Japanese Cultural Taboo: Red Ink


Interesting post on Quora by Serina Kurahashi in response to a query about common taboos in Japan. I found it interesting.

What are some social taboos in Japanese culture?
 (Serina Kurahashi, American born from Japanese parents.

6.6k Views10+ years in Japan talking to and learning from Japanese people.Serina is a Most Viewed Writer in Japanese ethnicity and people.)

 

Writing names with red ink.


Having your name written in red is considered bad luck and early death by many.

This may seem overly paranoid and superstitious, but there is a lot of cultural history and background that has given way to this taboo.

1. Red is for dead people

  • If you purchase a tomb stone while you are still alive, your name would be carved and painted in with red.  Once you die and your bones are buried, it will be repainted in black.  This is why when your name is written in red, it gives the impression that it is almost time for you to visit the grave.

2. Red is for battle

  • Long ago the samurai sent letters of challenge (果たし状) to express their desire to duel to the death with the addressee written in red.  For that reason, when you write someone’s name in red, it is equivalent to saying “I am cutting off all ties with you”, or in simpler terms, “I hate you”.

3. Red is for criminals

  • There were times when the names of criminals were written out in red.  Writing someone’s name in red is like implying they are criminals as well.  Also, the orders for executing death penalties are signed with red pencil.  For this reason some believe that when your name is written in red, you will be subject to hatred, since criminals on death row most likely loathe their executioner.

4. Red is for bankrupt

  • When the kanji for “red” (赤) and “letter” (字) are combined, the two characters take on the meaning of “deficit, loss” (赤字).  So quite literally, if a name is written in red, it will appear as if that person or that person’s business is doomed to face a significant financial loss soon.

5. Red is unofficial

  • All official documents are written in black, while red pen is used for correcting errors in the drafts.  When names are written in red, it gives the impression that your name is being disrespected and is not being treated in an official manner.


This taboo is slowly fading away and there indeed are people that are unaware or do really not care, but to be on the safe side, it is advisable to always carry around a black pen so that you wouldn’t risk possibly offending someone.  Even if it’s a personal memo that you believe the other person will never see, it is much more respectful to not write it at all if red is all you have on hand.

Consider a name written in red ink like a voodoo doll with your name on it.  You wouldn’t be too happy either, right?

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