All of us have our own little habits and quirks that defy common sense. It’s human nature to harbor even just a little superstitious tendency now and then, whether it be not watching a pot boil or leaving a shower curtain open.
Even on a larger scale, entire cultures have their own customs that are performed with very few people asking why. For example, why does a bride throw her flowers at a crowd of women? Why was a stork chosen as the bird we trust to deliver our newborn babies?
Although, you’ll probably notice that some of these superstitions exist in your own country too, the following are a few customs and superstitions active in Japan along with some theories on how they came to be.
Lucky Tea Stems
“When drinking tea, a stem standing upright in your glass is lucky.”
A long time ago, tea merchants had a problem selling off the tea which contained stems in it. Teas that were young sprouts moved well, but the rest sat untouched on the shelves and would go to waste.
So they got the idea to flip the weak point of their unsold tea into a major selling point by spreading the word that “a standing stem in your tea is good luck.” It worked like a charm and people wanting a little luck were actively looking for tea containing the once avoided stems.
There’s also a theory that a standing tea stem represents a pillar of strength in a happy home. Nowadays, if you want a maximum shot at some good luck, try some bocha. It’s tea made entirely from stems.
Red Thread of Fate
“A man and woman who are destined to be together are connected from birth by a red thread tied on each of their little fingers.”
The Japanese tale is about a woman who is visited by a well-dressed man at her home each night. As a result of these encounters, the woman gets pregnant but doesn’t know the identity of the man. So one night as he is with her, she sticks a needle attached to a red thread into his kimono. The next day the woman follows the thread to a shrine only to find that the man was in fact a Shinto spirit (kami) who had taken human form.
The Chinese story deals with a young man who while travelling encounters an old man. The old man explains to him how destined couples are connected by a red rope that cannot be broken. The young man asks who he is connected to and the old man showed him an old woman holding a three-year-old girl. The young man refused to believe he would marry such an old lady and left. Years later, when he did get married, it was the same young girl that was in the old woman’s arms so long ago.
These older stories referred to a red rope or string but the theme has evolved to a thread as textile technology improved.
“The woman who catches the bride’s bouquet at a wedding will be the next to get married.”
This romantic superstitious gesture apparently stems from some rather disturbing roots. During the Late Middle Ages in England a bride’s dress on her wedding day was considered a coveted source of good luck. As a result, guests might have resorted to tearing at the dress while still being worn or possibly stealing a piece while the newlyweds were mid-coitus.
It would seem that brides grew dissatisfied with being robbed on their wedding day and compromised, giving away their flower bouquet instead of having their dress stolen, which evolved into the custom of the bouquet toss. Although not a typical part of a Western-style Japanese wedding, the garter-throw practiced in other countries is a clearer derivative of this very old and creepy custom.
Lucky Swallow’s Nest
“If swallows build their nest on your home, it will be lucky.”
This one’s actually pretty easy to understand. Back in the days of widespread farming in Japan a swallow was good protection against several rice-paddy pests and a valuable addition to the homestead.
Another way to look at it is that swallows are extremely timid animals and won’t just set up shop anywhere. They’ll only choose a home where they feel perfectly at ease, and a home safe enough for a little birdie family should be safe enough for you and yours.
“Money comes to those with big earlobes.”
The original belief is that one who has body parts similar to Buddha’s will receive great fortune. Among those body parts, the ears are said to be the luckiest to have in common with him. Apparently, Buddha’s ears weren’t actually big, but more curved towards the mouth and able to support a single grain of rice.
This is apparently detailed somewhere in one of the Buddhist texts. There’s quite a few of them though, so I’m going to take their word for it.
The humble stork has long served as a scapegoat to keep parents from having to broach the topic of sexual reproduction. Interestingly enough, since ancient times the bird was seen as a deliverer of souls and otherwise well regarded by humans.
Perhaps it was because storks live in close proximity to people and in spite of their large size never appear aggressive. Jewish people, Greeks, Romans, and Muslims alike have all thought highly of the birds throughout history.
The notion of a stork delivering babies took hold in Japan too, partly due to their gentle nature, but also because of their large basket like nests and red beaks. In Japan, “red” is synonymous with “baby”.
“A white snake is either an incarnation or a servant of god.”
Although in real life most urban dwelling Asian people would freak out at the sight of a snake, they still carry a traditional image of good luck. They were once thought of as water gods, akin to dragons which are the ultimate symbol of luck in Asia. Much like the sparrows before, snakes can help control pests on a farm and maybe even magically bring rain.
However, when you add the rarity of an albino snake into the mix, you have some heavy-duty luck coming your way. Particularly, if you see a white snake in your dreams it is said to be a sign of something supernatural working in your favor.
On the other hand, if you see the band Whitesnake in a dream, then there you go again on your own. Going down the only road you’ve ever known. Like a drifter you were born to walk alone.
Clipping Nails at Night
“If you trim your nails at night, you will not be able to see your parents before they die.”
This seems like a crappy catch to becoming a parent. On top of everything else you have to make sure your child, who can’t even pick up his Legos, doesn’t cut his nails after dark or else you die all alone. You might as well get a mogwai instead.
This superstition seemed to have gotten a little twisted around. It was apparently meant to be a thinly veiled threat to the child meaning “you won’t see your parents before they die because you’ll die first.”
Not even all that long ago, Japan was missing some key components to nail cutting, namely nail clippers, decent lighting, disinfectants, and medicine. So while using a rusty knife or scissors to cut your nails next to a candle you run a pretty high risk of cutting yourself and causing an infection. With the nearest doctor three mountains away by foot the chance of you making it to your own parent’s funeral gets slimmer and slimmer.
These are only a few of the customs and superstitions floating around Japan. There’s a lot more but great fortune comes to those who make lists of eight.