Brett Hetherington

Banner photos: Cornelia Kraft

The Wind-Water Sickness


[This article was first published under the title "How do you get sick in Japan?" in Catalonia Today magazine, March 2016,]
How do you get sick in Japan?

According to one Japanese teacher that I once talked to, a Mr Shiroi, he caught a cold because the school that we both used to teach at was in an “unfavourable” north-east position, when compared to his house. He had been working at this 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 lives, so he rarely found himself in less than perfect health.
Mr Shiroi told me that this extraordinary superstition was called fu-sui (wind-water) and has its roots in Chinese Confucian times, having a fairly committed belief amongst about 1 in 20 people in Japan, Mr Shiroi estimates. In China, he thinks it is over 10 per cent still.

Naturally, in our conversation I offered the opinion that it is actually germs that cause diseases, but this is only the ‘direct’ cause, he maintained. From this ancient nonsense, it seems that you can predict where the harmful things are, but they will only take effect on you if you have arrived at your destination from certain directions.

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

Mr Shiroi then went on to inform me that all the important variables in fact changed on the night before ‘Setsubun,’ (which was 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 timed-honoured Japenese custom that marks the beginning of spring and is based on the solar calendar, not the lunar calendar used by the western world. A man puts on an onni (demon) mask and is chased out of his own 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 in most Japanese households, he told me.

More interesting to me though were this otherwise well-educated man’s theories about predictability of natural phenomenon. I asked him if it was not only people’s houses and workplaces that came under the influence of this “cosmic compass.” Did it affect relationships? For example, if someone who was born in the town of Uji, south of Kyoto, and they married someone from say, Kameoka to their north-west, did this mean that their bond would be a successful one?

He believed it did, explaining to me that it is actually even better to marry a partner further along the same axis line. This struck me as another absurdity, particularly when taken to its logical extension. I argued that, according to his theory here, it would have been better for him to have married a woman from the very tip of Chile in 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 about this. He said “Well, I got married before I learnt about these ways.”

I knew that just last year he had traveled to Morocco. He had previously told me that he liked it very much but that his wife never wanted to go back there again. Now, he filled me in, that particular tip of Africa had been the ‘second best’ possible place to travel to. It had been at times very difficult to find somewhere to go outside of Japan that was relatively “safe.”

Following these principles was limiting to his options, it seemed. I told him that former U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s wife Nancy had experienced similar problems with a different brand of superstition.