Apr 26, 2019
One warm June morning at a local elementary school where I taught English lessons to grades five and six, I spied on the staff room chalkboard that the students were about to start swimming lessons. The campus has its own swimming pool, and the students look forward to the relief from the heat. My fellow teachers had prepared whistles, floats and bullhorns in a big basket. Among the equipment, I noticed two curious objects. One was a glass jar of sake, and the other a bag of salt. It gave me a start to see alcohol (in this case a one-cup serving of aozake). But my fellow teachers reassured me that this was part of the opening of the swimming season. The teachers did their own blessing of the pool, casting alcohol and salt around to implore the gods for safety while their students were in the pool.
The more you look around, you will see Shinto and folk traditions that are part of work. Before workers start the process of setting a foundation of a commercial building or house, there is a ritual called jichinsai, a groundbreaking custom. The space is prepared with bamboo poles and streamers, a Shinto priest is requested to do a ritual, offerings are made, and participants, including the land owner and the construction crew, may be part of the proceedings. The ritual is meant to not only bless the building's eventual occupants, but to ask for the safety of the workers who construct it.
Many restaurant operators also observe a folk custom as part of their working day. In front of the entrance, you might spy a dish of salt, or just a pile of salt, or even two on either side of the door. Some say this is a vestige of a Shinto ritual of purification, to make the space ritually clean, and protect it from bad spirits. A meticulously clean place signaled to customers that this was a safe place to eat.
Others say that, back in the day, little piles of salt would attract horses and oxen. Of course, those who could afford horses and oxen were wealthy, and the delay of an enticing lick of salt would draw good business.
One of the most common folk customs you will experience at work-related parties is tejime, the ritual clapping of hands to signal the completion of a project. Some sources say that the sequence of three sets of three claps signifies ku, or nine, which is a homophone for pain. The three sets of three are followed by a single clap, to release the tension. The ceremonial clapping ritual is said to have originated in the Edo Period.
Tejime is one of my favorite customs. It feels good to share a sense of accomplishment with your work mates and feel like you are really done.