Is There A "Tooth Fairy" In Japan?

by Justin Sevakis,

Thomas asked:

I was watching the newest episode of Sakura Quest and one of the children in the show has one of her last baby teeth fall out. When talking about it to her Mum, she suggests throwing it out the window and I think someone else earlier in the episode mentioned throwing it under the porch or on to the roof. So I was wondering what the tradition is for handling teeth that have fallen out in Japan? As a kid I was always told to put them under my pillow when they fall out for the "tooth fairy" to collect, so hearing someone suggest throwing it outside caught me by surprise.

Alas, Japan has no tooth fairy, and are not paid for their baby teeth. That tradition comes from Nordic countries in Northern Europe, where baby teeth were prized good-luck charms that Vikings wore as necklaces as they went into battle. Early Norse writings dating from the 13th Century are the earliest records we have of the tradition.

However the modern idea of the "tooth fairy" seems to be an American tradition as recent as the early 1900s: a "Household Hints" item in a 1908 issue of the Chicago Daily Tribune suggested telling a child the story of a fairy that will come for the tooth in the middle of the night, and then leaving a cheap toy in exchange for the tooth under a child's pillow.

The Tooth Fairy is also a thing in England, Australia and Denmark; France and Spain have a similar tradition, except that instead of a fairy it's a mouse that comes in the night and exchanges the tooth for a gift. There are a lot of traditions in different countries, and many have to do with small animals (mice, birds, beavers, you name it) taking their teeth away.

This tradition does not appear to have gained any traction in Japan whatsoever. Instead, Japan's baby teeth-loss traditions are more proactive in nature. Top-jaw baby teeth are supposed to be thrown straight down into the dirt, and bottom-jaw teeth are to be thrown straight into the sky, or onto the roof. The idea is that the adult teeth will follow in suit, and grow in straight as well.

This tradition is very similar to that of other East Asian countries. There's some slight variation from country to country, but most Asian baby teeth are thrown onto roofs; upper teeth are put at the foot of the bed in Chinese countries, Vietnamese and Cambodian kids will put a upper tooth under their bed. Indonesian kids have to throw their teeth on the roof too, but must do so backwards.

The fact that all of these East Asian countries have such similar traditions seem to indicate that the practice originated many centuries ago, but I haven't found any information on its origins. Bizarrely, Greece, Haiti and parts of Brazil also have the tradition of throwing teeth on the roof. Sometimes, a wish is made.

It really is a puzzle sometimes, seeing the little inconsequential traditions around the world that intersect in unexpected ways.

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Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for nearly 20 years. He's the founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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