Don't Press My Whorl: a hairy superstition in Japan

Here's a word I learned in English today: hair whorl. Wikipedia defines it as "…a patch of hair growing in a circular direction around a visible center point. Hair whorls occur in most hairy animals, on the body as well as on the head."

It's curious that I've known the word in Japanese for a very long time now, but I had to look it up in English. The reason I know it in Japanese is because people actually say the word. Friends actually talk about their children's hair whorls in casual conversation. Also, it's used in a common idiom and in an curious superstition.

Let's start off with how to say hair whorl in Japanese. It's a cute word: tsumuji. I think it has a nicer ring than hair whorl.

Next, the idiom you sometimes hear people use is tsumuji wo mageru, or you could call someone tsumuji magari. Literally, bending or twisting one's hair whorl. If someone does this, it means they're being contrary, unreasonable, or unaccommodating. "My little brother is a tsumuji magari. He disagrees with everything I say." Something like that.

The superstition, on the other hand, is one you'll hear Japanese children giggling about. That is, you should never press on your friend's hair whorl. Why? Well, the jury is out on which of the following will happen, but neither sound good. It's said if you push on a person's hair whorl, they'll either go bald or come down with a bad case of diarrhea. Again, this is a childhood superstition, still, you might not want to go pressing on your hair whorl to test it out. Just in case.

On a side note: the Japanese language seems to have quite a few ways to say someone is being contrary or difficult or just a pain in the ass. I talk about a mythical heavenly demon (amanojaku) and how this creature's name is also a label for contrariness here.

Photo: Thersa Matsuura