As we come to the end of 2019, looking back on it I feel like I had a fairly successful, lucky year. But of course, not all years are like that, and in Japanese culture, there’s supposed to be a way to predict them: yakudoshi, or unlucky years.

Even if you’ve never heard of it, like everyone I’ve certainly had days that felt strangely lucky, or mysteriously unlucky. In Japan, this idea expands to a whole year. For men, a major yakudoshi is the year they turn 41, and for women, it’s the year they turn 32. However, because babies were considered to be 1 year old at birth in the past in Japan, these years would’ve been known as 42 and 33.

It’s not abundantly clear where the numbers for yakudoshi came from – the numbers vary from region to region, and the reasons provided are countless. But one idea is that, in many Asian cultures (Japan included) four is considered unlucky, because it shares a pronunciation with death: shi. 42 could also be said as four-two, or shi-ni: towards death. 33, or three-three, could be said as san-zan: calamity.

Oshu was born, in a sense, in 2006, when 2 cities, 2 townships, and 1 village were merged together. Three of these areas—Mizusawa, Esashi, and Maesawa—have spring festivals in which people facing a yakudoshi team up with those facing a normal-to-good year in order to ease their bad luck through a dance. The customs and specific practices in these festivals are different, but the basic idea – relying on others to help with bad luck, and returning the favor by giving good luck to others – persists.

I’ve only been living in Oshu for a few months now, but I’ve lived in Tohoku (Morioka, Iwate; Tanohata, Iwate; and Shinjo, Yamagata) for three years. I’ve been to plenty of festivals in that time, and one thing I’ve noticed is that Japanese festivals often place some sort of group effort at the center of the festivities: carrying a portable shrine, pulling a float, or a structured dance.

On the surface, they look pretty different from festivals in my American hometown. But when I look more closely, Japanese festivals have a lot in common with festivals anywhere else: good food, a space to connect with old friends, a feeling of belonging and community. Even if 2019 was inauspicious, these alone will cure many ills.

These festivals take place in spring; here is a quick schedule:

Mizusawa: Hitaka-hibuse Festival, April 29th

Esashi: Esashi Jinku Festival, May 3rd~4th

Maesawa: Oshu Maesawa Spring Festival, the 3rd Sunday in April

Oshu Maesawa Spring Festival. A group of 42-year-olds expecting yakudoshi

Hitaka-hibuse Festival. Each town has a stunning float, and has a team playing traditional musical instruments like taiko and shakuhachi.

Please feel free to take a look at these webpages:

【Oshu yakudoshi and toshi-iwai】(Japanese only, within the Oshu Sightseeing and Products Association site) 

【Event info】(English, Oshu Sightseeing and Products Association site)














水沢:日高火防祭り   毎年4月29日
江刺:江刺甚句まつり  毎年5月3日~4日
前沢:奥州前沢春まつり 毎年4月の第3日曜日