Setsubun Festival

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Setsubun Festival
-Melissa Villeneuve

Every February in Japan, the Setsubun Festival is an opportunity to mark the end of winter and to celebrate the beginning of spring. The Japanese traditionally honor this time by throwing beans to ward off evil spirits that bring disaster, misfortune, and poor health. But not just any beans. Beans of good fortune. It is a festive occasion that involves people of all ages.

For centuries, people have been performing rituals with the purpose of chasing away evil spirits at the start of spring. Although it is not a national holiday, the Setsubun Festival is celebrated widely by the Japanese, either privately at home or in a large public gathering at a temple or shrine. Typically observed on February 3, one day before the start of spring according to the Japanese lunar calendar, the Setsubun Festival involves a lot of bean throwing, bean eating, and fresh beginnings.

It is believed that Setsubun originated in China, and the tradition was introduced to Japan in the 8th century. As with all traditional festivals, Setsubun is celebrated in many variations throughout the country.

The most performed ritual in modern days is the throwing of roasted soybeans known as "fuku mame” (fortune beans) either out the door in the direction of evil spirits or directly at a senior male member of the family dressed as an “Oni,” a type of demon or ogre. It is said that if any male family member shares the same zodiac animal as the new year, then he is the one to play the ogre who wants to come in and cause trouble. If nobody’s animal sign matches, then it is the senior male by default.

When throwing the beans, you are supposed to shout "Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!” (Devils out, happiness in). Once the Oni is driven out, the door to the house is slammed shut as if to say, “get out and stay out!” As part of the ritual, the beans are picked up and one bean is eaten for each year of life. In many regions, an extra bean is consumed for good measure to symbolize good health in the new year. Some families will also attend a shrine or temple to pray for good fortune.

As with many holidays, what was once a traditional ritual performed at home has become a commercialized occasion. Shops will sell masks and colorfully packaged soybeans during the season. The public celebrations are often televised, sponsored, and heavily promoted. They are fun, chaotic affairs with the crowd jostling to catch beans and prizes tossed from a stage, often by celebrity hosts.

Another widespread custom is the eating of Eho-maki sushi rolls. Instead of being cut into single-bite sushi pieces, they are left whole and eaten as rolls. Cutting during the Lunar New Year is considered unlucky in Japan. One is supposed to eat the roll without talking, while facing the direction that good fortune will come from in the new year. The direction is determined by the year’s zodiac symbol. In 2022, it is the Year of the Tiger and the direction is projected to be north-northwest.

Some older Setsubun traditions included fasting, additional religious rituals, and bringing outdoor tools indoors to prevent evil spirits from rusting them. Some families continue a tradition called “yaikagashi” where they hang sardine heads and holly leaves above doorways to discourage unwanted spirits from entering.


Posted on:
Wednesday, February 02, 2022