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 Geiko in Kyoto (Geisha in Kyoto called Geiko), who still participate in these old traditions by wearing disguises or dressing as men when entertaining clients during Setsubun. In this blog, we would like to introduce a fun custom practiced in Gion, Kyoto.
Video: Kyoto Hanamachi Geiko Cosplay
Setsubun Obake: The Beginning of a Custom
The Setsubun-obake (ghost) custom is a celebratory occasion held on the eve of the first day of spring, known as Setsubun night. During this time, people participate in a unique tradition of cross-dressing, visiting shrines and temples to perform an exorcism ritual. It is believed that Setsubun marks a transitional period when the world is undergoing a reorganization from the old year to the new. The change of season is also associated with the shifting of the God of the Direction, adding to the overall sense of instability during this time.
It was believed that during such a time, the order separating this world from the other world would be in flux, and while beings that bring good fortune, such as the god of the year, would come from the other world, beings that bring harm, such as demons, would also arrive.
Setsubun is the day that falls on New Year’s Eve with Risshun（立春）as the first day of spring.
The gods of autumn and winter, who had protected the seasons until then, pass their roles to the gods of spring and summer after Setsubun.
On these important days when the gods are busy, the evil spirits of the mountains and rivers attack humans to play tricks on them.
This is why ceremonies such as bean-throwing ceremonies were held at shrines and temples, and ghosts were also a part of these ceremonies.
On the night of Setsubun, an old woman would wear her hair in Momowari, the hairstyle of a young girl, or conversely, a young girl would tie her hair in Shimada, the hairstyle of an adult woman. This was a custom to avoid the ogres that were said to roam around on the night of Setsubun by wearing a “different appearance” such as a different age or a different gender.
Setsubun-obake means to visit shrines and temples dressed differently than usual in order to drive away evil spirits. In other words, it was a ritual that belonged to folk beliefs, which began with the belief that dressing up in an unusual costume would drive away evil spirits and other misfortunes of the year.
Therefore, “ghosts” were a countermeasure taken by humans to avoid bad luck and the year’s calamities, and were born from the idea of surprising ogres and evil spirits to drive them away.This is the Japanese version of Halloween, isn’t it?
Setsubun obake in other locations
In recent decades, towns and shopping districts across Japan have embraced the creative spirit of Setsubun by using “Setsubun ghosts” to bring life back into their areas. It’s a unique way to revitalize both local culture and commerce! If you are in Japan on February 3, you may want to look for this fun event and walk the streets with them!