Yakudoshi: The year of calamity

Yakudoshi Chart

My wife and I were having a little email conversation lately, about the unusually bad weather in Ireland this year, and she half-jokingly reminded me that its her yakudoshi year this year. This means “calamity year”, or “year of suffering” as the two characters, 厄年, depict. The origin of the Yakudoshi year begins in Chinese beliefs, and deals with certain years of one’s life that are not auspicious, as depicted in the chart above (photographed in 2011 while visiting a Buddhist temple in Tokyo):

  • Men: 24, 41 and 60 years old
  • Women: 18, 32 and 36 years old

Note: this is based on Asian “counting” where year 0 is actually year 1. When children are born, they are automatically year 1, so they’re a year “older” than by Western counting. So, the list above has been adjusted for Western age-counting.

The worst year, or taiyaku (大厄) or honyaku (本厄), is 41 for men, and 36 for women. Also, the year before and after taiyaku are called maeyaku (前厄) and atoyaku (後厄) respectively. These are also years of bad luck, but less severe.

Interestingly, when I visited Meiji Shrine in 2012, I noticed they had a slightly modified, more detailed version of this:

Meiji Shrine Yakudoshi Chart

In the case of Meiji Shrine, the worst years are still bad luck or yaku (厄), albeit less so, for the opposite gender. Also more of the years are considered taiyaku.  Here’s a link to the actual chart on the Meiji Shrine website (in Japanese, but you can figure it out).

The logic behind these particular years comes from Chinese homophones (words that sounds alike). According to this helpful book, the years listed can also be homophones for bad things. For example “42”, if you say the numbers “4” and “2”, you get shi ni (四二). The word “shini” also happens to mean “death”, (死に). For 33, it can be read as sanzan (三三), which also happens to sound like a word for “disaster” (散々). You see a lot of this in Japanese/Chinese culture with holidays, auspicious/inauspcious years and numbers, as well as other events. See my post for some examples of auspicious holidays based on numbering schemes.

Anyway, when you are in the middle of a Yakudoshi year, many Japanese choose to undergo a ritual purification. Much of Shintoism revolves around the notion of purification. I mentioned before how in Shinto if the shrine is not sufficiently purified, physically and spiritually, a kami spirit might not descend for a ritual. Also, when one has encountered calamities such as death, one should be purified as well. So, for Yakudoshi, this is no exception. The particular ritual in Shinto that is applied toward purification for Yakudoshi is called yakubarai (厄払い), which is intended to exorcise any negative spirits that might take advantage of this inauspicious year. Optionally one can instead go to some Buddhist temples to get this done, though the ritual would be more Buddhist in nature, not Shinto. It’s a matter of personal preference. My wife said she want to Kawasaki Daishi, a Shingon Temple that has a positive reputation for this kind of thing.

Speaking from experience, I thought this idea was silly at first, but I’ve been hearing various “yakudoshi” stories of bad events that happen during the year. My wife doesn’t have one, but her sister, when she was 32 had to take care of their mother for a long while after sustaining a pretty bad fall. My mother-in-law is still recuperating from that fall. Even I happen to think back to when I was 25, and that happened to be one of the worst years of my life, due to months of unemployment, crippling credit card debt and such.

So maybe there’s something to it after all…or just wishful thinking.

Either way I’ll be sure to be careful around my 42nd year and take some extra precautions. One never knows. On the other hand though, when you really think about it, it’s kind of culturally contrived and subjective too. If you never knew about it, would it still be a bad year for you? I suppose that is the trouble with superstition though.

Life goes on, in any case.

P.S. According to the book, similar traditions exist in Europe too. The book mentioned that in English children are considered unlucky at ages 4 for boys, and 7 for girls, while in Spain 24 and 44 are bad for men and 14 and 34 for women. Both have rituals people use to ward off bad luck.

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About Doug

A Buddhist, father and Japanophile / Koreaphile.
This entry was posted in Buddhism, Japan, Religion, Shingon, Shinto. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Yakudoshi: The year of calamity

  1. Just Zazen says:

    I guess that may explain why I had such a horrible year (I’m getting ready to turn 42) with the Drs. running me through every test in the book to try to figure out why I couldn’t keep anything down in my stomach, had a bleeding retina and on and on. Ultimately all my symptoms have gone away and they have no clue what happened! I don’t look forward to year 60!

  2. Doug says:

    Yikes, that sucks. Sorry to hear about that. When you turn 60, either undergo the Yakubarai, or hide in a bunker of a year. :)

  3. J says:

    I am going through my 42…yes it is tough; I got divorced; lost all my savings; lost lot of money in stock market; depressed; the toughest year of my life. I am doing my level best to change this hard year but I have no control on my feelings and action. 3 more months it will be over. Look forward for that…

  4. Doug says:

    Eek, sorry to hear that. :( I hope things turn out better.

  5. Mary says:

    I am not superstitious, but I totally believe in the Yakudoshi. When I was 32, I went through major surgery and unemployment. I even went to a shrine to ward off the bad luck. So much for that! Finally, toward the end of 33, things were looking up, I had a good job, new relationship. Then, at 36, during my next yakudoshi year, both my good relationship and job abruptly ended. The bad luck started all over again. Only at 38, am I now starting to recover from what was two waves of really bad luck years with a brief 3 year period of respite in between. I guess men are lucky that their yakudoshi years are spread out!

  6. Doug says:

    Hi Mary and welcome to the JLR! I am sorry to hear about the problems you had, and the timing certainly seems possible. I’m still skeptical because of the way the numbers are so contrived and based on certain linguistic coincidences, but I imagine from your perspective that wouldn’t have made life any easier at the time. :-p

    Hope things are better now though, and thanks for visiting,
    Doug

    P.S. Sorry for the late reply.

  7. Peter Payne says:

    Nice article. I believe it’s all Japanese though, since 42 is “shini” or “death” in Japanese and something totally different in Chinese.

    I am 42 this year. Not only did about 10 excellent people die (mostly anime related), but my dear mother died, my Dad’s first wife (mother to my brothers and sisters) died, my Japanese wife’s uncle who fought in WWII died, plus a few more. This year needs to end immediately.

  8. Doug M says:

    Hi Peter and welcome to the JLR! In Chinese, “4” is a homophone of death, as it is in Japanese because of the borrowed-Chinese on yomi and all that, while the kun yomi (よつ、よっ) would of course be different since it’s a native Japanese pronunciation, and the two are from completely different language families. :)

    The Buddhist side of me is still quite skeptical of the whole thing, given that other cultures have other dates, and the premise behind it is a bit contrived. Afterall, why should one language’s linguistic peculiarities have such an affect on fate across the board? I guess that’s why I don’t buy into mantras either for their “mystical” purposes (why is Sanskrit anymore holy than anything else?). Then again I am not 42 yet. I guess I’ll have to wait and see. Although I have similar anecdotal evidence from my last yakudoshi as being an awful one, I have to remind myself it’s a subjective opinion.

    But I am just thinking out loud. :D

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