Japan is a country that prides itself on its technological advancement and modernity, but one only needs to look at the temples and shrines nestled between tall modern buildings, to tell Japan is still set in its traditional ancient ways. Japanese values all tie back to several important matsuri (celebrations/holidays) and traditions, and one such tradition is yakudoshi, the belief there are specific years in a person's lifespan that are prone to bad luck or disaster.
Unlucky years vary by gender: for men, the years are 25, 42, and 61, with 42 especially unlucky, and for women, the years 19, 33, and 37, with 33 being especially unlucky. Yakudoshi years have changed over time and vary by region, and while there are some consistent explanations, such as those years mark major transitions in life and ominous homophones (42 can be read as shini, the Japanese word for death,) ultimately they are unexplained superstitions. Most of the reasoning behind yakudoshi customs, as is the case with pretty much everything in Japan, is because that's the way it's always been. It's become customary for those in their yakudoshi year to receive either a yakubarai at a Shinto shrine or a yakuyoke at a Buddhist temple, both of which are religious services to dispel bad luck.
Yesterday I had the opportunity of accompanying my host family to Sakuratenjinsha, the small shrine my host father grew up in, to witness my host father's own yakubarai since he turns 42 this year. We all piled into the car and my host father drove us to the small shrine, where we ate Japanese salty snacks and drank delicious tea while waiting for the priest to arrive.
Garbed in a purple hakama, the priest took a few minutes to put on a golden ceremonial jacket and a ceremonial black hat before guiding us to the main altar. We washed our hands in water spewing from a decorative bamboo shoot and sat in one of the five little chairs facing the altar, where the priest was kneeling on the left side. He addressed us by family name, and as the ceremony progressed, it became apparent that yakubarai is a family event, since the bad luck is believed to also affect friends and family. We watched the priest chant prayers and bow repeatedly to the altar, listened as he read from a folded up script, and each of us received an olive branch with special paper attached to it when he finished. Each family member was expected to take the branch, place it on the altar and do the customary ritual for shinto prayer: bow twice, clap twice, pray, and a final bow.
The priest and the shrine workers were surprised that a foreigner would participate in such a private, special event, and their confusion left me wondering if it was a mistake that I had been allowed to attend, but my host mother was, as always, reassuring. She was happy to explain I was their homestay student, eager to learn about Japanese culture and customs, but it was still clear that they had gone beyond their host family duties to include me as if I was their actual daughter. Everytime I thanked my host mother for such an honor, she would wave it off and thank me instead for coming (which, granted, is a fairly common practice in Japan in polite conversation). For dinner, my host father decided to celebrate by making his specialty, takoyaki- a delicious ball of fried dough with octopus cooked in the center, although other ingredients like hot dogs and cheese can be used too. As I flipped over the takoyaki in the pan, looking around at the whole family at dinner, I felt a warm sense of belonging. I love this family so much, and am so grateful for their generosity and kindness.
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<p>My name is Naomi Wolfe and I am a Japanese major and Sociology minor studying in Japan for the 2016-2017 academic year in the hopes of understanding Japanese culture, people, and society. I studied in the Tokyo Language & Culture Program for the fall semester and cannot wait to see what else I can learn in the Nagoya Direct Enrollment Program in the spring semester!</p>