CREEPY CORNER: Red Ink and Doll Burnings, 7 Spooky Superstitions From Japan

This is a culture where many believe superstition makes modern prosperity possible.
Publish date:
November 20, 2014
superstitions, creepy corner, japan

Sometimes I wonder if I have an unhealthy fascination with superstition.

While I don't live my life cowering from every instance of the number "4" (also the word for "death" in Cantonese and Japanese) or holding my breath every time I pass a cemetery, superstition plays a larger part in my life than I'd sometimes care to admit.

As we talked about before with possession, even if all the logic in your non-religious, skeptical brain tells you that it just can't be real, there might be a part of you that worries "What if?" and would rather not find out. Maybe it's the religion you don't subscribe to anymore or the cultural beliefs you respect but don't live by. But if you have even the tiniest suspicion that there's "something" out there, (howdy and hello, you're reading Creepy Corner after all) superstition can be that one unexplainable impulse that keeps you rooted in a little irrational wonder.

Shocker. I kind of embrace irrational wonder.

To me, superstitions offer some of the creepiest things in the Creepy Corner because they all start with a kernel of very human FEAR. Whether it's hanging a mirror in the correct location, only cutting my nails during the day (you'll see), or just turning on the lights to keep the ghosts away, aren't we all, at times, looking for ways to fight the fears we can't apply logic to?

Few places I've lived exist so squarely in the world of superstition and modern cynicism as Japan. In Yokohama and Tokyo, millions of people bustle around everyday with their cellphones and tablets and high powered jobs. It doesn't seem like there's room for belief or superstition in all the neon and wi-fi.

But this is a culture where many believe superstition MAKES all that modern prosperity possible.

All you have to do is do a quick search of "stigmatized properties" or "real estate, Japan, ghosts" and you'll find that Japan is a place that deals with the otherworldly in rather practical terms. "Okay, there's a ghost here, or a location is tainted by tragic events. How can we make this work?"

So here are some of the more spooky superstitions from Japan. As unusual as these may seem to Western sensibilities, many are regarded with the utmost seriousness in Japanese culture and still have a place in everyday society.

Don't Stick Your Chopsticks Upright into Your Food

This is only done on funeral altars. Sticking your chopsticks vertically into your food is not only considered bad luck or even "inviting death," but it is rude.

Do this in a restaurant, and you WILL get some disapproving looks from fellow diners.

Don't Forget Your Soul

People from Okinawa believe that your soul "drops out from your body" when you witness something horrific. You must go back to the scene and gather your soul back up.

When retrieving your soul, don't forget to say, "'Mabuya mabuya muduimisori' (please my soul come back to me)."

Don't Cut Your Nails at Night

And if you must, make sure to leave the lights on. (You're a creepy little critter anyway, if you're cutting your nails in the dark. You're asking for BLOODY FINGERS! BLOODY FINGERS!)

In the time before electricity, it was believed that dark-loving ghosts would start venturing out as night fell. By cutting anything in the dark, including your fingernails, a "gap" was created by the cutting instrument. A ghost could then "enter through the gap" and get you.

Or your parents (a lot of Japanese superstition deals with protecting your parents from misfortune). A version of this superstition suggests that if you cut your nails at night, your parents will die and you won't be with them when it happens.

There's also the saying, “Cut your nails during the evenings, and premature death happens.” So get thee a nail file.

Never Write a Name in Red Ink

Writing a person's name in red ink is considered bad luck, and can even invite death.

Only names written on gravestones are written in red ink. Often on gravestones, the dead's name will be written in black, and their living relatives will be written in red. When a person dies, the name is rewritten in black. I suppose this relates back to the inauspiciousness of all things death or funeral related. In Japan, and many Asian cultures, you just don't touch anything that points to death.

Hide Your Thumbs as the Hearse Passes By

More fingernail superstition!

This superstition says that you must hide your thumbs when a hearse passes, or even when you're at a graveyard or funeral. A saying loosely translates to, "Your parents will die young if you don’t hide your thumbs!" The Japanese word for thumb, "oyayubi" translates to "parent finger."

Apparently, if your thumbs remain in plain sight, a spirit can "enter your body" through your thumbnails.

Don't Whistle at Night

Supposedly in ye olden days of Japan, criminals communicated by whistling. It is now believed that whistling at night invites misfortune to your door.

Such misfortune could be in form of an intruder, bad luck, a ghost, or even a snake.

When I'm nervous, I whistle. It's just one more weird and wonderful habit of mine. I noticed in the train station one night, that when I did this I got dirty looks. I wonder if it was "snake fear" or just that I was being annoying?


On Hina Matsuri or "Doll Festival" also celebrated as "Girl's Day" (there's also a "Boy's Day"), many Japanese families will place offerings of food, flowers, and various other auspicious items in front of decorated "hina ningyo" dolls on a tiered platform mimicking an emperor's court. Families do this to ensure the health and prosperity of their daughters.

But these dolls aren't like that plastic Santa Claus that your family leaves up until the 4th of July (just us?).

The "hina dolls" are to be treated with respect. There is a belief that these dolls, small "human forms," may have a soul, or even hold memories. Others believe that the dolls have the ability to absorb evil spirits, thus sparing their daughters. To mistreat these dolls is to invite bad luck.

Therefore a family, specifically the daughter, must be sure to carefully put the doll or dolls away promptly after the festival ends. Leaving them out too long or not treating them with dignity invites misfortune, often in the form of never finding a husband.

When it is time for a doll to be disposed of (I'm not sure when exactly that is), many families engage in the ritual of "Ningyo Kuyo." This is a doll burning ritual -- a funeral for dolls.

Families will bring their dolls to a temple where a priest will bless the dolls, purify them, and incinerate them. From what I can tell, it's actually quite beautiful -- a way to say goodbye to an important part of your family's life.

Japan might be the perfect place for my superstitious little self. While reveling in all the chaos and technology that makes Yokohama and Tokyo a pop culture junkie's dream, I'll gladly put away my red pens, hide my thumbs, and sing instead of whistle. And while Japanese superstition may do everything for me, or may do nothing, at least I know I'm in good company while I'm giving it a try.