Explorations in Japanese Culture
When I asked my friend まき about Setsubun, she had a bit of trouble explaining why they celebrated the holiday. She just smiled and laughed and told me about how she used to throw beans all around the house and out the windows in order to ward off the Oni and bring good luck for the year. With a big smile she said, “I don’t know why we do it, but there are beans everywhere!” One of the things I love about Japanese culture are the unique traditions that make up the varying aspects of Japanese culture.
Setsubun literally means “sectional separation” and was originally referred to as the eve of any of the 24 divisions of the Japanese Lunar Calendar. The Setsubun associated with the spring gained popularity as it became associated with the completion of the cycle of the 24 divisions, making it the Lunar New Year. It is traditionally celebrated on the 3rd of February every year. Significance and traditions associated with the holiday began to take shape during the Muromachi Era (1392-1573). One of the most notable of these traditions is the ritual known as 豆撒き(mamemaki), which literally means “bean throwing.”
Mamemaki is the most common way to celebrate Setsubun, meant to cleanse all the evil spirits from the past year and at the same time drive away all the disease-bringing evil spirits for the year to come. On the night of Setsubun families fill a masu (wooden measuring cup) with roasted soy beans, throwing them all about the room shouting “おにわそと！ふくわうち” which means “Out with the demons and in with fortunes!” Windows are also opened and beans thrown outside to continue to ward off any Oni around the house. After the family has finished throwing the beans each member eats the same number of beans as their age. By doing this they believe that they will be free of sickness for the year. It is not uncommon in some places to see the としおとこ( which literally means “year man,” but refers to either “man of the house” or to men who are born in the animal sign of the coming year) throw beans at another family member who is dressed as an Oni. Today it is not uncommon to see children wearing Oni masked and being chased around with beans being thrown at them.
While there are many stories about the throwing of beans during Setsubun, one site recounts the most famous of the stories seen in Kyougen (No Comedy) performed at the Mibu Temple in Kyoto:
Roughly translating (and perhaps with a bit of poetic license) the plot of this play goes something like this: One day an ogre disguised himself and came to the house of an old widow. He possessed a magic mallet, and with it, he fashioned a beautiful kimono. Temptation got the best of the old widow, and she succumbed to its beauty. She plotted to steal it away from the ogre by getting him drunk. Not satisfied with just the kimono, she thought she would get the magic mallet as well. Surprised by the abrasive greed of the old woman, the ogre revealed his true self. So scared, the old widow got hysterical and starting throwing the first thing handy, a bunch of beans she had on hand. They must have hurt, because the ogre fled the scene leaving the widow without her greedy desires but nonetheless wiser and healthier.
Another big part of the Setsubun celebration involves the eating of a special sushi roll called a のりまき(Nori Make). People may try and face a “lucky direction” and try and eat the entire 6 inch sushi roll without saying a word. If they are able to do this then they are promised to have luck with their business, longevity and freedom from illness. In some areas the roll is made using a stuffing with seven different colors to represent the しちふくじん, or Seven Gods of Happiness). Some people say that the tradition originated in Osaka, where a young Geisha ate the roll in order to assure that she would be with her favorite lover in the coming year.
Setsubun is such an interesting tradition in Japanese culture, giving yet another example of the uniqueness that Japan has to offer the world.