In Japanese culture, certain years are considered inauspicious based on the year you were born and are called “yakudoshi” (厄年).
The logic behind these particular years comes from Chinese homophones (words that sounds alike). According to this helpful book, the years listed can also be homophones for bad things. For example “42”, if you say the numbers “4” and “2”, you get shi ni (四二). The word “shini” is also a homophone for “death”, (死に). For 33, it can be read as sanzan (三三), which also happens to sound like a word for “disaster” (散々). You see a lot of this in Japanese/Chinese culture not just with auspicious/inauspcious years and numbers, but other events like holidays and so on.
The worst year, or taiyaku (大厄) or honyaku (本厄), is 41 for men, and 36 for women. Also, the year before and after taiyaku are called maeyaku (前厄) and atoyaku (後厄) respectively. These are also years of bad luck, but less severe.
Anyway, when you are in the middle of a Yakudoshi year, many Japanese choose to undergo a ritual purification. Much of Shintoism revolves around the notion of purification. In Shinto if the shrine is not sufficiently purified, physically and spiritually, a kami spirit might not descend for a ritual. Also, when one has encountered calamities such as death, one should be purified as well. So, for Yakudoshi, this is no exception. The particular ritual in Shinto that is applied toward purification for Yakudoshi is called yakubarai (厄払い), which is intended to exorcise any negative spirits that might take advantage of this inauspicious year. Optionally one can instead go to some Buddhist temples to get this done, though the ritual would be more Buddhist in nature, not Shinto. It’s a matter of personal preference. My wife said she want to Kawasaki Daishi, a Shingon Temple that has a positive reputation for this kind of thing.
As for me, my taiyaku year recently ended, and it definitely had some hiccups, but overall it wasn’t a particularly bad year. No one got seriously ill, finances were better than past years, and work plods on like usual. I was by no means a great year, but it certainly didn’t live up to the moniker of “year of suffering”. However, full disclosure, I did undergo a purification ritual at a certain Buddhist temple, and paid extra for the ritual protection just to go the extra mile.
On the other hand, I like to think that the Buddha-Dharma was better protection in that regard. ;-p
Either way, life goes on.
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