What Is Setsubun? A Guide to Japan's Demon-Filled Bean-Throwing Festival

Nationwide Culture Holiday 2022.02.02
Demons out, good luck in, it's time to celebrate this light-hearted Japanese holiday!

What Is Setsubun All About?

The Japanese holiday Setsubun (節分) traces its history back to lunar new year celebrations in China, and when the tradition arrived in Japan in the 8th century, people celebrated on the final day of the traditional winter season (these days Setsubun is generally on February 3rd). Since the lunar new year starts with preparing for springtime, Setsubun is part of the "spring festival," and it's all about driving away last year's demons to start the season right, ritually getting rid of any bad luck or evil spirits that might be hanging around, and preparing for a new year filled with new good luck.
And just how does one drive away the demons clinging to you from the previous year? Well, you throw beans of course! The main surviving tradition of this ancient holiday is called "mamemaki" (豆まき), where roast soybeans are thrown at the demons to drive them off. The practice has even made it into the works of famed ukiyo-e artist Katsushika Hokusai. The beans must be roasted before they're used to chase away demons, though! If uncooked soybeans were thrown and one happened to take root, there's a chance that last year's evils could take root with it, and stick around!

How to Celebrate Setsubun at Home

Although Setsubun has had more than 1,000 years to build up traditions, celebrations these days are actually quite simple! All you really need to enjoy Setsubun from the comfort of your own home is an oni mask, made to look like the demon ogres of Japanese myth and legend, and some roast soybeans.
Things really get started when someone dons the oni mask, and takes on the role of the last year's evils. Traditionally the head of the household played the part of the demon, but nowadays things are less rigid, and it's actually common for those in a traditional "unlucky year" to be the oni! The rest of the people gathered will take their roast soybeans and throw them at the "oni," shouting "Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!" (鬼は外! 福は内!) The phrase literally means "Demons out! Fortune in!" The oni is driven out of the house with the power of roast soybeans, before having the door slammed in their face!

Some households choose to skip the oni mask and just throw their soybeans out the front door to keep general bad luck at bay, although if you choose to do this while living in an apartment, it might mean some extra time cleaning beans off the floor of shared hallways.
The soybeans aren't only used for banishing demons, though. One last Setsubun tradition has you eat a certain number of the beans each year - as many soybeans as years you've been alive, plus one extra! While some people choose to leave the last bean off and just stick with their age, adding one extra is said to promise good luck in the coming year, as well.

A more recent addition to the Setsubun dinner table is ehomaki (恵方巻), a long, unsliced sushi roll stuffed with a variety of fillings, and one mysterious origin story. When did people first start eating ehomaki? Unclear. Where? Well, most stories say that the tradition began in Osaka. Ehomaki only started to make its way to Tokyo, and the rest of Japan, in the 1990s and early 2000s, introducing people to a brand new Setsubun tradition that has quickly become standard in many households.

Ehomaki literally means "lucky direction roll," and the tradition is to take the over-stuffed sushi roll and silently eat the whole thing at once while facing a certain "lucky direction." Each year that lucky direction changes, facing the location of a "fortune-bringing god," but ehomaki legends tell us that the purpose of all these strict rules is to help the good luck flow smoothly from the god, through the sushi, and right into you! Changing direction, stopping halfway, or uttering a word would block the flow of fortune, so you have to resist until you've finished the whole thing!

Celebrating Setsubun Out and About

If you're ready to leave the house for a Setsubun outing, some shrines and temples are known to hold events for the holiday, carrying on centuries-old traditions and starting some new ones in more recent years. Many shrines in particular become the stage for traditional Shinto purification rituals, sometimes featuring performances complete with colorful demon costumes, like at Kyoto's Heian Shrine. Not far away, at Yasaka Shrine, celebrations include traditional dances from Kyoto's local maiko, who toss little packets of beans to the audience before their departure! Throwing beans to the crowd is actually part of many large-scale Setsubun festivals, whether it's maiko doing the throwing, or anyone from priests to sumo wrestlers, with some larger shrines even getting big celebrities to make an appearance and toss some soybeans to the crowd. If you're looking for a low-key Setsubun event, keep an eye out for small, local shrines and temples, but for something on a larger scale, some of Japan's most popular Setsubun celebrations can be found at Yoshida Shrine in Kyoto, Sensoji Temple in Tokyo, Naritasan Shinshoji Temple in Chiba, and Chusonji Temple in Iwate!
Whether you'll be shouting "oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi!" at home with the family this year, or heading out to see ancient rituals, traditional performances, and the celebrities of Japan throwing lucky beans to their fans, Setsubun is a great chance for us all to banish our demons from the last twelve months, and start afresh with the promise of plenty of good soybean fortune!

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  • e 2022.02.28 reply
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