In Box

Born Into Bad Luck

The sad fate of Japan's fire horse women.

Illustration by Elias Stein for FP
Illustration by Elias Stein for FP

Could being born in a year deemed unlucky wind up a self-fulfilling prophecy? That may be what befell Japanese girls born in 1966, otherwise known as a year of the fire horse, or hinoeuma in Japanese.

Women born in such a year, superstition holds, have troubled marriages, mistreat men, and cause early deaths for their husbands and fathers. It was one such woman, according to legend, who nearly burned down the capital in 1682, after setting a local temple on fire for love of a man who worked there. (She was sentenced to burn at the stake.)

In 2010, researchers Hiroyuki Yamada of Osaka University and Satoshi Shimizutani of Japan’s Gender Equality Bureau checked in on women born in 1966, the most recent year of the fire horse, to see how they’d fared. The women, the researchers found, were in fact more likely to have been divorced than those close to them in age (born just a few years before or after). They were also less likely to have completed higher education, and their average household income was nearly 500,000 yen (about $5,000) lower.

Although the researchers did not specifically explore the reasons for these women’s relatively poor life outcomes, Yamada and Shimizutani believe the likely cause is discrimination. After all, Japan takes the fire-horse curse seriously: Births fell 15 percent in 1966, compared with the average of the previous two years.

The next fire-horse year is 2026, not so far away. Before then, the authors write, Japan should work to understand how fire-horse women have suffered from "unfounded suspicions" in order to ensure that baby girls born under the sign of the hinoeuma are seen as blessings, not unhappy accidents. 

Alicia P.Q. Wittmeyer is the Europe editor at Foreign Policy. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and Forbes, among other places. She holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and master’s degrees from Peking University and the London School of Economics. The P.Q. stands for Ping-Quon.

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