Foreseeing the unforeseeable: Fortune-telling in a time of uncertainty

Photo of Asian fortune telling shop
Andy Atzert/Creative Commons

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One night at the dinner table, my family and I raised our glasses and said a happy chorus of well-wishes to my happy marriage. As it turns out, I’m not, in fact, married.

Why, then, did we toast to my marriage? Because my fortune-teller had just told me I would have a long and happy marriage.

Growing up in Japan, fortune-telling and other kinds of spiritual predictions were a regular part of daily life — many morning shows had some daily horoscope section right after weather forecasts, and the last few pages of most fashion magazines were dedicated to astrology. When you are walking in the city, you will probably see one or two fortune-teller shops with pink, dimly lit signs in the front.

Many Asian countries share this fortune-telling culture. In Korea, for example, many people often make important decisions according to fortune-tellers’ predictions. In China, some Chinese businessmen turned to horoscopes during the Sino-American trade war for business advice.

With increasing uncertainty due to the coronavirus, the demand for these pseudo-science practices is on the rise worldwide. In Japan, the sales of tarot cards, which are often used in fortune-telling, have tripled since last year, and in the United States, traffic on websites and articles related to horoscopes has increased.

To be honest, I had not been a big fan of these spiritual predictions. Although I occasionally checked my horoscopes, I never thought that visiting fortune-tellers or investing money in them was a good idea. I can’t lie though — when the pandemic hit, I realized it might be nice to have some kind of forecast of the future.

This occult trend was in the air among my friend circle as well. I heard stories about more of my friends turning to fortune-tellers for advice, while some got excited about future boyfriends whom they will meet in December; others had second doubts about their current ones due to the bad luck predicted by these fortune-tellers. Either way, I was very intrigued. Despite having been skeptical about these spiritual activities, I was curious as to what these fortune-tellers had to say about my future. I simply wanted to try it, making excuses by saying that it was part of a “social experiment.”

Luckily, I had easy access to fortune-tellers since my apartment in Japan is only two train stops away from Chinatown, an area full of people selling fortune-telling services. After the coronavirus cases decreased in Japan during the summer, I decided to visit one.

The first fortune-teller I visited was on the eighth floor of an old building located on a narrow street. With red velvet carpets on the floor, wallpaper and a plastic chandelier, the building gave off the feel of French aristocrats in the 14th century. After paying my precious 3,000 yen (roughly $29) in cash for a 20-minute session, I opened the curtain of one of the many private rooms. There sat an old lady, seemingly in her 70s, behind a plastic divider on the table.

Noticing my nervous posture, she smiled. “Is this your first time in fortune-telling?” she asked.

Looking at the piece of paper on which I wrote my name and birthday, she brought forward a  thick manual from the back of the room. “Humm,” she nodded, and then she started shuffling the pile of cards that were sitting on the table.

“You’re like a big sea,” she said. “You are being selfish, but you can adjust to anyone, like the water in a big ocean.”

She went on to explain my passive attitude toward romance. Apparently, my bad luck had ended when I turned 19, and things would only be going up.

She shuffled a deck of cards, and one of them flipped out of the deck and onto the table, seemingly of its own accord. The card depicted a king sitting on a pile of jewels.

“The person you will marry will be like this king,” she said. “Someone who can lead you on your way.”

Somewhat delighted with some of her positive comments but also puzzled over her vague description of the person I would meet, I stepped out of the room. I felt more reassured about my future than before.

At the end of the day, not knowing what will happen in the future may be the beauty of life.

On the side of the shopping street, there was another fortune-telling shop. Opening the glass door, there again appeared the red carpet and some Rococo-style furniture. On the left, there were three private rooms divided by thin walls.

Entering the room in the middle, another older woman sat behind a table. The room, with its pink walls and aroma diffuser, felt not unlike the waiting room of a beauty salon.

The fortune-teller first asked me to write my name on a piece of paper and pay 1,000 yen (roughly $10) to start my 10-minute palm-reading session with her.

Staring at my palm with a magnifying glass, she looked surprised. She hadn’t seen anything like it in a while, she told me.

According to her, the markings on my palm were one of the luckiest and rarest combinations, the so-called “head line” splitting into two directions on my right hand while staying as one line on my left.

“You will make your way through and become successful in your career internationally,” she continued, telling me that I would thrive in professions using words and that I would have a very happy marriage after finding an ideal person in my 30s. She also added that my thyroid area is susceptible to disease and that I have to be careful not to catch the coronavirus. As if she tried to deliver as much information as possible within the timeframe — without leaving any time for me to ask questions — she rambled on for the entire 10 minutes, telling me all about my luck, future career, marriage, health issues and personality.

Being told all these positive predictions — except for the bad news about my thyroid — I felt like the weight in my heart lifted, and I gained my positivity back again for a while. I allowed myself to celebrate. Then, I did some analysis. After all, how likely is it that these predictions would actually come true?

I should first acknowledge that one of the fortune-tellers correctly predicted that I would not be able to go back to the United States for the fall semester. However, this might seem like a fairly obvious prediction given that the U.S. government was very transparent about its reluctance to allow international students to return to the states for school during the pandemic.

Both fortune-tellers also told me that I was being defensive about forging a relationship with a person, being afraid of hurting them or getting hurt myself. Both fortune-tellers also told me I would begin a serious relationship after turning 23.

But for the question of validity and reliability, frankly, I’ll never find conclusive answers. After all, there is no science behind these methods. Despite various stories I hear — some fortune-teller predicting where and when a person meets their soulmate — well, those might just be luck, or they might just be made-up.

This isn’t to say that fortune-tellers aren’t good at reading people.

One technique fortune-tellers use is called code reading, in which someone uses visual and conversational cues to deduce information about another person, such as their family situation or career aspirations.

Additionally, our own biases and desires may also be affecting our determination of a fortune as accurate. We can take something that generally applies to everyone as some specific statement about ourselves; in psychology, this is known as the “Barnum effect.”

And then there’s always the idea of the self-fulfilling prophecy — by believing in these predictions, we unconsciously act in certain ways to make them come true without us realizing. After all, people believe what they want to believe. My successful career and happy marriage in the future may come true if I simply and fervently believe in them, regardless of their validity.

Even as a nonbeliever of these occults, I felt good about being told all those good things. I felt that I had something to look forward to, even amid the worldwide crisis.

Of course, there is also a fatal downside to this business. Some people could get addicted to these fortune-tellings. In part due to improved accessibility to fortune-telling services thanks to the internet, some individuals spend inordinate amounts of money on getting their fortunes told, such as the woman in Japan who spent more than $300,000 over the course of 15 years. In Japan, people without fortune-telling experience are also taking it up professionally in response to increasing demand as a way to make money online.

Reflecting back on my experience, I now understand that the sense of comfort provided to me by the fortune-tellers I visited might have become addicting. Even after investing a good amount of money in fortune-telling with some seemingly legitimate fortune-tellers, after a few weeks, I started playing with free horoscopes and astrology on websites provided by fashion magazines. Not surprisingly, the same question asked multiple times in one “fortune-telling” website yielded different results each time. “What is a happy thing that will happen to you within the next three months?” The first time, I was told that happy thing would be receiving presents; the second time, it was a relaxing vacation; and the third time, it was a lottery win.

I know that I will never find the answers here. At the end of the day, not knowing what will happen in the future may be the beauty of life. But for a while, in a time when everything in life is up in the air, it never hurts having a happy future to raise our glasses to.

Contact Eriko Yamakuma at [email protected].