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Goin’ Japanesque!

Japanese Love Numbers: From Superstitions to Proper Etiquette

“Japanese love numbers” it seems that people from other countries feel that way about the Japanese. This isn’t simply saying that the Japanese are good at math, but rather it is distinctly Japanese that language and numbers; and numbers and culture/customs are so closely intertwined. Of course in English there are a play on numbers and words like “CU L8ter”, “2moro”, “b4” etc. In Japanese though, there are many different ways of reading numbers so there are more possibilities for it to sound like words. Today, I want to introduce different cases where number and culture is intertwined. There’s some that are like puns as well as those that are related to etiquette so it should be helpful to know some of these.

 

Auspicious/ Inauspicious Numbers

shichigosan
Generally speaking, Japanese like odd numbers. Seasonal festivals are designated on odd number months and the same number day. January 1st (1/1) New Years Day, March 3rd (3/3) Girl’s day, May 5th (5/5) Boy’s Day, July 7th (7/7) Tanabata Festival, September 9th (9/9) Chrysanthemum Festival. (FYI November 11th, 11/11 is not a seasonal festival but it is Pocky Day, named for the stick shaped snack. Lol). There is also a tradition called Shichigosan (753), which celebrates a child’s growth by visiting the shrine when the child is 3 years old, 5 years old and 7 years old. 

One exception is the number 9, which is considered inauspicious even though it is an odd number. The reason is from the way it sounds when said aloud. The pronunciation of nine (KYU/KU) is the similar to negative words that mean suffering (KUrushimu), emergency (KYU-KYU), to be in trouble (KYU-suru). Similarly, another number that is considered inauspicious for its pronunciation is the number 4(SHI/YON). The shi pronunciation is the same as shi for death.

The numbers 4 (shi) and 9 (ku) which are associated with sijyuku (long suffering), shiku (distress) are often avoided for hotel room numbers or parking space numbers. Perhaps this is similar to the number 13 missing from airplane seats or elevator floors outside of Japan.

Other than odd numbers, the number considered to be auspicious is the number 8. This is for the way it looks when it is written in kanji: 八 The bottoms are spreading out so it is associated with widespread happiness and thus considered lucky.

 

Numbers Used in Celebration

In celebratory settings like weddings, there are customs and etiquette that are based on numbers. By knowing some of these when you’re invited to a celebratory event, you can avoid upsetting anyone.

1. Goshugi/ Gifting Money

ご祝儀

JapaneseWeddingMoney1
Money that is given as a gift at weddings should be an odd number. The money that you give should be 10,000 yen, 30,000 yen or 50,000 yen… and the price can go up or down depending on how close you are to the couple that is getting married. (We avoid 40,000 yen and 90,000 yen for the reasons mentioned before). The reason for giving an odd-number amount is because it “cannot be divided”. Since a wedding celebrates 2 people coming together, we avoid things that are associated with “divide (separation)”. Realistically speaking though, I’m sure there are times when 10,000 yen feels like too little but 30,000 yen feels a bit too much. Recently, it seems that 20,000 yen is acceptable because it’s a “pair”. In that case, you wrap 1, 10,000 yen and 2 5,000 yen bills so that it becomes an indivisible number.

In fact there is also a rule for the number of pieces of string used to wrap the envelope when you give the money. The number of strings is an odd number of pieces when it is a celebration. The more money there is inside, the more strings you will have. A standard celebration is 5 pieces. For weddings, which are a celebration when you have “double the happiness” from becoming husband and wife, the number of strings is 10, not five. It’s good to know that these are not random pieces of string that are tied together in a pretty knot. There is actually meaning behind the number of pieces!

2. San San Ku Do – Exchange of the Nuptial Cups

三三九度

In a traditional Japanese wedding, the bride and groom exchange nuptial cups as part of the ceremony. By drinking from the cup numerous times, it is said that a stronger bond will develop between the couple. There is a rule that the glass should be finished in 3 sips. The female attendant pours sake in the glass by tipping the vessel 3 times. The groom will then finish this glass in 3 sips. This process is then repeated by the bride, who will also drink in 3 sips, then back to the groom again for another 3 sips. The process is repeated 3 times, by alternating the order. So, there is 3 glasses total, 3 sips per person and the cups exchanged 9 times in total, which is why this ceremony is called San(3)-san(3)-ku(9)-do.
Related: A Mystical May Festival That Lets You Experience Japanese Tradition: Fox’s Wedding Parade

3. Tejime- Ceremonial Clapping of the Hands

手締め

Tejime is also a Japanese custom. It is done at festivals and other ceremonial functions to celebrate something being completed without any problems. It is a rhythmical clapping of the hands accompanied by calls and it is done by all members that were involved in the event. All Japanese know of this rhythm and it is done very precisely, so if you were to clap at the wrong timing, you would really stand out. It’s actually very simple if you want to learn how it’s done:

Ipponjime

一本締め

The rhythm: 3 claps, 3 claps, 3 claps, 1 clap

The standard process:

  1. MC will call out “Ote wo haishaku”
  2. “iyou” clap clap clap, clap clap clap, clap clap clap, clap
  3. Closed by words of celebration “Arigatougozaimashita” or “Omedetougozaimasu”, followed by applause.

 

Sanbonjime: The Ipponjime Repeated 3 Times

三本締め

The standard process:

  • MC will call out “Ote wo haishaku”
  • “iyou” clap clap clap, clap clap clap, clap clap clap, clap
  • “iyou” clap clap clap, clap clap clap, clap clap clap, clap
  • “mou iccho” clap clap clap, clap clap clap, clap clap clap, clap
  • Closed by words of celebration “Arigatougozaimashita” or “Omedetougozaimasu”, followed by applause.

 

The reason for this rhythm is also related to numbers. It’s 3 + 3 + 3= 9 (九)+1=Not 10 (十)but rather, adding one line to the kanji 九 to form the kanji 丸 (maru/circle). A circle signifies that everything was settled nicely.

There is also another clap known as the “Icchojime”, which is used at a more small scale setting and this is just one clap of the hand. There are also some variations by region.

Watch video for a detailed step by step:

 

4. Saisen- Offering Money at a Shrine

お賽銭

saisenbako
I’m sure you have seen the boxes at shrines where you throw in money offering. I hope you don’t think that the more money you give the more wishes you will have granted. In this case the money that is given is an expression of “gratitude for the happiness that the god has provided”. Thus it does not necessarily mean that the more you give the better. There is also meaning behind the amount to give. 5 yen (go-yen) is the most common as it sounds the same as wishing for good fate “Go-en”. 15 yen (jyu-go-yen ) is associated with “Jyu bun (plenty)” of “Go-en”. 40 yen (8, 5 yen coins)and 8 written as a kanji meaning widespread is also auspicious as it can mean “widespread Go-en”. FYI, 65 yen (13, 5 yen coins) (roku-jyu-go-en) can be considered inauspicious because it sounds like “roku na go-en ga nai” to mean there is not much good Go-en. But I doubt you will have that many 5 yen coins…lol. Either way, it should be helpful to have a lot of 5 yen coins ready when you visit the shrine.  

 

Puns by Numbers

In Japan, there are sometimes memorial days that are set based on a play on words of how the numbers sound.

For example November 22nd is (11/22) can be read I-i-fu-fu i.e. good husband and wife. So there are some couples that get their wedding license on this day.

February 9th or the 29th day of certain months are sometimes considered the day of Ni (2)-Ku (9) i.e. meat. They will have special offers at butchers or the supermarket. They may even have special offers at Yakiniku restaurants. Might as well have some tasty meat on the day for Niku!

There are also other memorial days like June 9th (6/9) day for Roku-ku, i.e. Rock (get it?), read the zero in October 4th (10/4) as Wa (circle) and is the day of i(1)-wa(0)-shi(4) i.e. iwashi, mackerel. Read October 10th (10/10) as a thousand ten so it’s the day of sento i.e. hot bath. These are some memorial days with a unique twist. They’re funny and who knows who thought of it or how you celebrate it…lol
Rock: Learn from BABYMETAL, Japan’s First on the Cover of METAL HAMMER

There are also cases when word puns are used for phone numbers. If you watch Japanese TV commercials you will see it helps people remember the phone numbers better by associating how the number sounds with the service a business is providing. For example, a dentist may use the digits 6480 to read mu-shi-ba-zero, meaning zero cavities, or 2525 to read nikoniko, meaning smile.  

 

You see that numbers are not only used for counting but are an important part of the language and the culture. The Japanese way of thinking towards numbers is very deep an interesting. Customs particularly surrounding money offerings at shrines or at celebrations is not only interesting to know but is related to etiquette so I hope this information comes in handy!

Related: Basics of Japanese: Numbers

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Kimi

About the author

Kimi is a Japanese living in Tokyo. She has spent half her life living overseas in New York, Los Angeles and Hong Kong. Her hobbies are traveling, eating, drinking and beautifying. She enjoys yoga and has a daily goal of running 6.5 km to offset her love of beer and junk food.

View all articles by Kimi
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