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My Japanese Superstitions

My dad’s a great whistler. My whistling is dismal compared to his. But as impressive as his skills are, I used to often freak out and demand he stop when he would whistle at night. Why? Because snakes would come out.

Okay, no, not really. But Japanese superstitions say don’t whistle at night, or else snakes will come out. I wouldn’t say I’m terrified of snakes, but four-year-old me definitely didn’t like the idea of snakes slithering through the yard and into our house all because my dad whistled.

Superstitions are unique to countries and cultures, and Japan has no shortage of them. Whether you believe them or not, you hear superstitions all throughout your life and you definitely have that one friend who takes them way too seriously. I’m that friend.

I was born and raised in the U.S., but black cats, cracked mirrors, and walking under ladders (not that I would go out of my way to do it) never bothered me. But the superstitions that my mom passed down to me stuck with me, and I still believe them to this day.

Besides whistling at night, I was taught not to kill spiders in the morning (but do at night), don’t cut your nails at night, put new shoes out in the morning (but if you have to past noon, pass them over a stove), and sprinkle salt before entering your home after a funeral. There are so many more, but I’d need a short book if I wanted to list them all.

  1. Spiders are considered good luck in the morning and thought to bring bad luck at night. While they do creep me out, I do my best to look away in the morning (thankfully I have a spider catch-and-release gadget now).
  2. Nails cut at night means you won't be able to be with your parents at the time of their death. Still, both my mom and I cut our nails at night due to the fact that we shower at night, but we always mutter something about how we shouldn’t be doing it (as if saying it out loud will solve it).
  3. Back in the day, new shoes were only put out at night when going to a funeral, so doing otherwise would welcome death. I was taught to pass them over a stove, but it seems like people have different ways to get rid of the “bad luck,” like writing an X on the bottom of your shoe or sprinkling ash over them.
  4. People in Japan believe that death brings “kegare," a Japanese term used for bad omen/pollution, and salt is a way to purify and not bring bad spirits back with you. My mom would make sure to give me some salt wrapped in parchment paper to take with me before I got in my car after I attended funerals. When my dad would come home from funerals, she would always make sure to put out a salt mound on a plate by the door.

I sometimes wonder myself why I choose to follow these things that I know are not true. The superstitious side of me says, “But I can’t risk it!” I know snakes aren’t going to pop out from whistling at night, and bad luck won’t follow if I kill a morning spider or I forget to put my new shoes out in the morning. I even find it silly saying out loud to my husband when I complain that I see a spider I can’t kill, or I run to the stove with my new shoes. But as silly as it sounds, I follow these superstitions and will most likely pass it onto my kids in the future, because these superstitions are part of who I am. It’s engraved into Japanese history and culture and to not follow it seems like I would be giving up a part of me.

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Article featured in this issue:
All Hallows' Eve
October 23, 2020

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