On February 3, the people of Japan will observe Setsubun, a revered holiday that involves a traditional practice of tossing roasted beans towards individuals wearing demon masks. This ceremonial act is performed with the intention of expelling malevolent spirits. Allow us to enlighten you on the rich history and significance of Setsubun, Japan’s centuries-old holiday celebration.
Introduction to Setsubun
Setsubun（節分）is a Japanese ritual that is celebrated annually and marks the transition from winter to spring. This centuries-old tradition is steeped in rich cultural and religious significance and is widely celebrated across Japan. Setsubun is a festive occasion that involves the throwing of roasted soybeans and other customs designed to drive out evil spirits and bring good luck for the coming year.
The ritual of Setsubun is usually held on February 3rd and is a time for families and communities to come together to participate in the festivities. The central act of the celebration is the throwing of roasted soybeans, which is said to represent the exorcism of evil spirits. In this tradition, people wear masks and costumes to represent Oni, or demons, and participants take turns throwing roasted soybeans while shouting “Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!” (Out with the demons! In with good fortune!).
In addition to the bean-throwing ritual, Setsubun is also a time for traditional food and cultural events. It is customary to eat a specific type of sushi roll, known as Ehomaki（恵方巻）, during Setsubun. This sushi roll is said to bring good luck and is typically eaten in silence while facing the year’s lucky direction.
Origins of Setsubun
The origin of Setsubun can be traced back to ancient times, when it was believed that demons and evil spirits were the cause of illness, misfortune, and other misfortunes. To ward off these evil spirits and bring good luck, people performed purification rituals and offerings to the gods. Over time, these rituals evolved into the Setsubun celebration that we know today.
Setsubun is considered the start of spring in the traditional Japanese calendar and marks the end of winter. It is the day before the beginning of spring, which is known as Risshun（立春） in Japanese. In ancient times, people believed that Setsubun was an important time to cleanse the home and rid it of any negative energy left over from the winter. The tossing of beans was a symbolic way to drive out evil spirits and bring good luck for the coming year.
In addition to its religious and cultural roots, Setsubun also has a historical significance. During the Edo period (1603-1868), Setsubun was celebrated as a time to welcome the arrival of spring and to pray for a bountiful harvest. It was a time of joy and celebration for all, regardless of social status.
In older times during Setsubun, people also participated in role reversal. Young girls would do their hair in the styles of older women and vice versa, and even do some cross-dressing. This custom is still practiced among Japanese geishas, who still participate in these old traditions by wearing disguises or dressing as men when entertaining clients during Setsubun. Find out more about this fun customs by Geishas, Setsubun Obake blog article.
The Tradition of Mamemaki
This interesting tradition is the ritual most-commonly associated with Setsubun. It involves a person dressing up as an oni (demon/ogre) and people throwing soybeans at him. If any male members of the family share the same zodiac animal as the new year (making them the toshiotoko 年男), they get to play the role of the oni. If nobody’s animal sign matches, the senior male of the household will play the role. Roasted soybeans called “fortune beans” (fukumame, 福豆) are thrown either out the door or at the member of the family wearing the oni mask. While throwing the beans, people typically chant: “Demons out! Luck in!” (鬼は外! 福は内! Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!).
The fukumame beans are thought to symbolically purify the home by driving away the evil spirits that bring misfortune and bad health with them. Then, as part of bringing luck in, it is customary to eat roasted soybeans. As part of the ritual, one bean is eaten for each year of life, and in many regions in Japan, one extra bean is consumed for good health in the next year.
While the ritual is practiced quite similarly nationwide, there are some notable regional differences. In the Tōhoku area of Japan, the head of the household (traditionally the father) would take roasted beans in his hand, pray at the family shrine, and then toss the sanctified beans out the door. There are also many variations on the famous “Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi” chant. For example, in Aomori area, people chant “鬼も内、福も内” (Oni mo uchi, Fuku mo uchi!). “Both demon and fortune come in!”
The tradition of mamemaki is still commonly practiced by families in households, but many people attend a shrine or temple’s setsubun festival where this is done publicly.
Eating Eho-maki Sushi Rolls
It is customary in Kansai area to eat uncut makizushi called ehō-maki (恵方巻, “lucky direction roll”). The ritual involves eating the entire uncut roll in silence while facing the year’s lucky compass direction, which is determined by the zodiac symbol of that year. The roll is left uncut because it was believed that cutting during the Lunar New Year is unlucky.
This custom started in Osaka, and is associated with the Kansai region of Japan, but in recent years , eho-maki can be purchased at stores in the Kanto area as well. Eating eho-maki is becoming more widely recognized as a part of Setsubun tradition, and this is due largely to the recent marketing efforts of grocery and convenience stores.
Today, there are celebrations for Setsubun at Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines all across the country. Priests and celebrity guests throw fukumame, candies and other prizes to crowds of onlookers below. At some bigger shrines, where famous celebrities and sumo wrestlers are invited, the events are aired on national television. One of the biggest public Setsubun celebration is at Sensō-ji in the Asakusa neighborhood of Tokyo, where nearly 100,000 people attend every year.
What a joyous sight, watching Japan’s people come together as one to proudly celebrate the centuries-old traditions that define their culture! It is truly something special.
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