USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘four’
Customs
Folk Beliefs
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Deadly Chopsticks

KM is a third-generation Japanese-American from Los Angeles, CA. She now lives in Pasadena, CA with her husband and 18-year-old son.

KM gave me some insight on chopstick etiquette that was passed down from her Japanese parents:

“So in Japan, when you’re eating rice with chopsticks, or really anything which chopsticks, you NEVER rest them by sticking them straight up in your food. It looks like the number 4 spelled out, and in Japanese culture 4 is a very unlucky number – it means death. If you go to Japan you’ll never find anything grouped or sold in 4s, it’s just superstition, like how in America people are scared of the number 13. Also, you never point your chopsticks at people, like if you’re talking at the dinner table. It’s rude, and a little threatening.”

My analysis:

Many cultures have different traditions surrounding food and table etiquette, and this folk belief offers insight into utensil practices many American might not be familiar with. While Asian cuisine is not absent here, it’s often transformed over time by the influence of other places, or even other Asian cultures (like common Japanese-Korean fusion). People from all over use chopsticks, but it’s important to be aware of protocol observed by those whose heritage is more authoritative.

Apparently, chopsticks stuck straight-up in rice also imitate incense sticks on the altar at a funeral, another symbol of death or bad luck. Oftentimes people avoid mixing their foodways with death imagery, compounded by the prevalence of rice in Japanese meals.

I also think it’s interesting that the subject is Japanese-American, and three generations removed at that. Seeing which customs are continued when a family emigrates shows both their cultural and individual values, or superstitions that for some reason or another “stick” in places where they’re not observed.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Magic
Signs

Where’s the Four?

The Main Piece
The number four is an extremely unlucky number. Just as seven is said to be lucky, the number 4 is heeded with caution, especially in East Asia. In China it is common for buildings to skip making a button for the fourth floor button to be skipped and changed to five. The lore is that someone has either died on the floor, will die there, or a spirit will haunt it if marked with the number four. In most buildings, whether they are apartments or offices, one will not find the fourth floor. Although it does in fact exist, it is not a button in elevators because of superstitious reasons. Many workers find it better to keep on the safe side and preferably just skip the number.
Background Information
My informant is Demie Cuo, an undergraduate student at USC. This belief is common with many people of East Asian culture as they tend to associate words that sound similar with one another. The word for death sounds similar to the word for the number four. Therefore, they think of four as an unlucky number, bringing death to whatever it marks. Demie explained her shock when she came to the states and the fourth floor marking was present in elevators. It took her a while to get used to this oddity. Her parents would warn her of the number four, and even her friends knew about its superstition. She always felt best to abide by these warnings even though she was not truly scared of the number.
Context
I was told about this folk practice by my friend’s roommate, Demmie as we were going up in the elevator. We were discussing folklore previously and she was reminded of this practice as we were headed back to our rooms. She quickly discussed with me why the number four in elevators was extremely odd to her when she first came to the states.
Personal Thoughts
I found it extremely interesting to hear that a superstition has had that much power over a country. If anyone in America were to ever suggest something similar to that it would be quickly dismissed. This shows how much influence cultural beliefs have over the people all across East Asia and even various parts of the world. Although the superstition could be easily proven wrong with examples from any other country not abiding by the superstition, many companies and buildings still abide by this rule. It makes me wonder if there are any superstitions America abides by that go unnoticed simply because it is built into our own culture.

Folk Beliefs
Protection

Avoid the Deadly Four

Click here for video.

“One of my friends told me that in Chinese culture, the word “four” has a similar pronunciation to the word for “death”. So if you go into buildings in like Hong Kong or whatever, they skip the number four, so you know how we as Americans, some high rises don’t have thirteen, they don’t have four. Not only that, but they also skip the entire forty level too. So you go from thirty nine not to forty, but to fifty.”

The avoidance of “four” because it sounds like “death” in Chinese culture is a classic example of homeopathic magic. The thinking centers around the belief that the word invites death because of the way it sounds and the more that it is invoked, the more death and bad luck it invites. The idea that uttering a word can bring bad luck is common, such as the taboo on the word “Macbeth” when inside the theater.

Hotels and apartments have an incentive to omit the number four from much of their buildings because living on a fourth floor room would be seen as living in the shadow of death. For these businesses, it is a smarter move financially to exclude these floors because clients or customers would refuse to associate with them. It’s better to be safe than sorry and avoid the number four.

Interestingly, both South Koreans and Japanese also have an aversion to their “four” word as it is pronounced very similarly to the Chinese “four” and their word for “death” is very similar to the Chinese word for “death.” Of course, Korean and Japanese are strongly believed to have originated from Chinese, and because traditions and superstitions are carried through language, it is reasonable that these two cultures would also avoid the number four.

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