow. Do not whistle at night. What do all these odd actions/non-actions have in common? They are ways to ward off bad luck in Japan.
Japan is filled with such superstitions. While some are modern urban legends, many come from the animistic roots of Japan's religious beliefs. The many (millions of) gods and evil spirits in nature are capricious and mischievous. They must be appeased or driven away lest they bring death or misfortune to oneself.
Many superstitions surround the fear of death and suffering. The numbers four and nine are unlucky because they are pronounced in the same way as death (shi) and suffering (ku). Hospitals avoid the use of these numbers for rooms and floors. You'll also never find a set of four dishes in Japan. Plateware comes in sets of three or five.
Japanese are careful to hide their thumbs when they see a funeral hearse. Not doing so will mean an early death for your parents. In Japanese, a thumb is called your parent finger (oyayubi). Protect your parents by protecting your parent finger.
Other actions that invite death include bringing potted flowers on a hospital visit (a play on the word for "root" in Japanese suggests the patient may not recover). Sticking chopsticks in your rice (this is only for funerals). Using a single chopstick in both hands (only done to pick up bones after cremation). Sleeping with your head toward the north (dead bodies are laid out in this direction). Being in the middle of a group of three when your picture is taken (you are in the best focus and the pull of the camera upon your spirit is the strongest).
I know you're asking by this point, "Do Japanese REALLY believe that?" Unfortunately the answer is yes. The culture is saturated with it. The selling of fortunes (uranai) in Japan is a major business. Horoscopes and numerology play a big part in the psyche of the Japanese people. The availability of such with the explosion of smart phones has greatly exacerbated the problem.
And so one of the challenges in our mission work in Japan is speaking to a culture that is filled with superstitious beliefs. How do we respond from the Bible?
The spiritual scene in Japan is not unlike the superstitious city of Ephesus. The people of Ephesus lived in the shadow of the great temple of Artemis (Diana). Priests and "miracle workers" abounded. Occult worship was everywhere. The city was preoccupied with the black arts. The worship of Artemis included prostitution and mutilation rituals. Into this city of magic and witchcraft comes Paul with a message of the true and living God. It is helpful to read the way that Paul speaks to the Ephesian church in this culture of superstition in his letter to them. Recently I read Ephesians afresh with this "addressing-a-culture-of-superstition" lens. Stop and take a few minutes to do the same. I'll share a few insights in a future post.
(TO BE CONTINUED)