What the Heck is Setsubun?

Source: Gaijin Pot
Set of Setsubun illustrations. Setsubun:Japanese traditional event on February 3. People throw soy-beans at devil.

The seasons are changing. It’s time to clean out all the bad energy from the biting cold winter and welcome Japan’s undoubtedly favorite season, spring.

…the idea is to use soybeans to symbolize purifying the home from evil spirits and misfortune lingering from the previous year.

But before everyone goes manic over cherry blossoms, Japanese families nationwide celebrate a unique tradition called Setsubun (節分) which is held a day before the start of spring according to the Japanese lunar calendar. In 2020, it falls on Feb. 3.

The kanji for Setsubun literally translates to “seasonal division,” an appropriate, if a bit on the nose, nomenclature. While the tradition is for everyone, it’s a particular favorite among Japanese children.

Exercise your demons by throwing beans

To celebrate Setsubun, families put roasted soybeans in an asakemasu. That’s the wooden box that you sometimes see sake served in. Family and regional traditions diverge regarding what comes next.

We’d prefer it if there was sake in here, but it’s all good.

Typically, the head of the household throws these beans outside the front door, chanting the Setsubun mantra, “Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi!” (demons get out, good luck come in). Sometimes this role is instead given to a male in the house whose Chinese zodiac animal matches that year’s zodiac. In other families, the father dresses like an oni (demon) and the children throw beans at him while yelling, “Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi!

This bean-throwing tradition is called mamemaki, literally “the scattering of beans.” No matter the household’s particular way of doing mamemaki, the idea is to use these soybeans to symbolize purifying the home from evil spirits and misfortune lingering from the previous year.

Photo: Courtesy of Zoey Allen
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