Summertime in Japan means matsuri (festivals), hanabi (fireworks) and kakigori (shaved ice), but it’s also the season of wandering ghosts and vengeful spirits. The frightful visits are thanks to Obon, the Buddhist festival that honors the spirits of one’s departed ancestors by inviting them back to the human world.
While spooky stuff is reserved for Halloween in the US, Summer in Japan is the traditional time when friends tell scary stories, haunted houses are erected, and classic Japanese horror movies are streamed on TV.
In the spirit of giving yourself goosebumps, here are seven spooky Japanese superstitions to be aware of this summer.
7. Swimming during Obon will get you spirited away
Flowing water is known as a passageway for spirits coming back to the human world during Obon. This Japanese superstition warns against swimming because the spirits flowing through the water will grab you in the water and take you with them to the afterlife.
This warning could stem from disciplining children who interfered with the safe passage of spirits or obstructing the toro nagashi (lanterns on the river). In this Obon custom, families float lanterns down a river to represent their ancestors transitioning back to the spirit world.
Interestingly, a science-backed explanation for this superstition also exists. During the summer months, Japan experiences its typhoon season, making swimming in the ocean very dangerous. So whether swimmers get taken away by spirits or the tide, be careful about swimming in Japan during the summer!
6. Whistling at night summons snakes
Walking home from a fireworks festival in high spirits might prompt some cheerful whistling at night, but you might reconsider. According to this old Japanese superstition, whistling at night summons “snakes,” which could refer to supernatural monsters, criminals or actual snakes. None of which sounds like something you want to bump into down a dark alley.
This superstition comes all the way from feudal times when outlaws and bandits prowled the roads. These criminals would whistle to each other to communicate at night, and it didn’t take long for the idea that whistling invited other unsavory characters to spread.
5. Hanging your laundry at night invites spirits
Summer days in Japan can be rainy and humid, so why not hang your wet laundry out at night to dry? Bad idea. Especially during Obon when the world is full of wandering spirits. Hanging clothes at night gives these spirits a familiar object to “cling to.” It might also scare your neighbors to bits if they see a white nightgown blowing in the moonlight!
This belief started back when kimonos were handed down generations after the previous owner passed on, and their spirit was thought to latch on to the connection to their former selves.
4. Cutting your nails at night leads to an early death
This superstition originated before nail clippers and electricity indoors were invented, and people used knives to trim their nails by candlelight. Slightly reckless, to say the least. One slip-up and an infection could have actually led to a person’s death.
Other iterations of this superstition say if you cut your nails at night, you won’t be there for your parents on their deathbed—because you died before them! Which makes sense, I guess.
It could also derive from another Japanese superstition. In the past, cutting tools, even the lowly nail clipper, were believed to have spiritual power or reiryoku in Japanese. So cutting anything at night, when the spirits are particularly active, was considered a bad idea.
3. Stepping on the border of tatami mats
This is sort of like the Japanese version of “step on a crack, break your mother’s back.” Tatami mats are traditional flooring you find in Japanese homes. They are made using soft rush and materials such as rice straw or compressed wood chips.
The borders are typically edged with decorative cloth, and some families put their family crest on the borders. Hence, stepping on the cloth borders is like stepping on your parents. Worse, it’s like stepping on your ancestors, who we’ve already established like to stick around and are quick to anger.
So next time you are visiting your Japanese in-laws, maybe watch your step?
2. Falling from a persimmon tree
Many older adults in Japan who climbed persimmon trees may remember being scolded by their grandparents. “If you fall, you’ll die in three years,” they’d shout. Or some other curse to bewilder and scare the pants off them. But where does this superstition come from?
Persimmon trees have a deep connection to life and death in Japanese folklore and religion. For example, it was customary in Nara Prefecture to plant a persimmon tree to mark gravesites or the tree’s wood as fuel for cremations. In Nagano Prefecture, spirits are believed to be found under persimmon trees, and souls will cling to persimmon trees near their family homes.
They’re also associated with good luck and longevity. Many families will hang a string of hoshigaki (dried persimmons) in their homes through New Year’s Eve. However, some also believed that eating a “strange” persimmon fruit gave birth to a disabled child.
However, while there is already a lot of superstition surrounding persimmon trees, the “death in three years” story was likely invented just to keep kids from falling out of trees. Persimmon trees are known for having fragile branches. One too many kids coming home with scraped knees and broken bones likely started this tall tale.
1. Sleeping with your head pointed north
Traditional Japanese Buddhist funeral customs position a body so that the deceased’s head points north. North is not only the direction spirits travel in the afterlife, but it is also the direction Buddha laid his head on his deathbed.
Hence, to mimic the position of corpses by sleeping with your (still living) head pointing north may welcome death to your home or summon bad luck. There is even a term for the superstition—kita mukura, literally “north pillow.”
It is similar to the taboo of sticking chopsticks upright into your rice. This stems from the rice bowl with chopsticks called makura meshi, placed next to the body during a funeral. For this same reason, it’s taboo to wear a kimono with the right side overlapping the left side. Only corpses wear their kimonos right-over-left, so if you’re a living person, be sure to wear a kimono left-over-right!
We hope you have a happy haunted summer in Japan, filled with goosebumps and scares (if that’s your thing). Suppose you want to take a stab at provoking the spirits, whistle and hang your laundry out at night. Please note we are not responsible if you get spirited away.
What do you think about Japanese superstitions? Which ones did we miss? Which are your favorites? Let us know in the comments!