In Oliver Statler’s book ” Japanese Pilgrimage ” I came across three separate references to 42 being the unlucky age for men. In one place , Statler quotes a pamphlet published by a Buddhist temple which states ” The years of Great Danger are for men 41, 42 and 61: for women 32, 33 and 61…”. For children , year 13 is considered unlucky. The pamphlet also enumerates 22 other years of Lesser Danger.
There are 88 temples on the Shikoku pilgrim route dedicated to Kobo Daishi and some hold that it is because 88 is a total of the unluckiest ages of men , women and children ( 42 + 33 + 13 = 88). All over Japan , the belief in these ” unlucky ages” ( or yakudoshi) persists and people approaching one of these ages visit temples and make offerings to ward off misfortune and death.
Until last week I had never heard of these beliefs and I was curious about how they originated . At first , I thought it might have something to do with medical or scientific reasons or with statistics but was at a loss to think what they might be . The answer , it seems , is much simpler.
In the Japanese language , the symbol for 4 ( ” shi”) is a homophone for “death” while that for 9 ( “ku”) is like that for ” suffering “. There are similar inauspicious connections for the other numbers . Thus 19 = “bad luck “, 33 ( ” sanzen”) =” trouble, disaster” and 42 ( ‘shi-ni” ) = “death” , or at least so many Japanese believe . I haven’t been able to find why the unlucky ages for men are different from those for women and children .
The superstitions are widespread, though I wonder if most Japanese themselves know how these numbers came to be regarded as unlucky. They simply know that they are unlucky just as , here in the West , we take it for granted that the number 13 is unlucky without knowing why. ( The most likely explanation is that 13 was the number of people at the Last Supper . 1.e Jesus + the twelve apostles. Since Jesus is believed to have died on a Friday , Friday the 13th is very , very unlucky).
To get back to Japan :In some Japanese hospitals , room numbers 4 and 9 do not exist and in some maternity wards , the room number 43 ( “shi-san” ) is missing because it means ‘still birth”.To us outsiders , this may excessive but consider this : if you had been told since birth that these numbers were unlucky , would you want to take a chance ?
The Chinese are just as superstitious , if not more. While they feel number 9 is lucky,they consider the number 4 unlucky because it is a homophone for “death”. Thus in East Asia , some buildings do not have a 4th floor ( just as in the West , some buildings do not have a 13th floor). The elevator skips from Floor 3 to floor 5. The prohibition against the number 4 is carried to an extreme in some Hong Kong buildings which do not have any floors that contain the number 4 i.e no number 4, 14 , 24, 34, 40-49 in addition to 13 so that a 50 floor building may contain only 35 actual floors !
In Singapore , Singapore public transit buses do not have licence plates ending in 4 . Canon Sureshot G series skips from G3 to G5 and Nokia does not have a series beginning with 4. The aversion to number 4 also explains why dim sum platters in Chinese restaurants have three pieces of dim sum , and not 4. I’m sure you noticed that when you have struggled to divide a plate of dimsum equally between two couples.
While numbers are considered unlucky on the basis of the way they sound , the age 60 is considered lucky in Chinese , Indian and other cultures for other reasons . It is considered a landmark event and the beginning of seniority. Perhaps , also , in earlier times people did not often live that long and reaching 60 was an achievement, a milestone .
P.S: In the U.S, major league baseball players cannot have number 42 on their uniforms for an entirely different reason , not having anything to do with luck. That number was worn by Jackie Robinson , who broke the color barrier in major league baseball in 1947 when he took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers. In 1997, the fiftieth anniversary of his début , his number was retired and since then no new player in any of the teams has worn it .