When in Japan, if you open an umbrella indoors, no one will bat an eye, but if you start whistling at night or kill a spider during the morning hours, you’ll probably be stopped in your tracks and lectured about some Japanese superstitions.

One of the most common, yet seemingly nonsensical, Japanese superstitions suggests that you should not clip your nails at night (yonaka ni tsume wo kitte ha ikenai). Why? Because if you do, you won’t be with your parents when they die (oya no shinime ni aenai). Uh… okay.

Don’t worry, we have some logical and not-so-logical reasonings behind this age-old superstition after the jump.

So, what do toenails have to do with your parent’s deathbed? Well, for the most part, you’re actually supposed to understand this superstition as: Clipping your nails at night will somehow result in your premature death. Thus, since you’re already dead yourself, you won’t see your parents die.

Okay, but how will clipping your nails at night cause you to die?

  • Theory 1: You’ll accidentally kill yourself


In our fancy 21st century we have these wonder-tools called “nail clippers,” not to mention the convenience of electricity. However, way back in Edo-era Japan (1603-1868), they had neither of these luxuries, so when their nails got too long they had to take a knife (like the ones shown above) or some other sharp cutting device to their delicate fingers or toes.

Working out in the field all day, they may not have had time for a trim in the daylight, so they would have had to take the blade to their appendages by the light of the fire or moon. Sharp knives plus darkness can quickly turn into a disaster only compounded by the lack of medical care and antibiotics. Wounds turn into fatal gangrene and there you have it: death by nail clipping.

Long story short, if you clip your nails in the dark with a knife, you could accidentally kill yourself. Thus, being dead, you won’t be around when your parents die in the future.

  • Theory 2: You’ll shorten your life


This theory is a little less gruesome, but a lot more superstitious. First, we have to look into some kanji characters. So, we’re talking about cutting your nails at night, or in Japanese fashion, we could just shorten that to “night nails,” 夜爪 (yo-tsume)But, wait a minute, that sounds really similar to 世を詰める (yo wo tsumeru) or 世詰 (yo-tsume) for short. Here, 世 means “age,” and 詰める means “to shorten.” So by cutting your nails at night, you’re shortening your life, thus probably dying before your parents. Yikes!

Another take on “shortening your life,” suggests that clipping your nails at night summons death itself. Back in the day, if you were trimming your nails at night, you were probably doing it by the fire, so your nail clippings could have easily fallen into the flames. The smell of burning nails is not unlike the smell of cremation, so you could be inadvertently sending the message to Death that you are inviting him to take a little bit, or perhaps all, of you. Oops!

  • Theory 3: You’ll attract or anger spirits


First, it’s important to note that it’s believed that the boundary between the spiritual and physical worlds is thinnest at night (namely around 3 a.m.), so once darkness falls there’s a higher chance of spirits being around.

Some people also believe that part of your soul lives in your nails, so when you trim them, you’re releasing some of your – now rejected and angry – soul into the spirit-filled night. If you really angered your soul, it may call up other malicious spirits to cause you trouble, which could lead to your demise.

Another idea along these lines, but a little less spooky, is that due to the high number of wandering spirits at night, cutting your nails and releasing the sad spirit into the world will make the melancholy of the night even grimmer.

  • Theory 4: You’ll let evil spirits into your body


This final theory also deals with the supernatural, but this time the knife is the culprit. Some people believed that cutting tools have strong spiritual power that could protect you from evil spirits, that is unless you’re using it to cut your nails. By cutting your nails with a blade, you’re opening a supernatural gap into your body, allowing the evil spirits wandering to enter. We don’t even want to think about what terrible things would come from being possessed by an evil spirit!

Out of the four theories, we’re going to have to agree with the first one the most, seeing that it is a pretty logical explanation for how this superstition got started. However, despite knowing that Theory 1 is probably accurate, we can’t help but recall some of the other three theories whenever our nails start getting long.

Many Japanese people however, don’t really pay any mind to the superstition. They take their chances with the evil spirits, choosing to clip their nails after dark, since soaking in the nightly bath usually softens nails up, making them easier to clip.

Are you a night-clipper? If so, is this superstition going to force a change in your normal routine? (Don’t be shy, I can be superstitious too, which is why I’m now a day-clipper!)

Want to read about other Japanese superstitions? Step right this way!

Sources: Naver Matome, FluentU 
Images: Wikimedia Commons (J. Ash Bowie, Yanajin33, Kakidai), Pixabay (OpenClips, saulhm), Sawaki Suushi