USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘Japanese custom’
Folk Beliefs

Deadly Chopsticks

KM is a third-generation Japanese-American from Los Angeles, CA. She now lives in Pasadena, CA with her husband and 18-year-old son.

KM gave me some insight on chopstick etiquette that was passed down from her Japanese parents:

“So in Japan, when you’re eating rice with chopsticks, or really anything which chopsticks, you NEVER rest them by sticking them straight up in your food. It looks like the number 4 spelled out, and in Japanese culture 4 is a very unlucky number – it means death. If you go to Japan you’ll never find anything grouped or sold in 4s, it’s just superstition, like how in America people are scared of the number 13. Also, you never point your chopsticks at people, like if you’re talking at the dinner table. It’s rude, and a little threatening.”

My analysis:

Many cultures have different traditions surrounding food and table etiquette, and this folk belief offers insight into utensil practices many American might not be familiar with. While Asian cuisine is not absent here, it’s often transformed over time by the influence of other places, or even other Asian cultures (like common Japanese-Korean fusion). People from all over use chopsticks, but it’s important to be aware of protocol observed by those whose heritage is more authoritative.

Apparently, chopsticks stuck straight-up in rice also imitate incense sticks on the altar at a funeral, another symbol of death or bad luck. Oftentimes people avoid mixing their foodways with death imagery, compounded by the prevalence of rice in Japanese meals.

I also think it’s interesting that the subject is Japanese-American, and three generations removed at that. Seeing which customs are continued when a family emigrates shows both their cultural and individual values, or superstitions that for some reason or another “stick” in places where they’re not observed.


Japanese New Year’s Ozoni

KM is a third-generation Japanese-American from Los Angeles, CA. She now lives in Pasadena, CA with her husband and 18-year-old son.

KM described to me some of the basic traditions her family has for New Years Day, especially the cooking of “ozoni”:

“Ozoni is just a soup made with chicken broth, green onion, shiitake mushrooms, seaweed, chicken and mochi. My Auntie Kazuko would make it for us every year when we were growing up, and it’s always the first course of a New Year’s Day meal. All of [my mom's] siblings and my cousins would get together at [Auntie Kazuko's] house and while most of the day would be, you know, just a family gathering, we would all sit down together to eat the ozoni. It’s only cooked on New Year’s and you have to go to special Japanese markets to find the ingredients.

“Now with my siblings and kids and nieces and nephews, we get together at my sister’s place – she’s married to a Japanese man, and his mother makes the ozoni. The holiday is pretty similar to how it was for me, where everyone just gathers at someone’s house to watch football and eat food, but the making of the soup and eating it together is like one concrete tradition we do every year. I’m not sure who will keep making it after [my sister's mother-in-law] passes away though…”

My analysis:

The most interesting part of this food tradition for me is the shared background of the family members who actively carry it out – KH told me her Auntie Kazuko was most connected to their Japanese heritage, which is why she insisted on making the soup every year. Similarly, her sister’s mother-in-law is from Japan, and she is the one who facilitates the tradition. It really reveals how certain customs make it overseas when families would move to America, but also how fragile they are. KH isn’t sure anyone else in her family is motivated enough by their Japanese traditions to continue the laborious process of making this particular food. Traditional holidays tend to become more Americanized (in this case) over the years they’re observed away from their roots, and unless enough people are committed to certain customs, they can easily die out.

For more information about ozoni, see:

“Ozoni (Zoni) Recipe.” Japanese Cooking 101. 2016. Retrieved from
Folk Beliefs

Adopted Japanese Custom

M is a 20-year-old black woman. She is currently double majoring in NGO’s and Social Change and Communications at the University of Southern California. M grew up in Boston, MA but currently resides in Los Angeles, CA. M primarily speaks English, but she is also fluent in Spanish.

M: I actually adopt everyone else’s superstitions. Like if someone’s like oh, like… Well there’s actually one.

Me: Ok.

M: So I went to a, like the Natural History Museum in Peabody which is outside of Boston which has like a remodeled traditional Japanese house from like the 1940’s, um, and when you walk through it like the guy always tells you not to step on the threshold because it like brings demons into the house, um, and for for whatever reason I’ve, it’s not that I believe in demons, but I also now refuse to step on thresholds of homes and it really irritates my family because when we are all coming home from the grocery store and we have to get into the house quickly I must step over (the threshold) and they’re like ‘can you not suck?’ But it’s only, it’s like the threshold of like the main door of the house, is like especially bad, but then also the threshold of any door is bad, but that’s also why like most, like sometimes in the old Japanese homes at least there were thresholds like built in to the doorways so like when we have doors now, there’s like, it’s just the floor, but in the traditional Japanese home there’s like a threshold, so like a bump under each door, and basically it’s similar to like “don’t step on a crack, break your mother’s back.”

Me:  So do you do that too then?

M: God no. That would be so hard. But it’s like the same thing, like you bring demons into your mother’s home and it’s bad, like demons are bad. But yeah, I don’t do it (step on thresholds) now.

It’s interesting how something learned during an educational endeavor, and something seemingly irrelevant to the informants life turned into a daily practice for her. Even though she is not connected to the culture that the custom hails from, nor does she believe in the superstition, that stepping on a threshold of a door would allow demons to enter someone’s house,  she adopted the practice anyway. Customs migrate so easily now, especially in the United States which is so culturally diverse as well as with the travel that people do. These practices travel so fast that some people who observe such customs do not even know the reasons and the history for why such traditions exist.