I am ten, curled up on a stool in the kitchen, watching my mother. She works steadily at the countertop, putting the finishing touches on our salads for dinner. She rolls four fat grape tomatoes onto my plate — then, after a pause, adds a fifth because “in Japan, the number four is considered unlucky.”
I come from a relatively pragmatic family, but throughout my childhood, I somehow managed to amass a vague knowledge of Japanese superstitions. The number four, pronounced “shi,” is inauspicious because it sounds like the Japanese word for “death.” Don’t leave your utensils sticking upright in your bowl because in Japan, this is only done at funerals. If you leave hinamatsuri dolls out for too long, they say you will have a late marriage. I took these superstitions with a grain of salt, just as I did my friends’ warnings of black cats or the number 13. Yet perhaps the most interesting Japanese superstition is one I discovered only a few years ago. It might seem strange that I came across it so late, given my bottomless appetite for ghost stories and the fact that obake have a distinct history in my family.
By official definition, obake are shapeshifters: animals, plants, or spirits temporarily transformed into hideous monsters or beautiful women. The word “obake” can also refer to strange apparitions of any kind, including those of the deceased. Their roots trace back to the ancient religion of Shintoism. Later, obake sightings spread via Japanese immigrants to the Hawaiian islands. One such incident was reported in 1959, when moviegoers at the now demolished Waialae Drive-In spotted a long-haired woman without a face. Some speculated that the spirit was an obake who assumed the form of a noppera-bō, a faceless Japanese ghost. (It may be worth mentioning that the theater was built beside a cemetery.)
My great-grandmother Asuka was a firm believer in obake, even after her eventual conversion to Catholicism. To me, this is strange, because my grandmother — Asuka’s daughter — is a fervent Protestant and wants everyone else to be one, too. I never met my great-grandmother, so I never witnessed their relationship, but I heard that while Asuka accepted and feared obake, Nana did not. My mother relayed childhood stories of nights spent at her grandmother’s house, when a sudden noise or unexplained mishap would startle Asuka and she’d fearfully whisper, “Obake!” At this, Nana would quickly object, trying to shush her mother before either of her children would hear. She didn’t want them to even know what obake were.
For many who have grown up Asian American, this conflict is familiar. They may have experienced the push and pull of assimilation and resistance, the pressure to conform to mainstream beliefs while preserving their own unique cultures. These divergent loyalties can tear families apart from within. Parents or grandparents chastise us younger generations for straying from our roots and disregarding the superstitions that “kept them safe.” Other family members might fret over our apparent lack of faith and urge us to find forgiveness with the Lord. With all this back-and-forth, it can be difficult to pinpoint where our own beliefs end and someone else’s prescriptions begin.
This dispute is further complicated by Christianity’s painful history as a tool of colonization and imperialism. Because the Bible encourages conversion of nonbelievers, most Western empires forced Christianity upon the people they colonized, claiming that they were saving souls in the process of stamping out indigenous cultures and religions. In the Philippines, for example, Spanish authorities enforced the encomienda system, using the Catholic promise of salvation from sin and suffering to justify harsh manual labor. Today, about 92.5% of Filipinos identify as Christian. While Christians make up only 8.5% of the Asian continent, according to Pew Research Center, a vast majority — 42% — of Asian Americans are Christian. And while Shintoism still covers the vast majority of Japan, its beliefs are held by only 4% of Japanese Americans. This speaks to the success of evangelicalism once our families arrived on U.S. soil.
The legacy of “Christianization” raises larger questions. Does embracing Christianity mean accepting our colonialism’s brutal tactics? In the process of decolonizing and reclaiming our cultures, should we revert to superstition instead? Is it possible for our cultural beliefs to coexist with love for a Christian God?
To answer that question, one has only to look at my mother, who recognizes the overlaps between Protestantism and Shintoism. Shintoists maintain that sacred spirits, known as kami, inhabit our world, residing within rocks, trees, rivers, and other natural elements. Here, my mother finds a parallel to Protestantism: as she has told me since I was born, “God is everywhere,” from the smallest blade of grass to the farthest glittering star. Perhaps the kami revered by Shintos are not so different from the Lord my family worships in church. As for obake, my mother acknowledges the possibility of ghosts of the Western variety, or lingering spirits of those passed. Why not obake, too?
Even Nana, for all her faith, never rejected the idea of obake completely. As she recently mentioned over our weekly Zoom call, “You don’t need obake because you have the Lord. There is no reason to fear what obake might do.” She accepts that obake might exist while still holding firm to her love of Christ.
At times, it may seem impossible to navigate the divide between cultural traditions and Western religion. Yet after watching these women who have faced this same conflict and arrived at different solutions, I embrace their advice: Remain aware of what feels most authentic to you. Don’t feel guilty for rejecting certain beliefs, because renouncing a single superstition — like upright utensils or the unlucky number four — is not tantamount to renouncing your culture as a whole. While it is important to acknowledge your family’s opinions, you have the final say over what you choose to believe. Be respectful towards family members whose views differ from yours, and hope that they do the same.
When navigating this issue myself, I aim to focus on the overlap between Japanese superstitions and Christianity rather than their contradictions, just as my mother does. When faced with a truly impossible discrepancy, I follow in Asuka’s footsteps, acknowledging that people can hold inconsistent beliefs. Lastly, when I can, I enjoy exploring the unfamiliar aspects of my culture. This October, to quench my thirst for spine-chilling tales, I know I’ll be catching up on all the obake stories I missed!
The Fall 2021 issue exists in the liminal space bounded by fear, superstition, and taboos in order to decolonize all that goes bump in the night. From taboos to tradition, check out Mochi’s latest issue here! And if you like what you are reading, please support us through our end-of-year Ko-Fi campaign.
Last modified: November 13, 2021