Famous for bean-throwing antics and parents dressed in ogre costumes to scare children, Setsubun is celebrated on February 3 to mark the first day of spring that lands on February 4. The holiday is a chance to banish evil spirits from your home and bring in good luck for the year ahead, and may be one of the most fun among Japan’s rich culture of festivals and rituals than happen throughout the year. Keep reading to find out what this annual tradition has to offer and why you should add it to your calendar.
It is said the idea of throwing soybeans to drive away bad spirits began in the Muromachi period (1337–1573) as the beans represented vitality and the word for beans (“mame”) sounds like the word for “demon eyes” in Japanese. Setsubun was celebrated around the time of the lunar calendar new year, which according to Chinese custom is a time when spirits can easily enter our world, bringing bad luck. Throwing beans to scare away demons and eating symbolically important cuisine to invite good luck provides a chance to forget the bad things that happened the year before and look forward to a clean start.
The word for throwing soybeans is “mamemaki,” which translates to “bean scattering.” The beans are thought to symbolically purify the home, cleansing it of the evil of the previous year and keeping out disease and poor crops. For the latter purpose, they are thrown at a demon to drive it away from the home. Secondly, the beans are eaten for good luck. Each family member eats the same number of beans as his or her age — and in some regions, an additional bean for extra luck. At temples and shrines, priests and celebrities throw packets of beans to crowds that gather to participate in the festivities.
In addition to snacking on lucky soybeans, the main meal on Setsubun is a sushi roll called an ehomaki, which means “lucky direction roll.” The roll contains seven ingredients that represent the Seven Deities of Good Fortune. If you make this dish yourself, you can choose whichever ingredients you like as long as they add up to the right number. Although sushi rolls are usually sliced before serving, it is seen as bad luck to cut ehomaki on Setsubun. Each person eats one ehomaki whole, in silence, while facing the auspicious direction for that year — determined according to the zodiac.
If you are marking the occasion at home, there are several important steps to follow.
Everyone takes a square masu sake cup filled with soybeans. Then a male member of the family who was born in the same zodiac year as the current one — or the male head of the household — prepares to open the door. As it opens and a chilly winter wind sweeps in (along with it bad spirits!) everyone throws their beans at the open door shouting “Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!” or “Demons out! Luck in!”
For parents with small children, a popular pastime is to have a family member dressed up as an ogre with a scary mask and costume try to enter the house before being driven out and the door slammed behind them, much to the delight of the screaming and giggling children. After this, the remaining soybeans are eaten and ehomaki are consumed without speaking, while thinking about your hopes and dreams for the year.
In the Nara and Kanto regions, there is an additional tradition of putting a fish head and holly branch outside the door, as these are said to scare off demons.
Setsubun is not just for the home; there are many events at temples and shrines around Japan, and over the years they have become big events where TV personalities, politicians, and sumo wrestlers make an appearance. Packets of beans as well as small prizes are thrown into the crowds as people scramble to collect as many as possible. The chant of “Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!” is used here too, but there are some temples that are actually dedicated to demons. At these sites, the chant becomes “demons in, luck in” because the evil spirits are believed to be of use to the gods and shouldn’t be driven away.
The people chosen to throw packets of beans at temple visitors are men and women born in the same zodiac sign as the current year — called toshi-otoko and toshi-onna — as they are said to be vulnerable to ill luck that year.
You can buy ogre masks, soybeans, and ehomaki almost anywhere at this time of year, even at supermarkets and convenience stores, so there’s no excuse not to take part in the fun if you happen to live in Japan.
Sensoji Temple in Asakusa is where the large-scale celebrations of Setsubun began. These days, the event attracts lots of celebrities and tens of thousands of onlookers. This location is definitely not one for the crowd-shy, but a lot of fun if you can make it.
Zozoji Temple near Tokyo Tower holds Setsubun celebrations at the observatory deck of the landmark tower in the morning, with the cone-headed tower mascot in attendance. At the nearby temple, there is the usual mamemaki bean-throwing and chanting and lots of celebrities take part.
Setsubun, with its ancient origins and symbolic gestures, is a great introduction to Japanese festivals for children and adults alike. While it has changed over the centuries, and there is still some variety between regions, the traditions are simple to follow so there’s no reason not to take part. Who knows, if you throw those beans hard enough, your wish for the new year may come true.
For more information on exploring Japanese religion, culture, and events in Japan and beyond, be sure to explore our living guide, designed to give expats essential information for enjoying the best of Japan.
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