Eating The People On Your Hand — Japanese Folk Belief

In Japan, students nervous for a presentation are often told to draw the Chinese character for “person,” 「人」three times on their hand. They are then supposed to pretend to eat those “people” by putting their hand in front of their mouth, in the belief that this will ease their anxiety.

My informant spent most of her life in the city of Naha in Okinawa, Japan, where her mother informed her of this folk belief when she was in middle school, preparing to give a speech in front of her whole class. Her mother drew three broad, sweeping 「人」characters on her hand and said, “now eat them.” The idea was that those three 「人」characters represented the audience in the palm of her hand, and eating them made them seem irrelevant, undeserving of her anxiety. My informant said, however, that it was less the actual gesture and more the fact that it invoked her mother’s continuous caring, that soothed her when she saw the characters on her hand while giving her presentation (and subsequent nerve-wracking situations after that). Because it is widely known and understood to be a prominent folk belief, she said, it gave her a sense of camaraderie with her audience–that she was connected to them even as she stood in front of the class, because she knew that many of her classmates had learned the same tactic from their parents as well.

This folk belief is influenced obviously by the Chinese characters in the Japanese language. Each Chinese character possesses a meaning independent of sentences or words, and can be used alone to convey messages and serve as symbols. The three 「人」characters, as mentioned earlier, illustrates a literal crowd in the palm of one’s hand, at once minimizing the audience and making the performer feel more in control–the palm of the hand is a very controllable space, after all. Pretending to eat the audience only empowers the performer further, by giving them an opportunity to at least fake power over their own anxieties and the judgments of others. My informant mentioned, furthermore, that in her time in the seventies, the 「人」characters on her hand had served as a kind of symbol for wishbones as well, supposed to give the performers good luck–so the characters served a double purpose.

By now this practice has become so widespread around Japanese society that, my informant said, nobody really knows where it originated from. She had heard it from her mother, who had heard it from her teacher, and so on.

Most importantly, however, this highly ritualistic gesture is something that is performed usually in anxiety-ridden situations. When one is under a great amount of stress, even half-hearted trust in a certain folk belief can be enough to soothe one’s mind immensely. My informant said that, depending on how nervous she was, the simple act of performing that gesture repeatedly could calm her down, if only by reminding her of the futility of worrying, and of her mother’s support.