Spilling the beans on Setsubun

On February 3 in Japan we celebrated “Setsubun” (division between seasons).  This little traditional holiday (no, we don’t get the day off work) seems to have derived from Chinese New Year, arriving in Japan around the eighth century.  Unlike Chinese New Year, though, the date of the holiday is now fixed.

Most of Japan’s other New Year’s traditions are now observed in the period January 1 through 3, having shifted to the western calendar when Japan opened to the West in the mid 19th century.  Years ago one of my friends in Kyushu suggested to me that Setsubun, now falling one month after the other New Year’s observations have been completed, is a kind of second chance.

The point is to expel evil spirits to make room for good luck.  So, according to my friend, observing the Setsubun rituals one month after other new year’s traditions, gets rid of any residual bad luck that wasn’t otherwise dealt with a month earlier, thereby ensuring that the rest of the year will go well.

The most traditional observances of Setsubun occur in the family home.  Roasted soy beans are scattered around the house while people shout “Out with Demons!  In with Fortune” (Oni wa soto; fuku wa uchi).  The practice in Japan is known as “mamemaki“.   Packets of roasted soy beans and paper demon masks are sold everywhere in the weeks leading up to Setsubun.

A quick side story:  back in the 1990s, Rowan Atkinson happened to be in Japan at this time of year promoting one of his Mr. Bean movies and, being “Bean”, couldn’t help but get in on the act.  I saw him on the TV news as Mr. Bean, standing at a podium repeating those 6 words in Japanese with emphasis and gestures that were so perfectly Bean and so perfectly apt for the occasion.  (Alas, in spite of extensive searching, I’ve yet to find a You-tube clip of it.)

Returning to how Setsubun mamemaki works in the family home–the beans are either:

  1. thrown around the house and then out the front door, slamming the door behind the bad luck/ill fortune that has been expelled, or
  2. one member of the family wears a demon mask (these days often a child) and the beans are thrown at the “demon” as it runs around the house and out the door.

Traditionally the bean thrower is a male in the household who was born in the Chinese zodiac year (eg, this year someone born in the year of the rooster) or the male head of the household.  Again, my friends tell me that these days everybody in the family joins in the fun.

And, speaking of joining in the fun, merchandising is now getting in on it.  In addition to beans and masks, other Setsubun-related goods are now sold as well, particularly anything seemingly related to the demon–footprint hard candies, demon club-shaped stick candy–, perhaps in the hopes that this is the last we will see of evil for the year.

At my office on Friday, I had a box of the beans sitting on my desk and when one of my colleagues saw them she said, “Oh yes! We took care of that at my house this morning.”  There are only adults in her home; I didn’t think to ask her who played the demon.  I was just intrigued to know she still kept the tradition.

After the bean throwing has expelled any demons lingering in the house, people eat the beans (presumably NOT the ones that have been thrown out the door!).  The idea is that eating the beans internalizes the luck.  You’re supposed to eat one bean for every year you have lived, and one more for the coming year.  They’re actually pretty tasty!

But Setsubun isn’t just a quiet family celebration.

Many large shrines and temples host Setsubun celebrations as well.  In Tokyo/the Kanto region, the best known are probably at Senso-ji temple in Asakusa, Zojoji temple, Ikegami Honmonji temple, Kawasaki Daishi, Tomioka Hachimangu, Tsurugaoka Hachimangu in Kamakura, and Kanda Myojin.  (The below photos were taken at Kanda Myojin.)

These “Setsubun-kai” or “Mamemaki Events” usually involve a small parade or procession, a brief religious ritual and/or blessing by the priest, and then some local celebrities (usually athletes or performers) and other luminaries throwing small packets of roasted soy beans out into the gathered audience.  The crowd can get quite rowdy as people vie to catch the goodies.

Although you may have missed this little festival for 2017, hopefully your house has no demons.  Mark your calendars for 2018–and don’t miss out again!

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