Saju: the Korean obsession with fortune-telling Joshua Jung The Skeptic

In August, there was a special lecture by Kim Tae Won, executive director of Google Korea, who is in the spotlight as a ‘mentor for the young”. The theme was “How to live as a Creative Talent in the 4th Industrial Era”. The lecture hall was packed with young people who wanted to be prepared for the uncertain future. No matter the form, people always flock to places that tell you the “future”.

Moreover, in an economic situation filled with uncertainty these days, it is impossible to force young people to only be determined and passionate. Youth, struggling from the economic recession and job shortages, are looking for ways to reduce even a little bit of anxiety of their unforeseeable future; and in doing so, they’re finding their way to fortune-telling shops.

Recently, more and more people in their 20s and 30s are visiting fortune-tellers. In particular, the closer it gets to the end of the year, the greater the interest in New Year’s fortune. At the crossroads of choice, they seek fortune-telling out of a strong desire to know what their luck will be with regards to education, jobs, relationships, marriage, and more.

“Saju”, Korean fortune-telling, is the practice of predicting a person’s fate based on the date and time of their birth. It is usually performed face-to-face, but more recently, phone calls and fortune-telling apps have been on the increase.

One of the TV shows that has been gaining popularity in Korea, “Ask Anything”, uses the theme of Saju fortune-telling. Run by two show hosts who have nothing to do with fortune telling, they receive personal stories from visitors and comfort them by listening and providing advice. The show has been running for three years, and shows no signs of slowing down. Koreans are extremely dedicated to and invested in finding out their future, even if it means broadcasting their concerns on national television.

By means of traditional Saju, practitioners claim to measure employment luck, and determine whether a blind date will be successful. There is also a view that the purpose of seeing a fortune-teller is to know when to make key decisions in life, and whether a particular strategy will be successful. In Eastern culture, at least from a traditional point of view, fortune-telling refers to a unique disposition of one’s nature and personality (Harper, 2018).

We often ask for advice before deciding on important matters such as moving, marriage, or changing jobs, or when something bad happens. However, in the more recent harsh and uncertain times, the question most often asked is, “What will my future be like?”

This anxiety may be the main reason that young people are seeking mystical answers – because there is a desire to be comforted by fortune-telling for one’s unstable feelings.

Saju and Tarot cafes are frequently visited by young people in their 20s and 30s, concentrated in areas such as Hongdae, Jongro, and Gangnam Station in Seoul (Du, 2022). It is no longer an unfamiliar scene for young men and women to flock here in a casual atmosphere that is distinct from the existing traditional fortune-telling.

As the COVID-19 incident prolonged, interest in divination is believed to have increased due to anxiety about the future (CBS, 2020). But over the past couple of years, especially due to the outbreak of the pandemic, more and more people in their 20s and 30s are looking for online and offline stores.

To understand why the young generation of Koreans are turning to this traditional method of mystic fortune-telling, I met with Kim, who has visited many Saju readers.

Personally, when I was having a hard time financially, I went to see a fortune teller at the recommendation of an acquaintance who likes fortune-telling. Since then, I have been looking around for a fair amount of fortune-tellers. The future is dark, opaque, and I don’t know how to live, let alone the future, so I visited a lot of fortune-telling shops.

One of the many reasons why Kim continuously went to see countless fortune-tellers is that he was told very comforting words from the first shop he visited.

I still remember what he told me. “You already have nothing to do but hit the bottom of your life and go up, but you don’t have to come. From now on, do what you want to do and live.” This inspired me with confidence.

For Kim, this was the first time hearing comfort in six months. Listening to positive feedback, despite the reality being in the gutters, it was comforting to hear such words. People often visit fortune-tellers when things get tough; they feel better when they hear good things like, “Things will bring you luck in a few years” – especially when these hopeful words come from someone deemed to have a unique set of powers and divination skills.

Perhaps, for those who do, these are the reasons people can even get addicted to fortune-telling. When one’s current position is very difficult, objectively, socially, and economically, or one is not in the position he or she wants, people tend to find external sources of comfort and certainty. For some Koreans, that source is Saju.

When our situation begins to improve, for whatever reason that might be, the need for that external comfort begins to diminish. As Kim told me:

At some point, I did not even think about fortune-telling or mythology. Come to think of it, this happened ever since I became well off. It was attaining a certain degree of economic and social status on my own and gaining a little confidence in myself.

In many ways, fortune-telling plays a similar role to religion: people go to churches, temples, or mosques to pray and confess more frequently when things are not going as planned in their life, or there are huge uncertainties ahead. People find the need to depend on something beyond human capabilities.

However, unlike religion, fortune-tellers can claim to provide direct and tangible answers – even if these answers are just wishful thinking and comforting platitudes. That tangible and direct positivity, according to Kim, was key:

If you find yourself constantly going back to fortune-tellers, you are likely to have heard good things in your first few visits. Think about it, if you have visited three places, and all I heard was “bad” or “no luck”, I would have stopped. Because they told me good words of encouragement, I kept going back like how a drowning man will catch at a straw.

The downside here is that the customer can become stuck in their so-called ‘destiny’, and can find it hard to reclaim their agency in the face of this apparently-fixed path. A moment of realisation may be needed for those who fall into this category by looking into how they can overcome tricky situations by taking control of their lives, rather than giving it to others.

This time of the year is when Korea’s largest and most important exam for high school students take place. “Soo neung”, which is the so-called K-SAT, determines the university they will be able to enter, and the path of their career. Parents of these students will go into temples and churches for the entirety of their one-day exam schedule. The whole country dedicates the day to help these exam candidates in whatever way possible: provide a lift to the exam venue, flights are not allowed within a certain boundary of the exam venues. Fortune telling visits by students and parents spike at this period, as they scramble to figure out their academic luck. A bad luck verdict may prepare those students for failure even before the exam begins.

Fortune-telling has no scientific substance to it. There is no evidence to support the the categorising of people into their given destiny based on a simple combination of details such as date and time of birth. Yet, with a market for fortune-telling amounting to a $3.7 billion business, it thrives at the centre of Korea’s culture. Visitors may not get statistical proof of what they hear; the most they can hope for is some comforting words, and if they’re lucky, those will make their visits worthwhile.

The post Saju: the Korean obsession with fortune-telling appeared first on The Skeptic.

Saju – fortune telling – is big business in Korea, as more and more people in their 20s and 30s turn to traditional divination for answers.
The post Saju: the Korean obsession with fortune-telling appeared first on The Skeptic.

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