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Japanese Seeking Luck Believe Dose of Superstition Is Healthy

July 02, 1999|MARK MAGNIER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TOKYO — Yoshio Yasaki, 84, says he's been hospitalized 10 times in his life for various ailments. Each time, he carefully studies his calendar and, when possible, delays his checkout until the next occurrence of taian, a lucky day under Japan's centuries-old lunar calendar.

"The best day for checkout is taian," he says. "If you don't follow the calendar, you will regret it."

Yasaki evidently isn't alone. While most people wouldn't dream of hanging around a hospital for a nanosecond longer than necessary, an estimated 3.3% of Japanese patients willingly endure more white walls and soggy institutional food to start their recovery on an auspicious day, according to a recent study by Kyoto University physician Kenji Hira and his colleagues.

The added cost to the nation for this dose of superstition, the study's authors believe, may be as much as $44.3 million annually.

Until the 1870s, Japan used a lunar calendar with six-day cycles that laid out in often excruciating detail what days and even hours were lucky and unlucky, based on beliefs that came over from China in the late 1300s.

The government outlawed the old lunar calendar in 1873 as part of Japan's push to modernize and catch up with the West. But 126 years later, the tradition lives on, particularly in rural Japan and among those older than 50, experts say.

These days, you can find Japanese Web sites to help you figure out your lucky days, and software that adds key taian dates to your Palm Pilot or other electronic organizer.

Some Japanese still choose to start a business, hold important meetings or buy large-ticket items such as cars or houses on these favorable days, which number about 60 a year. And wedding halls here tend to see a rush of business on taian--and often are forced to heavily discount their services on its unlucky counterparts, called butsumetsu.

It's not that most Japanese necessarily believe in the system, says Midori Kotani, senior researcher with Tokyo's Life Design Institute. But they're wary of offending any of their guests or older relatives who may still follow its rules, so the practice lives on.

Miyuki Sugimoto, a 27-year-old nurse living in Kochi, says that most of her patients older than 60 worry about taian. But so far, she says reassuringly, she's never run into a doctor who believed in the superstition or used it to schedule operations. "Organs never have calendars," she says.

Her physician husband, Keisuke Sugimoto, says his patients are anything but shy about their beliefs, and often can be quite insistent about scheduling major moves around these lucky days. Many, he believes, see it as a sort of "spiritual insurance."

Study author Hira agrees that there may be some underlying value to the belief system. In effect, he says, it may act as a placebo on a patient to alleviate unconscious anxiety as they work out a treatment with their doctor.

Hira says the results of his study, published in the British Medical Journal and based on the discharge records of 23,677 patients, are supported by other unpublished results that his team has compiled.

An official with Japan's Health and Welfare Ministry didn't seem overly concerned that these beliefs could be costing government insurers tens of millions of dollars annually, saying, "It's an issue between the doctor and the patient."

This overlay of superstition on Japan's everyday world of shiny hospital wards, bullet trains and high-tech gadgets is a case of folklore evolving and taking on new forms, says Seiko Yamazaki, research director at an institute affiliated with Dentsu, the nation's biggest advertising agency. To a lesser extent, this is seen in the West with America's concern about Friday the 13th or the frequent omission of 13th floors in skyscrapers, she adds.

Nor do the Japanese have trouble reconciling their superstitions with the seemingly logical world of modern life, says Akihiro Yamane, a retired professor and expert on Japanese traditional beliefs. The country has a long history of melding bits of seemingly contradictory systems, including Shintoism, Buddhism and Christianity, he says, into an ideological hodgepodge it finds useful and convenient.

Dr. Sugimoto says that many of his patients don't give lucky days a moment's notice on their first visit--but they start paying much more attention if their illness persists and they have repeat hospital stays.

"In my hospital, we have a taian rush, when lots of people leave on the same day," he says. "For many people, it's like a good-luck charm against illness."

*

Hisako Ueno of The Times' Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.

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