viewpoint. brett htetherington

How do you get sick in Japan?

According to a Japanese teacher I once talked to, Mr Shiroi, he caught a cold because the school that we both used to teach at was in an “unfavourable” northeast position, when compared to his house. He had been at the school for four years, he informed me, and had got sicker much more often than at his previous school, which was in a northwest direction. This was a ‘good' location relative to where he lived, so he rarely found himself in less than perfect health.

Mr Shiroi told me that this superstition was called fu-sui (wind-water) and has its roots in Chinese Confucianism, with a fairly committed belief among one in 20 people in Japan, Mr Shiroi estimates. In China, he thinks it is over 10 per cent still.

Naturally, I offered the opinion that it is actually germs that cause disease, but this is only the ‘direct' cause, he maintained. From this ancient nonsense, it seems you can predict where harmful things are, but they will only affect you if you arrive at your destination from certain directions.

I contended that if somebody catches AIDS, for example, it is because they shared a needle or bodily fluids with an infected person. Mr Shiroi thinks it is also because they were ignorant of warnings that, with insider-knowledge, can be found.

Mr Shiroi went on to say that all the important variables in fact changed on the night before ‘Setsubun,' (only two nights before our discussion.) You see, the turning point for which directions are favourable is midnight on this ‘real' New Year. Setsubun (literally “sectional separation”) is a time-honoured Japanese custom marking the beginning of spring and is based on the solar calendar, not the lunar calendar used in the West. A man puts on an onni (demon) mask and is chased out of his house by the rest of the family who throw beans at him yelling the Japanese equivalent of bad luck out, good luck in! It is still practised by most Japanese, he told me.

More interesting to me were this otherwise well-educated theories about the predictability of natural phenomena. I asked if it was not only people's houses and workplaces that came under the influence of the “cosmic compass.” Did it affect relationships? If someone who was born in the town of Uji, south of Kyoto, and they married someone from, Kameoka to their northwest, did this mean that their bond would be a successful one? He believed it did, explaining that it is actually even better to marry a partner further along the same axis line. This struck me as absurd, particularly when taken to its logical extension. I argued that, according to his theory, it would have been better to have married a woman from the very tip of South America rather than his current wife. “Oh, but you have to balance the idea with practical concerns,” he squibbed. I asked him what his wife thought. He said “I got married before I learnt about these ways.”

I knew that last year he had travelled to Morocco. He had previously said he liked it a lot but that his wife never wanted to go back again. Now, he filled me in: that tip of Africa had been the ‘second best' place to go to. It was often difficult to find somewhere “safe” to go outside of Japan. Following these principles limited his options, it seemed. I told him former US First Lady, Nancy Reagan, had had similar problems with a different brand of superstition.

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