Superstitions in western countries are usually tongue-in-cheek beliefs with no one really taking them seriously. In Japan, however, many superstitions are taken seriously – if not believed. Japanese superstitions seem to range from the ridiculous to the scary. Here is two which I find absurd:
1. Clipping your finger or toe nails at night will lead to your parents dying and you never being able to contact them again – even from the hereafter.
2. Whistling at night invites a huge snake into your house.
These are only two of many other droll superstitions handed-down from father to son, mother to daughter, which still some Japanese believe.
Some of the more “serious” superstitions seemed to be centered on death. Most Japanese believe the dead are actually “alive”. Now that may sound like an oxymoron, however many belief that when a person dies he or she is still – ‘here’. In the case of a parent or parents that have passed-away, the oldest son in the family, usually installs a small Buddhist shrine (Butsudon) in his own house. Encased in the shrine, is a picture of the deceased, candles, and sometimes a couple of flowers – not lilies. With the smell of incense drifting up their noses, family members daily kneel before the picture, ring a little gong, and say a little prayer. In the summer month of August, the spirit of the departed, “returns” to their home. This particular time of year is called Obon. Food is added to the shrine, next to the gong, because it is believed the spirit may be hungry. For a few days during this swelting month, Japanese people return to their hometowns and gather around the butsudon to pray. On the last day of Obon, small hand-made paper and wood boats with candles glowing are set afloat on rivers and at seasides around the country. These small vessels take the spirit back to the hereafter.
The above custom, although is a superstition, is not something weird or scary at all and is part of Japan’s culture and as such, I believe, should be cherished.
Japan’s Buddhist monks or priests, however - again in my opinion - seem to prey upon the superstitional fears of the populace. Whenever a new building is about to be erected, a priest is called to rid the land of evil spirits. The entire process taken only a few minutes – the priest leaving with a wad of cash. Priests also weekly visit the house or houses of departed people in order to conduct a service in front of the butsudon with relatives. Again, leaving a short time later with another wad of cash. The money these priests collect for services, is upward of 50,000 yen or more. Indeed, if a Buddhist priest conducts a funeral service, he or she is paid around 500,000 yen for a days work. Hatsumode (January 1st to 5th) is performed by millions around the country. This custom entails Japanese people flocking to local – or not so local – shrine, throwing money and praying for a happy, healthy new year. Again, the priest’s stand near watching the phalanx of people shuffle forward toward the gong. I once asked a priest who was standing watching the crowd and making sure everyone threw his or her coin, “What do you do with all the money that is collected?” He gave me a supercilious stare and answered tersely, ”We use it for maintenance of the shrine.” He then turned and pushed his way through the plethora of black hair to the other side of the shrine, clearly not wanting to speak with me. The following year, I noticed that this particular shrine had received zero “maintenance” and was still in the same dilapidated state of the year before. The millions upon millions of yen received over a five day period – gone.
It is important to note here that Japanese Buddhist Priests or Shinto Priests do not pay tax. All money received goes into their own pocket with a percentage going to the religions headquarters. I’m convinced that many of these men and women of “God” know that the average Japanese person is superstitious and thus take advantage. Japanese Buddhist and Shinto priests are rich! Sporting Rolex watches, driving Mercedes Benz cars, owning buildings and enjoying the late night sins of drinking and smoking.
Although Japan is replete with shrines and temples and that most of the population is Buddhist - the people however, are not religious they are superstitious.