Yakudoshi—The Historical Japanese Superstition of Unlucky Ages

In Japan, many people have an interesting belief that certain years during a person’s life are much more deadly and unlucky than others. These treacherous years are called yakudoshi, which translates approximately to “unlucky years.” Generally, the modern unlucky years for women are the ages 19, 33 and 37; and the same for men are 25, 42 and 61. While these are the most common unlucky years feared in Japan today, they are not set in stone—people from different eras believed in different unlucky ages, and the list of unlucky years often varies significantly from region to region in Japan. In all, it is a complicated subject, with the years preceding and following the unlucky ages also being slightly tainted with misfortune.  If you fall under one of these many unlucky years, fret not. It is said that the bad luck can be overcome with a large dose of caution, prayer and some help from purchasable charms or amulets that can bring some much-needed luck.

The tradition of yakudoshi is not a new superstition. It is believed to have begun at least in the Heian Period of Japan, which spanned from 794-1185 CE. It is said to have sprung from the cosmological belief in the intermingling, but opposite, forces of Yin and Yang, which serves as a foundation for much of Asia’s religions and philosophies. The idea of yakudoshi played prominently in The Tale of Genji, considered to be the world’s first true novel, written by the 10th- and 11th-century authoress, Murasaki Shikibu. In her lengthy tale, several of the female characters suffered illness or death during yakudoshi years—the age of 37 was an especially dangerous time for women in The Tale of Genji.

As mentioned before, the superstition of yakudoshi still persists in Japan to this day, where shrines post lists of unlucky years, and items and actions are prescribed to secure good (or at least stable) fortune. Similarly, in some countries linked to the Western civilizations, there are people who fear the number “13” and are superstitious about “Friday the 13th.” That said, many people, in all cultures, are assuredly skeptical of humanity’s bizarre superstitions. Nevertheless, even the skeptics sometimes seem to willingly heed some of the superstitious advice just to be safe, or for the simple enjoyment of being “creeped out” together as a society.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Top picture attribution: (Japanese Shrine with a Yakudoshi list posting, photographed by mrvacbob, licensed as Creative Commons 2.0 (CC 2.0)).

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