Even as Japan is mainly a secular society which prides itself on its “freethinking,” a term most Japanese throw around loosely, over the years I have found that Japan is infested with age old superstitions and ritualized customs which have seeped into mainstream life.
Partly this is due to the fact that the contemporary culture of Japan is fused with a 3,000 year old history. When you have had certain customs or traditions ingraned into society for so long, they aren’t thought of as “superstitions” so much as they are traditional Japanese practices which reflect their ancient heritage.
One such tradition is called Yakudoshi.
Yakudoshi refers to the belief that there are certain ages in one’s life where their bad luck increases and there good luck diminishes (as if good luck and bad luck were forces that were intertwined–like the yin and yang). Thinking about yakudoshi in terms of the Chinese philosophy of yin and yang makes sense considering that, in Japan, yakudoshi is part of the official religious practice of the Ommyodo school of philosophy. Ommyodo literally translates to “The Way of Yin and Yang.”
One of the best online Encyclodpedias about Japan is the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii. On there page about Japanese traditions they state that
Bad luck ages are referred to as yakudoshi, with yaku meaning “calamity” or “calamitous” and doshi signifying “year(s).” These years are considered critical or dangerous because they are believed to bring bad luck or disaster…. For men, the ages 24 and 41 (or 25 and 42 in Japan) are deemed critical years, with 41 being especially critical. It is customary in these unlucky years to visit temples and shrines to provide divine protection from harm…. The equivalent yakudoshi ages for women are 18 and 32 (19 and 33 in Japan), with 32 thought to be a particularly hard, terrible or disastrous year.
My Japanese wife recently asked here friends what they thought about this tradition, and one of her friends, an American woman married to a Japanese man, had this to say about the yakudoshi ritual:
It was my Yakudoshi last year, and my mother in law and I had many disagreements about its customs. I refused to go to go to a shrine and be cleansed, because it’s just creepy and unnecessary to my western mindset.