"Demons Out, Luck In!" What is Setsubun?

"Demons Out, Luck In!" What is Setsubun?

Peter Leonard

February 3rd is the day of a delightful little Japanese custom known as "Setsubun (節分)". It literally means "season partition", because it signifies the end of winter and the start of spring (at least, that's what the calendar likes to think. There are many more cold days ahead!). But Setsubun is perhaps better known as the bean-throwing festival.

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Its closest Western relative is Spring Cleaning, only that is a physical clearing of the home, whereas Setsubun is a spiritual one. The tradition is for a member of the family to adorn the mask of a demon (‘Oni’ in Japanese) and dash around the house while everyone else in the family pelts them with beans. The beans, called "fukumame (福豆)", which means 'fortune beans', are thrown at the cosplaying relative while chanting "Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!" (鬼は外! 福は内!) which means "Demons out! Luck in!". The demon represents all of the badness that has built up in the house over the year, and this ritual signifies the purifying of the house by banishing the demons of bad luck and making room for, hopefully, some good luck for the year to come.

Speaking of outside, another custom of Setsubun is the tying of ‘Hiiragi Iwashi’ (柊鰯) to places immediately outside of the home. Hiiragi Iwashi literally means ‘Holly Sardine’, and it is a branch of holly with the head of a dried sardine skewered on the end. If the fukumame beans are a means of attacking house demons, then Hiiragi Iwashi are a means of defence. It is said that demons hate the strong smell of the fish and they are terrified of having their eyes poked out by the sharp holly leaves, so the Hiiragi Iwashi is seen as being a repellent of sorts for demons that may try to sneak into the home during Setsubun.

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An interesting, somewhat more modern addition to Setsubun traditions is the eating of ‘Ehomaki’ (恵方巻), which literally means “lucky direction roll”. Ehomaki is a long, uncut cylinder of rolled sushi, wrapped in seaweed. The idea is to eat the whole thing in silence while facing this year’s lucky direction (for 2017 it’s north-by-northwest). It’s quite a feat to consume a whole Ehomaki - it’s basically a handheld meal - but it is said to provide luck to those who do. The Ehomaki tradition originated in Kansai, but has recently spread to other parts of Japan - the Japanese see it is a cynical attempt by business to squeeze more yen out of Setsubun goods. Even Japan bemoans the commercialization of tradition!

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For all that, Setsubun is a delightful highlight on the Japanese calendar. It's a fun handful of traditions that aren’t so overbearing or serious (like the Japanese New Year), and sits just right on the balance between fun and meaningful. Shops everywhere sell cute demon masks for kids to wear, and supermarkets sell big bags of beans and nuts for throwing and eating. Even school lunches hand children little packets of fukumame for a snack.

Do the Japanese seriously believe throwing roasted beans at a family member in dress up wards off evil spirits? Perhaps not. But they might see it as a harmless bit of fun that can tighten family bonds. And that’s real good luck in the house!