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Tetraphobia: East Asia’s fear of the number four

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East Asia - Japan

I have a love-hate relationship with numbers (unlike my love-love relationship with travel insurance) – love seeing numbers in my bank account (as long as there’s no minus in front of them) but hate numbers in almost all other scenarios. Certainly never ask me to add them together or multiply them or divide them or some trickery like that. But I’ve honestly never really been scared of a number. Not in the same way a lot of people in east Asia are, anyway.

Tetraphobia is an irrational fear of the number four and it’s common in a lot of east Asian countries like China and Japan. The reason is quite simple, really – in a lot of east Asian languages, the word for “four” sounds a lot like the word for “death”. In fact, in some languages, they sound identical.

In Mandarin Chinese, the word for four is “sì” and the word for death is “sǐ”. Likewise, in Japanese, the word for four is “shi” and the word for death is “shi”. So you can understand why they’re a little uneasy…

Wherever the number appears, they try to avoid it. Phone numbers, house numbers, passwords, floor numbers, even dates. The 4th April is especially unlucky, a bit like our Friday 13th. Even mentioning the number around a sick relative would be frowned upon, as well as giving someone four of something.

There are some quite extreme examples of the number four being skipped altogether. Some apartments in Hong Kong skip all the floors from 40 to 49, so the floor above the 39th floor is the 50th!

It was even speculated that China, after losing the bid to host the 2000 Olympic Games, waited until the 2008 Games to bid again, so they skipped the 2004 Olympics.